Several years ago, when I was looking at whose portrait I would put over my non-naval military history shelves, I had a hard time deciding on someone. Naval was easy – the steady hand of Chester Nimitz during the Pacific meant he was the first of the bas-relief medallions.
But who for the military? I considered Winston Churchill for a long time since there are few leaders who make the decisively right choice at the right time with such enormous consequences as his in the summer of 1940 to stand against Hitler. But even before reading Hamilton's complete trilogy, it was already clear that Churchill as a military leader had serious flaws, and his support for colonialism was a bridge too far.
But who else is there? Most good military leaders have limited scope, and few are free of bad decisions. Patton? Not MacArthur, certainly. Montgomery, Eisenhower – maybe Grant?
Finally I realized that there was a single figure who was the indispensable man at the center of the U.S. preparation for war, whose integrity and good sense made so much of what the Allies accomplished possible. To be sure, his strategic sense can be questioned. His belief that France could be invaded by Allied troops in 1942 or even 1943 was wrong, as was his opposition to the peripheral operation that did make sense – the November 1942 invasion of North Africa. Nor is his management of the Army before Pearl Harbor beyond reproach, although there he had a lot of company.
But George Catlett Marshall was a man of honor and accomplishment, as this book I picked up two months ago at a HPBooks in Waco makes clear. It was actually a really good read – but what I'll always remember about it is the incredibly poor quality of the paper. I've never seen such a relatively new book (1983) so eaten up with acid. The paper was substantial but quite brittle. I was glad when I finished it, not because I was glad to be done reading it, but because I was glad to be able to stop handling such a fragile book.