home     authors     titles     dates     links     about


14 december 2011

The thesis of Jim Lacey's Pershing (in the Palgrave Great Generals series) is that Pershing was a badass guy. He certainly looked the part. The photo on Lacey's dust jacket shows a trim, trig two-star general with an electric expression, as if he hasn't quite decided whether to salute you, bust you to corporal, or have you shot at dawn.

Pershing arguably was a six-star general before his death. As General of the Armies, a rank created for him after the first world war and never held by any other living person, Pershing (who lived till 1948) was senior to the five-star generals promoted during the second world war. He was possessed of awesome responsibilities. Though those responsibilities would be dwarfed by those later held by George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur, it remained the fact that Pershing was the first American to undertake them. He remained legendary long after history had passed him by.

Lacey's study is long on anecdote, short on proofreading, and wholly commendatory. Lacey sees almost nothing to disapprove of in Pershing's record, and defends him against all criticism. (One thing Lacey is a bit appalled by is Pershing's now-documented policy of burying dead Muslim insurgents with pigs during his stint as a military governor in the Philippines, though even that tends to cement Pershing's badass reputation.) The most dogged criticism of Pershing is that he sent thousands of men to death on the Western Front in futile battles of attrition. The same can be said of every general who served on the Western Front, of course.

Lacey argues that Pershing had a unique role to play, and that nobody else could have filled it. That's a logically tenuous claim: if your circumstances are unique, how do you ever know how someone else would have done in them? Command of the American Expeditionary Force in 1917-18 required an iron will and extreme patience, both of which Pershing was well-equipped with. His most important task, Lacey maintains, was to resist the French demand for "amalgamation." Supreme Allied commander Ferdinand Foch wanted the Americans to fight in small units, divided up among, and under the command of, French and British generals. Some American units did serve that way. But for the most part, Pershing kept the American forces together as a single army on a single sector of the front. He did so by adamantly refusing to listen to Foch, even disobeying Foch's direct orders. Pershing could not have won out without the implicit (in all senses) support of Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson's support never flagged. Both President and general knew that to break up American forces as replacements for the other Allies was to reduce the United States to a junior partner, a mere resupplier, in the alliance.

So Pershing is most celebrated for simply saying "non non non"; yet stony refusal of orders from the most famous generals in the world is harder than it sounds. Perhaps his badassery was no myth! His earliest memory was of a Confederate raid on his Unionist father's store in 1863 Missouri. The Pershings were comfortably off, but lost their capital in the Panic of 1873. Pershing even had to teach school for a while (always the lowest rung in the American economic scale). He made his way into career and society by gaining admission to West Point. Lacey tells the story of Pershing winning his cadet position by correctly diagramming a sentence – pay attention in your Structure of Modern English class, kids.

Like Grant before him and Eisenhower after, Pershing had no position in American high society except what he gained through military merit. Like them, he spoke with a Midwestern accent, not a transatlantic Roosevelt drawl. Pershing married a senator's daughter – and then lost her in a gruesome house fire that killed three of their children as well. Lacey presents Pershing as a lifelong philanderer, but his marriage was happy enough, given that Pershing spent its brief years chasing rebels in the Philippines and Villistas in Mexico. He would later carry on a long partnership with the French-Roumanian artist Micheline Resco, whom he kept in a Paris apartment in true continental style. Despite more than its share of stressors and tragedies, Pershing's life reads (in Lacey's accounts at least) as being devoid of hypocrisy or divagation. He was a commander from West Point (where he became Captain of Cadets) till his retirement.

Every other hero of an American war victory, from Washington to Jackson to Taylor to Grant, had become President afterwards; Eisenhower would continue the trend. Pershing alone was a non-factor in Presidential politics. He seemed to invite nomination, but nobody was interested in voting for him. There seems to have been no personal disrespect in this political unpopularity. Rather, Pershing's political failure seems related to the nature of the first world war. It was a global struggle that lacked exigence for most Americans. Millions of men were drafted and hundreds of thousands of them died "like cattle," as Wilfred Owen put it. Nobody blamed Pershing for the draft or the deaths, but nobody found him indispensably inspiring.

Pershing remains the least-known of the great chiefs of the American military. Lacey's conclusion is that he was no military genius, but rather a "great soldier." The formula fits. Pershing was the quintessential career military man. Fate saw him born during the Civil War, present at San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, tested extensively in the Philippines and Mexico, and then handed the task of improvising an American army on an unprecedented scale in France. He served well.

Lacey, Jim. Pershing. New York: Palgrave [St. Martin's], 2008.