The Greatest Generals Across Generations

tags: military history, Generals

Benjamin Runkle is the author of Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II. (Stackpole Books, 2019). He is a Senior Policy Fellow with Artis International and an Adjunct Lecturer with The Johns Hopkins University’s Global Security Studies program.



Reflecting on the 1989 invasion of Panama and subsequent hunt for strongman Manuel Noriega, Colin Powell lamented that, "A President has to rally the country behind his policies. And when that policy is war, it is tough to arouse public opinion against political abstractions. A flesh-and-blood villain serves better." This American tendency to personalize conflicts and world events is reminiscent of the “Great Man” theory of history, which posits that world events can largely be explained by the impact – positive or negative – of individual leaders.

A similar phenomenon occurs in military history, as the analysis of campaigns and wars is often reduced to an assessment of the opposing commanders’ performance. Although the quality of an army’s generals is a critical factor determining victory or defeat in battle, chance often plays as much of a role as skill or institutional variables in determining who commands at a given time or place. Nowhere is this more evident than with the U.S. Army during World War II, which produced the greatest generation of operational commanders in U.S. history. It is easy to view photographs of George Marshall beside his mentor General Pershing, or of George Patton standing next to a tank in 1918, know what they achieved in building and leading the Army in WWII, and therefore perceive their rise as inevitable. Yet as Edward Gibbon observed, “The fortune of nations has often depended on accidents.” Indeed, a string of accidents and coincidences were vital to shaping the roster of U.S. commanders in World War II – and hence the Allied victory – in three underappreciated ways.

First, there was the simple timing of the war. As the legendary British general Sir Edmund Allenby once told Patton, for every Napoleon and Alexander that made history “there were several born. Only the lucky ones made it to the summit.” In other words, which commanders achieve greatness is partly determined by fate, specifically whether they are actually in command when a great conflict starts. For example, if WWII had broken out in 1934 rather than 1939, Marshall would still have been in the exile pettily imposed upon him by then-chief of staff Douglas MacArthur, serving with the Illinois National Guard instead of a position that allowed him to become what Winston Churchill called “the Organizer of Victory.” Conversely, if the war had broken out in 1944, Marshall would have already retired after serving four years as chief of staff from 1939-1943. Thus, the timing of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and France played a significant role in determining who led U.S. forces in WWII.


Second, in Strange Victory Ernest May suggests that the German invasion of France in 1940 was likely saved when a falling boar’s head in the Belgian hotel serving as Heinz Guderian’s command post narrowly missed the brilliant Panzer commander’s head. Similarly, a series of near-misses preserved the leaders who would command U.S. forces in that conflict. On the morning of November 11, 1918, hours before the Armistice, an errant bomb was dropped on the other side of a stone wall from where Marshall was eating breakfast in the 1st Army’s mess. Marshall escaped with just a nasty bump on his head, but as one historian observes, “Had the walls of the old house been less sturdy, a different chief of staff would have led the American armies against the Germans in the next war.” In 1920 Dwight Eisenhower and Patton came within “five or six inches” of being decapitated by a snapped steel cable while experimenting with tanks at Camp Meade, and in 1924 Omar Bradley was earning extra money working construction on the Bear Mountain Bridge when a cable snapped and cut the watch off his wrist. Eisenhower again narrowly escaped death in the 1930s when his plane nearly crashed upon takeoff in the Philippines. Although the pilot announced, “We ain’t going to make it,” the plane cleared the hill at the runway’s end by a few inches. Conversely, his friend James Ord – whom Ike called “the most brilliant officer” of his time – was killed in a plane crash in the Philippines in 1938. Other officers whom fate cruelly denied the opportunity to earn glory in WWII included Adna Chaffee, Jr., the father of the Armored Corps, who died on active duty of cancer in 1941; and Bradford Chynoweth, an innovative contemporary of Eisenhower and Patton's who took command of a Philippine division in November 1941 and hence was doomed to spend the war in a Japanese prison camp after the surrender on Bataan.


Finally, some tragedies inadvertently proved fortuitous to the American war effort. If Marshall’s wife Lily hadn’t suddenly died in 1927, he would have remained an instructor at the Army War College. Instead, unable to bear the constant reminders of her at Washington Barracks, his friends on the General Staff arranged for him to become assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Ft. Benning, where two hundred of the instructors and students who served under him from 1927-1932 – including Bradley, Matthew Ridgway, and “Lightning Joe” Collins, amongst others – rose to the rank of general during WWII. Similarly, Eisenhower was called to the War Department after Pearl Harbor because the head of the War Plans Division’s Asia department was killed in a plane crash on December 10, 1941. This accident forced Marshall to find a replacement, thereby setting in motion the partnership that was crucial to winning the war.


None of this is to say that individual commanders don’t matter, or that institutional factors such as professional military education or training exercises are unimportant in shaping those men eventually placed in command of great armies. Rather, it is important to recognize that whereas in retrospect history often appears to have unfolded in a straight line, reality is almost always more chaotic and uncertain. In the end, the Greatest Generation’s generals’ triumphs were anything but predetermined, and required a series of accidents and twists of fate to bring them to the point where their innate courage, intelligence, and determination could be decisive.

comments powered by Disqus