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.
1. Drink your Ovaltine. I had a meeting last week. That’s not unusual in that the bulk of my professional life is spent getting ready for, attending, or recovering from meetings. This one was special though, because we had a 4-star general spend twenty minutes telling us to eat right, exercise, and get eight hours of sleep a night. A full general. Eat your veggies and get lots of sleep. I have a hard time imagining Eisenhower or MacArthur or Patton spending so much time ensuring their people enjoyed a nice kale salad and got tucked in at night. So do me a favor out there and remember to drink your Ovaltine so you can grow up big and strong.
2. Our big thing. Our grandparents went from riding horses to riding rockets. Our parents built the internet. So far what our generation has done is develop faster and faster methods of sharing pictures of cats with everyone you’ve ever known. No cure for cancer. No flying cars. Just incremental improvements on stuff that’s been around since we were kids. Where’s our big thing? What is it we’re supposed to be doing to leave our mark on the world? I’m as clueless as everyone else I guess, but someone needs to figure this mess out and get working on it.
3. Only when it’s convenient. There are a slew of stories in the press this week about the meteoric rise in Baltimore’s murder rate this month. An AP story weeps that “Now West Baltimore residents worry they’ve been abandoned by the officers they once accused of harassing them.” Well shut my mouth. You treated officers like dirt, sued, and badmouthed them at every turn and suddenly the community is surprised to learn the blue line between civilization and chaos is a little more thin than they realized. I appreciate their efforts to have it both ways – to have a deep and active police presence banging heads and taking down criminals but not the “low level” criminals who are “members of the community.” Sorry folks, it’s a binary system. The law is the law – felonies or civil violations – and when you break that law you recognize that there could be consequences for your actions. For decades parts of Baltimore thought they’d be better off without law and order. Well gang, next time let’s go ahead and remember to be careful what we ask for… because unintended consequences can be a real mother.
One of the many skills I’ve learned as part of Uncle Sam’s bloated civilian workforce is the gift of reading my audience – how interested they are in what I’m saying or whether the question I want to ask is appropriate for the setting. Some people have apparently not learned that lesson, which is how you end up in an auditorium without an empty seat in the house listening to someone awkwardly accusing the General Officer corps of being inept, slow to change, and out of tune with the realities of the war around them. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of asshats wearing stars on their shoulders, but the guy on stage doesn’t happen to be one of them. I actually have to admit he carried himself with far more patience and class than I would have under the same circumstances, but that’s not the point.
The point, dear friends, is that when you have 1000+ people in an auditorium laughing at you, an Assistant Secretary of the Army laughing at you, and a 4-star general looking at you with a mixture of pity and contempt, it’s probably best to go ahead and sit down. What you shouldn’t do is rattle on for another three minutes while reading your prepared, yet incomprehensible, statement/question while everyone else in the room stares at you in utter disbelief. It’s a good bet that someone is still the the bowels of the building getting himself a wall to wall counseling session… and probably wondering what he did to deserve it.
The thing to remember is malcontentery, like comedy, is all about timing. Clearly some people just don’t have it and should probably remember that before opening their mouths in public.