In this persuasive biography, Jim Lacey sheds light on General Pershing's legacy as the nation's first modern combat commander, setting the standard for today's four-star officers.When the U.S. entered into World War I in 1917, it did so with inadequate forces. In just over a year, Pershing built and hurled a one-million-man army against 40 battle-hardened German divisions, defending the hellish Meuse-Argonne and turning the tide of the war.With focus and clarity, Lacey traces Pershing's development from Indian fighter to guerrilla warrior against the Philippines insurgency to victorious commander in a world war.
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Good biographies are hard to write and often make poor audiobooks. Frequently biographers feel the need to be exhaustive, and the audiobooks drone on. Perhaps because this is part of "The Great Generals Series," whatever that is, this book manages to tackle its subject well without becoming boring. I enjoyed the book and would give it somewhere between 3 and 4 stars.
Pershing was an important figure who led a more interesting life than you might suppose. Before commanding WWI troops, he fought in Cuba, executed an impressive counterinsurgency campaign in the Phillipines, and led US troops against Poncho Villa in Mexico. He was a ladies man and had two great love affairs both with much younger women (though Lacey does a fairly poor job of bringing out Pershing's human side, which probably would have pleased Pershing). The first of these, his first wife, died tragically in a fire along with all but one of their children. Perhaps all this is why three biographies of Pershing have apparently been published in the last decade. I don't know if the other two do any better, but Lacey fails to really convince that Pershing is a figure worthy of study.
Let me attempt to make the argument: Thomas Ricks' recent wonderful book "The Generals" makes the case that the modern US military was largely the creation of one man, George Marshall, and that because the majority of young men of the WWII era served in the army, Marshall's personal style and strong character had untold impact in shaping the American century. In Ricks' telling, that's where the story begins, though he certainly mentions Marshall's close relationship (along with many of the other prominent WWII generals) to Pershing. After listening to this book, it's clear to me just how much Marshall absorbed from Pershing's leadership style. Pershing on the other hand, in Lacey's telling, didn't really have a mentor, just a hero: Ulysses Grant. Pershing taught himself the arts of leadership and logistics, and set the mold for the American commanders that followed. There feels to me a political dimension to all this. It's hard not to perceive a strand of creativity and liberalism in the thinking of Pershing and Marshall. Pershing, for example, repeatedly provided Phillipine insurgents with a route of escape as long as they symbolically surrendered the fight. In doing so, Lacey tells us he had much greater success than most of the army in other areas of the Phillipines. Marshall is remembered today as much for his contribution to rebuilding after WWII as for winning it. And Marshall's protege, Eisenhower, also showed his tendencies towards liberalism, especially as compared with more rigid military thinkers like MacArthur. All of this is very much in the great man school of history, but you cross that bridge the minute you start to read or write a biography.
All that being said, this is not the most exciting history book out there, and the lessons Lacey attempts to draw and comparisons to recent US experience in Iraq and elsewhere feel a little forced.