A year with General Marshall…

I’ve spent the last year living with the ghost of George C. Marshall in the form of Forrest Pogue’s 4 four-part biography. I’ve read a lot of dense history on a host of obscure topics over the years, but this was likely some of the hardest reading I’ve done since diving into the rich esoterica of imperial Russian history about 20 years ago when I thought history was going to be a legitimate way to make a living. There are a dozen respectable biographies of Marshall that would have been far more accessible, but Pogue’s was a master class that truly offered a “one over the world” view.

Weighing in at 1,882 pages taking up a third of a shelf, I don’t supposed you dive in to this biography unless you have more than a casual interest. I picked it up, set it down, let weeks pass between volumes, and faced names, places, and events that sent me down dozes of separate rabbit holes of additional research and reading. I should be happy that I managed to get through it in 1/24th the time it took Pogue to write and publish the set in the first place. The thing really is a monument to the historian’s art.

I walked away from my experience with the general a little sad that he’s been so constatly overshadowed in popular memory of the war years by more glamorous subordinates – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur even now 70 years later are names recognized by the average household. Outside of those who study the Army, a few professional historians and soldiers, Marshall fades into the background. It’s a shame, though it strikes me as what the man himself would have probably wanted.

So what am I left with after spending a year with General Marshall? Aside from a really great looking bookshelf trophy, I’m left with the determined opinion that George C. Marshall was only the second truly indispensable man in the history of the republic.

Ordeal and hope…

 
I just finished reading the second volume of Forrest Pogue’s monumental biography of George Marshall. At least two nights of reading featured the weeks immediately preceding and following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s like being a spectator to a train wreck – You can see the thousands of tons of steel barreling down the track at a high rate of speed but there’s way to slow down and no off ramp and the people around the bend have no idea what’s heading their way.

Sometimes hindsight is infuriating – knowing that what the planners in Washington were thinking made perfect sense based on what they knew at the time, but also knowing how history was about to play out. I ended up needing to give the book a rest when I caught myself grinding my teeth to the point of real, physical pain.

I wanted to reach back through history, grab the Army Staff by the lapels and shake them. I wanted to scream in exasperation at a story that only makes complete sense when all the pieces are put in place after the fact. It’s not the Philippines! For God’s sake they want to blunt the fleet! Read the cable! Understand!

But the bombs fall and the fleet, still at anchor, is decimated. You can’t change history.

I’ve always found it easy enough to disappear into a world of fiction and lose myself. It’s a rare writer than can present history in a way that also lets you lose yourself into those moments. Forrest Pogue clearly doesn’t need my accolades, because his work speaks for itself. Even so, here is a writer who finds a way to make what could be dull, dry stuff jump off the page larger than life. I’m simply in awe.