The cover art is Charles Russell's "York in the Lodge of the Mandans." I tend a portion of the archives of the American Indian Movement, and Clyde BelThe cover art is Charles Russell's "York in the Lodge of the Mandans." I tend a portion of the archives of the American Indian Movement, and Clyde Bellecourt, ever droll, gave me a large framed print of Russell's painting to hang in my office, where it hangs still. ...more
"...writers will write, printers will print, and the world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetim"...writers will write, printers will print, and the world will inevitably be overstocked with good books. It will soon be the employment of a lifetime merely to learn their names. Many a man of passable information, at the present day, reads scarcely anything but Reviews; and before long a man of erudition will be little better than a mere walking catalogue." ...more
His career is a striking example of the “American Way of War” – pre-World War II. That way being: grudgingly educate a skeleton cadre of poorly paid mHis career is a striking example of the “American Way of War” – pre-World War II. That way being: grudgingly educate a skeleton cadre of poorly paid military professionals that in “peacetime” polices the frontier – policing, for the indigenous people, having a spectrum of meanings, from sympathetic mediation to pitiless massacre – and build canals, dams, roads and bridges. But when a big war starts up, they have to slap into shape sudden levees of volunteers and/or draftees.
Of all American generals, it seems Pershing had to build the greatest army in the shortest time – two million men and women in nineteen months – the rather modestly titled “American Expeditionary Force” – and ship it across the U-Boated Atlantic, and fight for prestige in Allied councils whose leading members looked down on him, and wished to feed his divisions into German guns under their tattered banners, instead of under his own blessed Stars and Stripes. His wife and two daughters died in a fire, a few years before his arrival in France, so there was that in the mix, somewhere behind the soldierly scowl.
He got the job done. He staffed and trained an independent army and slotted it into the Allied line, in time for the final go. He then conducted a “vast campaign that was a hideous disaster in every respect save one – it worked,” to borrow William McFeely’s description of Grant’s Wilderness battles. Hindenburg later said, “The American infantry in the Argonne [forest] decided the war.” Woodland fighting is what Americans knew, or had to remember. “Indian War” was the army’s traditional phrase for an ambiguous ordeal of sniping, ambush, and infiltration, over rugged ground. Riflemen popped their sticks in the gloom of trees. I think of Winslow Homer’s Skirmish in the Wilderness, and Private Witt’s jungle death sprint in Malick’s The Thin Red Line. But I’m getting picturesque. They also threw grenades, stuck knives, swung their rifles as clubs, and cleared trenches with pump shotguns, “trench brooms” (in Swiss meetings, the Germans, having perfected the flamethrower at Verdun, decried the American pump shotguns). Anyway, that American infantry decided the war, but at horrifying cost. Interwar “isolationism” can be heard as a slur on the American communities that lost sons and were barely told why.
What I like about the officer intelligentsia, call it that, is their realistic, no-bullshit understanding that the United States was on the course of empire, bent on expansion, and that markets open markets, wars make wars, and you must kill or frighten lots of of people. They have their own philosophic tone, a pessimism borne of the practical, of handling masses of men. Sherman is a phrasemaker I group with Benn and Cioran. Grant is a shrewd monk come down to lead armies. I picked up this book with a negative impression of Pershing – but he comes off looking pretty good next to his civilian chief, the village preacher Woodrow Wilson.
They also understood that the nation’s large-scale wars were spasms of expansion, volatile compounds of oligarchic scheming and public sentiment; the motley of citizens is more or less herded, but they can be powerfully whimsical. America’s best generals have always been courtiers and politicians, and their political-media performances make for an interesting gallery of characters. High command reveals how strength and weakness – or say shrewdness and folly – adaptability and cussedness – ambition and indifference – are mixed within each man. Patton was Pershing’s protégé, but they were entirely different men, when it came to sniffing political winds, not to mention tank theory.
Their greatest challenge, aside from combat, was the civilian, and therefore Congressional delusion that American democracy was guaranteed by the public refusal to fund an expensive standing army and its attendant bogey, an arrogant and parasitic officer class. That conceit is amusing because America’s first president was a general – though a theatrically humble one – and notable military managers have always contended for or been proposed for the presidency; and Americans have often elected them. Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower. Scott tried in 1852 but lost – so did McClellan in 1864. Pershing went through the exploratory motions in 1920, but in Lacey’s account his heart wasn’t in it.
An anecdote: teenage Ulysses S. Grant didn’t want to go to West Point, and on his long, dallying journey there from Ohio, he was heartened by news that the Congressmen were then debating the abolition of the Academy, lest it become a nest of aristocracy. Four years later Grant, clad in the sharpest blue, rode home through Cincinnati – fitting place-name! A grimy scamp barked from the gutter: “Soldier! Will you work? No, sir—ee; I’ll sell my shirt first!” The incident gave him, he said, “a distaste for military uniform that I never recovered from,” and it is one of the reasons why, at the capitulation of Lee, in the hour of triumph, Grant was mudspattered and swordless, in his “travelling suit,” his finery in baggage far behind. He then got back to Washington as fast as possible, to cancel the war contracts – the real parasites.
But back to Pershing. What a life! When age three – 1863 – Confederate-allied guerillas burned his father’s store in Missouri. Missouri, of the famous Compromise that staved off civil war for one last generation; a middle-border arena of partisan militias, divided families, volunteer mobs, and finally of the flagless Jesse James, continuing the war in outlawry; a state where Grant’s slaveholding in-laws held a shabby country seat, and put on plantation airs. Pershing remembered his mother holding him to the floor during the raid. He went to West Point opportunistically, like so many in those days – industrious young provincials looking for a free college education, not a life in the profession of arms. “A man who graduates from here is set for life,” scribbled teen Grant to home. At West Point Pershing glimpsed Grant, and developed a cult of the old man. As Captain of Cadets his senior year – 1885 – Pershing marched the Corps of Cadets down to the tracks, where they presented arms as Grant’s funeral train passed.
After graduation, Pershing was assigned to a regiment of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” the all-black Tenth US Cavalry, and saw service in the desert Southwest, and in Cuba, where he led his company in the mixed-unit multiracial charge up San Juan Hill that the media attributed solely to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. He was for a time an instructor at West Point, where he was something of a martinet. Lacey calls the teaching stint Pershing’s only “failure of leadership.” The cadets hated him and called him “Nigger Jack” for his service with the Tenth. The nickname stuck, in army circles. The newspapers of 1917 genteeled it to “Black Jack.”
After the Spanish-American War, Pershing served two stints in the newly annexed Philippines, among the Muslim Moros of Mindanao. In Lacey’s telling Pershing was a tactful master of counterinsurgency – “prestige” before “body count.” He studied Moro dialects and tribal rivalries, and made himself fearsome, but eased off when diplomatically appropriate, alternately fighting and befriending the tribal chiefs, or sultans, as they styled themselves. In one instance he disdained to give battle to an ambush he sensed to be harmlessly demonstrative, and so shamed the band into something like allegiance, or temporary placidity.
I want to read more about his march around Lake Lanao, a feat that astonished the Moros, and lived on in a sort of legend, as the Spanish had never been able to do such a thing; to my ear, the march echoes Sherman’s through Georgia, and Sherman’s aphorism that a feebly opposed stomp through an enemy’s inner country provides the essence of humiliation. Lacey says that Pershing besieged many Moro strongholds, but always left an obvious path of escape through his lines, for the fighters who didn’t want to die the next day. That is the way of Grant, who after the fall of Vicksburg wisely paroled his prisoners, rather than carting them North. Deserters and the dispirited make a shadow army. Send them home, where they will spread stories of your power. In 1944, when Pershing was a permanent resident of the Walter Reed Army Hospital, he was told that
when MacArthur and his senior commanders came ashore on the Philippine island of Jolo the first person to greet them was the old sultan of Jolo. He told MacArthur that he had submitted to Pershing as a warrior in 1905 and had stayed loyal to the United States ever since. He also informed MacArthur that he and other Moros had proven their loyalty by killing any Japanese soldier who ventured away from their camp.
That may have been bullshit, but Pershing’s name is lodged in it, and bullshit always means something. ...more