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.
I remember growing up hearing stories about where people in my parent’s generation were when President Kennedy was assassinated. My grandparent’s generation could tell you where they were on a Sunday in December when news broke of a sneak attack on America’s fleet in the Pacific. To me, those dates and names were pages in a history book. I was too young then to appreciate that these events weren’t dusty history to the men and women who lived through them. They were visceral, living parts of their life’s narrative.
As each year we’re further removed from the shock and disbelief of a September morning. For more and more of our citizens, September 11th is just one more of those dates that mark an historical reference point rather than a life experience. For those of us who lived through it and the days that followed, though, I have an increasing suspicion that the day will always feel a bit like current events – a recent memory, still very much alive and tangible.
The stories of where we were, what we were doing, and who we were with will probably always be seared into our individual and collective memories for as long as one of us remains to tell it. The confusion at first report, the wide mouthed disbelief at seeing the second plan burrowing in, the continuous loop of smoke rising from the Pentagon, and two buildings that crumbled in front of us are were a clarion call to arms, to unity, and to remind us that our long experiment in democracy was and remains surrounded by those who would snuff it out.
Seventeen years on, it’s a punch to the gut I can feel just as strongly today as I did all those years ago. Over all the long years from then to now, we sought justice and rough vengeance, we rebuilt, thousands of families found the internal fortitude to go on living and endure, but most important, on this day and always, we remember.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think of an original post to cap off the week on a Friday night. With the archives now well and truly exhausted, though, I’m left with no choice.
What I’m thinking about doing, now that there’s a more than twelve year deep back catalog of posts, is to use Friday evenings to revisit some of the “best of” posts from the last 4,380+ days. Maybe this is the chance to trot some of the golden oldies out of the barn for a fresh look using something like an “on this date” format.
I’m giving it some thought – do I add fresh commentary, note where I’ve changed my mind and where I haven’t, try to provide some fresh insight? Yeah, I don’t know yet.
The thought of going on a deep dive expedition way back to 2006 is equal parts tempting and terrifying. I like to think that in the intervening years my writing style and substance has improved. Then again maybe it hasn’t. Honestly so much of that was written so long ago I’ve entirely forgotten it. I want to imagine that the Jeff who’s sitting here at the keyboard now is very much a kindred spirit to the one who wrote those early posts. Believe me, you don’t want me to delve too deeply into how much of my self-identity is tied up in being blissfully consistent.
So, I guess the only think I’ll say tonight is “we’ll see.” If next week around this time you find yourself reading something dated from 2006, don’t worry. You’re not caught in a time warp, it’ll just be me doing more excavation of the past in the never ending search for clicks.
I guess you can say I got to have the real fanboy experience this past Friday. Now, I can sit comfortably and interact with generals, political appointees, and elected officials all day long without being the least bit impressed, but put me in front of seven random guys from California and I’m a mumble mouthed mess who can barely bring himself to make eye contact with the god of his own making. It’s good to know that I can still feel over-awed by something, I suppose.
A quick photo op and a few mumbled words would have been plenty enough to make my day, but with my 40th just passed, I wanted to do something a little more out of the ordinary. I’ll say without reservation that sitting fifteen feet above the stage watching your favorite band belt out the songs that have become the staple soundtrack to your life was really one one those thrill of a lifetime moments. I’m still trying to get the dumb grin off my face.
Sitting behind the main speakers, the sound is a little muddled and some of the site-lines are better from the front row, but for seeing the “whole picture” there’s really nothing better. You get to see the organized chaos of on the fly equipment swaps when earpieces stop working and the interplay between shadowed band mates when someone else is taking their moment under the spotlight. You get to see the massive human effort involved in making the seven guys on stage look like they don’t have a care in the world beyond being there making music.
I wanted an experience, bought my ticket, and saw the show. It would have been an absolute steal at twice the price.
The Washington Post ran an editorial recently that went to great pains to denounce Sir Winston Churchill as a genocidal despot in the same vein as Stalin and Hitler. I’m not going to link to it as a matter of principle. It’s bad enough that I gave them the benefit of my click. I don’t want to be directly responsible for any others. Im satisfied enough calling it an agenda driven hatchet job along the same lines as those penned by scads of contemporary revisionists who want everyone to trip over themselves apologizing for history.
There will be no apologies here. I will not gnash my teeth nor rend my garments. I’m simply unwilling to suspend disbelief and malign the clarion voice that stood alone and rallied the world to the defense of Western democracy in it’s most endangered moment.
Was he a man of his time, a voice for empire in the imperial age? Yes, of course. Did he advocate actions that, from our oh so enlightened vantage point deep into the 21st century, strike a sour note? Yes. Was he a man full of human faults and failings? Undoubtedly.
Still, taken all in all, if I were pushed deep into a corner and could have only one man rise to my defense, I would take the lionhearted Churchill over the poisoned pen editorialist any day of the week and twice on St. George’s Day.
There was an article on Bloomberg this morning ran under the sub-title “Polls show young Americans souring on capitalism.”
According to the article, “51 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds in the U.S. said they opposed capitalism” and when asked what type of economic system they preferred to live under, “44 percent picked a socialist country.” I get that youth is the time when you’re supposed to be wildly hippy dippy liberal – before you wake up one morning and the government is slicing away taxes in $10,000 increments – but I see this largely as a failure to teach either history or current events.
The last half of the 20th century was a great global cold war between capitalism and communo-socialism, where the latter collapsed in Eastern Europe when those living under it discovered that their “worker’s paradise” wasn’t able to provide them the goods and services that they wanted. Those being the things produced in the decadent and immoral west. It’s vestigial tail lives on across Europe in the form of Democratic Socialism
Looking at contemporary examples like Venezuela, they seem not to care that the the vast promises made by the government were window dressing without any kind of sustainable mechanism to fund them when the price of oil fell back from record levels. Venezuela now is a shell of a country that seems incapable of providing even the most basic services.
But, you’ll say, capitalism picks winners and losers and leaves some people behind. It does. So does every economic system. The biggest difference being that under our capitalist model bread lines are the exception rather than the rule. Given my druthers I’ll put my money on an economy where I have a fighting chance to better my lot in life than one where I spend my days working to pay taxes in the hope that the central government lives up to its promises. I’ve always found it better to make your own fate than to simply hope for the best… but maybe that’s just me.
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.