Are high-level military strategists born or made? Some of both, one must suppose. In this commentary published in the blog War on the Rocks, Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, reflects on the Army’s ability to encourage strategic excellence through its educational system.
Strategic excellence means something more than the proficiency to win battles and conduct successful military operations, but to win wars. Winning wars, in turn, means something more than being able to defeat an adversary’s armed forces and/or occupying its territory. Which means that Army officers (in this case) must not only be able to coordinate operations with those of the other services, but also take into account the overarching political and geopolitical components of the conflict (or potential conflict). This must be done even though the latter components are typically beyond the direct responsibility or control of the uniformed military. It is an interesting subsidiary question whether strategic excellence, when practiced by a member of uniformed military, requires experience in combat; and if so, at what level.
Here, we might profit from reviewing very briefly the career of one of the Army’s most successful strategists, Dwight Eisenhower. That is not to say that Eisenhower’s strategic judgment has gone unquestioned, but rather that he had a distinct high-level appreciation of strategy and applied it with great effect throughout his career as a senior military planner and commander. (Here we would recommend Jean Edward Smith’s recent biography of Eisenhower.)
Eisenhower’s background was, on the surface, rather ordinary. He did not seem to have had a career blueprint designed to prepare him for greatness. As a boy in rural Kansas, Eisenhower showed no particular genius, academic or otherwise, although he was reasonably bright and personable. He did not play with toy soldiers or imagine himself the next Alexander the Great. He wound up at West Point, as did many young men at the time, rather by accident. He did not particularly distinguish himself at the Academy. Because he did not see combat in World War I, through no choice of his own, he seemed fated to remain well down the officer pecking order, behind men like Patton who had served in France.
Yet Eisenhower was ambitious to do well in the post-war Army. He became interested in cutting edge military technology, particularly the tank (but so did others who lacked his larger strategic judgment). To advance his career he found a number of important mentors – or they found him – including John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall. Under their commands he developed the reputation as a superb staff officer. One could not be around such towering figures without becoming aware of matters outside the barracks and training grounds.
Perhaps the most important influence was that of Fox Conner, known as the “brains” of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I. Conner fit the model of a scholar-soldier. While commanding the 20th Infantry Brigade in Panama in the early 1920s, Connor arranged for Eisenhower to serve on his staff. There he introduced Eisenhower to the serious study of history and literature – not only the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon, and the American Civil War, but also Plato, Tacitus, and Shakespeare. Conner pressed Eisenhower to read Clausewitz closely. Conner stressed the importance of coalition warfare, based on his experience at AEF’s headquarters, stressing what he called “the art of persuasion.” Conner invoked three principles for waging war in a democracy: never fight unless you have to; never fight alone; and never fight for long. At Connor’s recommendation the attended the Command and General Staff College, and later the Army War College.
Another seemingly serendipitous event was Eisenhower’s assignment to serve on the American Battle Monument Commission under the former commander of the AEF, General Pershing. (Or perhaps it was not so serendipitous – the duty was arranged by Conner.) The Commission was tasked to compile and organize the record of the Army’s participation in World War I. Such a posting might seem a diversion for an ambitious young officer but it allowed Eisenhower to learn and reflect upon the geography of Europe, to develop an understanding of the logistical difficulties of large-scale continental war, and to appreciate the challenges of coordinating Allied armies. Those reflections proved invaluable to Eisenhower as he developed a sense of the problems of high-level command, something perhaps not appreciated by other officers of his generation who fought in the trenches. Working against a six month deadline, Eisenhower produced A Guide to the American Battlefields in Europe, first published in 1929 (expanded version in 1932), which remains one of the best references for American efforts in World War I.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was assigned to the War Plans Department, at the insistence of Army Chief of Staff George Marshall (and despite Eisenhower’s pleas not to take on another “desk job.”) Here, he worked out the global military implications of the “Germany first” approach that had already been agreed to by senior British and American officials, which included the first detailed blueprint of an Allied offensive against Germany that included major ground operations on the continent. Through this planning process, Eisenhower was better able to comprehend the larger questions of strategy and politics that would later guide his actions as Supreme Allied Commander in the European theater.
He also demonstrated to Marshall and President Roosevelt the inter-personal skills necessary to deal with the British and other national leaders, as well as enough authority and charm to contend with the clashing egos of the senior American commanders (most of whom hated their British counterparts). He was not selected as Supreme Commander in expectation of his potential greatness as a battlefield commander, because that was not what was required. He grasped the essential point: if the Alliance could be held together – which required a coherent and persistent, if not brilliant, military component – victory over the Axis was as sure as human affairs could make it.