Generals in the Making by Benjamin Runkle

I have always been fascinated by the development of leaders. Benjamin Runkle chronicles the development of pivotal World War II American Army generals in Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II.

Runkle produces a phenomenal work in describing the ascent of many of the generals who led the United States Army to victory in the European and Pacific Theaters.  Runkle primarily focuses on Generals George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur, but also touches on others such as Generals Mark Clark, Joe Stilwell, and Omar Bradley. For the four main generals, Runkle outlines their careers, with particular attention to the interwar years.

As Runkle points out, many of the generals advanced through luck or guidance from influential mentors. Regarding the influence of mentors, Runkle details how General Fox Conner heavily impacted Eisenhower’s career through his guidance.  Conner’s greatest influence occurred when Eisenhower was assigned as Conner’s subordinate in Panama for three years. Conner taught Eisenhower how to think more strategically. Much of this relationship has been well chronicled by other historians, but Runkle connects these three years as extremely influential in Eisenhower’s ability to see grand strategy, which helped in World War II.

Although the generals often benefited from influential mentors, some were thwarted for various reasons. For instance, although MacArthur was treated unfairly by some superiors, he treated Marshall just as unfairly by trying to derail his career by placing him in a backwater position. Despite the setback, Marshall performed his assignment in a professional manner that garnered him praise.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the little stories that Runkle shares. These include Eisenhower and Patton stirring up controversy by pushing a more progressive role for armor as an independent use rather than as support for infantry; Marshall’s delicate interaction with Chinese troops as they threatened to overwhelm American positions in 1924; and, when he was a major, Patton’s brusque and overly critical assessment of a brigadier general’s performance in maneuvers in Hawaii. The stories highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the generals and they humanize these titans of history.

After reading the book, I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude toward the men who stuck out the lean interwar years to lead our country in World War II. Some stayed for their own selfish reasons, but most of them felt a call to lead our armed forces despite the deprivations (most were paid a pittance compared to corporate leaders).

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