Marshall Wisdom: Lessons From the Past

The GEN George C. Marshall ”Interviews and Reminiscences,” published in 1991 by the George C. Marshall Foundation, provides an abundance of sage observations concerning the need for an Army, the building of an Army and the challenges of coping with the political and economic influences on those requirements. Marshall’s lifetime of service from World War I until the late 1950s is without parallel in our history. He completed a remarkable military career and followed it with years of civilian leadership in both the Defense and State departments. His views deserve respect and consideration, especially today as we consider our national strategy and the commitment of programs and resources to our future requirements. The following aspects of Marshall’s work are germane to our current situation.

From 1937 to 1941, Marshall was a lonely voice arguing the ”need for an Army.” Through the 1930s, despite the wars being fought in China, Ethiopia, Spain and France, the American government and the public were confident and satisfied that the Navy could – and would – provide the only necessary line of defense. President Roosevelt was partial to the concept. When joined with the Army Air Corps’ promises of the contributions to be made with bombing campaigns and the views of columnists and other experts such as Charles Lindbergh, who advised that we had no chance of getting into Western Europe and defeating Germany, the need for an Army was not a serious problem.

Nevertheless, Marshall persevered. His basic argument was always that we need a ”balanced force”: an equally capable Army and Navy, each with a significant air arm. He was instrumental in convincing Congress to establish posed reductions of Army resources and to protect the minuscule progress that had been initiated.

The three years before Pearl Harbor were not completely wasted as healthy production of ships and planes was under way, but the organizing, equipping and training of what would become an 8-million-man Army had hardly begun. The three years following Pear Harbor provided ample evidence of the time required and the costs always associated with unreadiness.

December 7, 1941, galvanized the mobilization that began the buildup of the World War II Army. The ”militia” – National Guard and what was then called the Organized Reserve Corps, which the experts and pundits had identified as more than enough Army – were required to schedule an immediate basic training period for their soldiers, a program opposed by the Reserve commanders who deemed it a waste of time. In fact, it was done so poorly that Marshall ordered a repeat cycle of the program, this time with a Regular Army cadre in charge. Beyond that, unit and organizational training added up to an average of 20 months to prepare Reserve divisions for combat. Even then, Marshall observed that he ”never saw [an Army regiment] perfectly trained”.

Marshall had definite views about training. ”The hardest thing in the world to train is a ground Army of Infantry and artillery… because everything [they must] do is under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.” The other services train a man for a specific combat duty. He sleeps in a bunk, eats regular meals, reports to his duty station, then fires his weapon or flies his plane, performing dangerous and difficult jobs but seldom deviating from his one function. Unless his ship is sunk or his plane is shot down, he returns regularly to his bunk and his regular meals.

Soldiers, however, must be prepared to fight on unfamiliar terrain, in conditions of rain, snow, cold, heat or mud, against an enemy hard to find, dependent on fire support from an unseen source that must be delivered with meticulous precision for a duration that stretches into days or weeks before they enjoy a respite. They fight as teams that must mutually contribute to – and be equally liable for – ultimate success. Their coordination of large-scale landpower campaigns exceeds in complexity almost any other human endeavor. Preparing for such commitment is time-consuming, continually demanding and quickly eroding if not practiced regularly. Marshall believed in universal military training that would assure six months of basic training for the soldiers who would fill both active and Reserve forces. Then, we could rely upon the militia to be the great Reserve needed to supplement and active force committed to an immediate response mission. Given that situation, the active force need no larger than one limited in size by the air and sealift capable of deploying and sustaining it until Reserve units can be mobilized, fully trained and deployed.

In ”Interviews and Reminiscences,” Marshall does not make specific recommendations regarding the size and composition of the forces required to satisfy our national strategy, but a summary of his thoughts would provide valuable guidance for today’s planners.

* The Army is the critical component for winning wars. Therefore, maintain a ground force capable of immediate response at a size that can be deployed by the air and sea fleets that are also immediately available.

* Maintain a Reserve force of a size and state of readiness that can achieve the objectives of the political commitment in which we are engaged. Thirty-nine days of training per year are insufficient to guarantee that readiness. Therefore, strategic planning must provide for an active force that can sustain operations through the period of training required for Reserve units after mobilization.

* Concentrate peacetime training on the professional qualifications of soldiers and leaders at every level. (Marshall does not refer directly to the Army School System, but he does frequently identify those whom he selected for critical positions as graduates of Fort Leavenworth and the U.S. Army War College.)

* International infuence requires a military capacity that is respected as the enforcer of the political aims of our leaders. Diplomacy alone is a hollow promise without it.

Marshall had one more observation that today’s strategists should find encouraging: Coping with a carping press, congressional criticism and fault-finders – most of whom have pet theories or silver bullets to peddle – creates ”the general attitude that the War Department is always stupid and everybody else is brilliant. I must say, this used to make me tired.”

Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, USA Ret., formerly served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe. He is a senior fellow of AUSA’s Institute of Land Warfare and 1st Vice President of the American Security Council Foundation.

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