Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The forgotten general

If you were asked to name important American generals of the 20th century who would you come up with? MacArthur? Eisenhower? Maybe Patton, or even Marshall for helping to rebuild Europe after WWII? I don't think Pershing would have come to my mind, which is a shame because he's arguably greater than any of them.

John J. Pershing led the American forces in WWI (and MacArthur, Patton, and Marshall all served under him). He resisted all pressures to integrate American soldiers as replacements for casualties in French and British units, insisting they fight instead as American units. He then refused to rush his new and untested soldiers into battle until they were prepared to fight, and once they joined the offensive his units defeated the Germans in only six months of action. But his military career began long before the first World War. Pershing also served in the Spanish American War in Cuba and in the Philippines where he managed to subdue the Moro tribes using minimal military force. Instead, he treated them with respect and turned enemies into friends.

In fact, one characteristic of Pershing I found particularly admirable was that he didn't allow racism to affect his judgment. He led units of black soldiers in Cuba and in the American West which was how he got his nickname – "Black Jack" Pershing – which was originally meant derogatorily. But he was much more than just a soldier and general. He originally planned to go into law and his early jobs were as a teacher – he only joined the military to pay his way through school. And even as a soldier he was a teacher to those around him, insisting on discipline and order and getting all the little things right before heading into battle. But his obsessive attention to detail earned him plenty of animosity from many of his charges who saw him as a nit-picker. Few but his closest friends ever saw his warm and tender side as a faithful and devoted husband and father.

John Perry has chronicled the life of one of the greatest generals America has ever produced in Pershing: Commander of the Great War, part of "The Generals" series by Thomas Nelson Publishers (I received this book through their Booksneeze blogger program). He presents both sides of the man - the inflexible and sometimes insufferable military leader as well as the kind and caring friend who loved his family (and was a surprisingly able dancer). He accomplished great things for his country and the world but was also devoted to those he loved. It's not an exhaustive biography but may be a good starting point for readers who want to see the person behind the legend.

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