MY FAVORITE MILITARY AUTOBIOGRAPHY by VIKRAM KARVE
(A Soldier’s Story by Omar N. Bradley)
I love reading autobiographies, as there is nothing more inspiring and authentic than learning about the life, times, thoughts and views of a great person in his own words.
It’s a lazy hot Sunday afternoon. I browse through my bookshelves and pick out A Soldier’s Story by General Omar Nelson Bradley, one of my favorite autobiographies, and certainly my all time favorite military autobiography. Come Dear Reader, sit with me for a while, and let’s leaf through and peruse this fascinating book.
General Bradley (1893-1981) known for his calm and resolute leadership and affectionately called the “Soldier’s General” commanded the largest American combat force in history and rose to be the first Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
This is a story, not of my life, but of a campaign…I have sought... to tell a story of how generals live and work at their chosen profession the author says at the beginning of his memoirs which focus on his participation in World War II.
Candidly written with remarkable humility in beautiful expressive language it is a wonderful memoir embellished with interesting episodes and lucid characterizations of many renowned military personalities.
In this book I have tried to achieve one purpose: To explain how war is waged on the field from the field command post… To tell a story of how and why we chose to do what we did, no one can ignore the personalities and characteristics of those individuals engaged in making decisions…..Where there are people, there is pride and ambition, prejudice and conflict. In generals, as in all other men, capabilities cannot always obscure weaknesses, nor can talents hide faults…General Bradley writes in his preface which concludes…I could not conscientiously expurgate this book to make it more palatable…if this story is to be told, it must be told honestly and candidly…
The author writes in a wonderfully readable storytelling style and starts his riveting narrative on September 2, 1943, driving to Messina along the north coast of Sicily when, suddenly, General Eisenhower summoned him to tell him that he had been selected to command the American Army in the biggest invasion of the war – the liberation of Europe from the Germans. He then goes back in time and starts his story with vignettes from his early formative days of soldiering. He describes how, from General Marshall, he learnt the rudiments of effective command which he himself applied throughout the war: “When an officer performed as I expected him to, I gave him a free hand. When he hesitated, I tried to help him. And when he failed, I relieved him” - isn’t this leadership lesson valid even on today’s IT driven world where delegation seems to be taking a back- seat and excessive monitoring, interference and intervention seem to be on the rise.
Rather than encourage yes-men, ego-massage, sycophancy and groupthink, General Marshal sought contrary opinions: “When you carry a paper in here, I want you to give me every reason you can think of why I should not approve it. If, in spite of your objections, my decision is to still go ahead, then I’ll know I’m right”.
When it was suggested to General Marshall that a corps commander who had an arthritic disability in the knee be sent home rather than be given command of a corps in the field in war, he opined: “I would rather have a man with arthritis in the knee than one with arthritis in the head. Keep him there”.
“For the first time in 32 years as a soldier, I was off to a war” he writes on his assignment overseas in February 1943 to act as Eisenhower’s “eyes and ears” among American troops on the Tunisian front in North Africa.
He vividly describes the chaos after the American defeat at Kasserine, the arrival of Patton on the scene who growled “I’m not going to have any goddam spies running around in my headquarters” and appointed Bradley as his deputy, a defining moment which was the first step of Bradley’s illustrious combat career.
This is easily the best book on Patton’s stellar role in World War II, complementing General Patton’s Memoirs War As I Knew It and Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago. Though his admiration for Patton is evident, General Bradley writes about his long association with Patton with fairness and honesty and reveals unique and remarkable facets of Patton’s leadership style and character.
Sample this – Precisely at 7 Patton boomed in to breakfast. His vigor was always infectious, his wit barbed, his conversation a mixture of obscenity and good humor. He was at once stimulating and overbearing. George was a magnificent soldier. (Can there be a better description?)
Bradley vividly describes how Patton transformed the slovenly and demoralized II Corps into a fighting fit formation. “The news of Patton’s coming fell like a bombshell on Djebel Kouif. With sirens shrieking Patton’s arrival, a procession of armored scout cars and half-tracks wheeled into the dingy square opposite the schoolhouse headquarters of II Corps…In the lead car Patton stood like a charioteer…scowling into the wind and his jaw strained against the web strap of a two-starred steel helmet.”
General Bradley writes superbly, as he describes how Patton stamped his personality upon his men and by his outstanding charismatic leadership rejuvenated the jaded, slovenly, worn-out, defeated and demoralized II Corps and transformed it into a vibrant, disciplined, fighting fit organization that never looked back and went on winning victory after victory in most difficult circumstances and against all odds.
There are bits of delightful humor in this book. Commenting on the ingenuity and improvisation abilities of Patton’s staff, the author writes: “…Indeed had Patton been named an Admiral in the Turkish Navy, his aides could probably dipped into their haversacks and come up with the appropriate badges of rank…” Though, at times, the author appears to be in awe of and enamored by Patton’s larger than life charisma, he is candid, dispassionate and, at times, critical when he describes how he was bewildered by the contradictions in Patton’s character and concludes: “At times I felt that Patton, however successful he was as a corps commander, had not yet learned how to command himself.”
Their techniques of command varied with their contrasting personalities. While the soft-spoken unassuming Bradley preferred to lead by suggestion and example, the flamboyant Patton chose to drive his subordinates by bombast and threats, employing imperious mannerisms and profane expletives with startling originality; and both achieved spectacular results.
Many of us are at a loss for words when asked to qualitatively appraise our subordinates. See how easily General Bradley lucidly evaluates his division commanders, bringing out their salient qualities, in so few words with elegant simplicity and succinctness: “…To command a corps of four divisions, toughness alone is not enough. The corps commander must know his division commanders, he must thoroughly understand their problems, respect their judgment, and be tolerant of their limitations…among the division commanders in Tunisia, none excelled the unpredictable Terry Allen in the leadership of troops…but in looking out for his own division, Allen tended to belittle the role of others… Ryder had confirmed his reputation as that of a skilled tactician…his weakness, however, lay in the contentment with which he tolerated mediocrity…the profane and hot-tempered Harmon brought to the corps the rare combination of sound tactical judgment and boldness… none was better balanced nor more cooperative than Manton Eddy…though not timid, neither was he bold; Manton liked to count his steps carefully before he took them.” Aren’t the author’s understanding, observation and articulation remarkable?
Throughout the book, we find honest, frank and incisive appraisals of characters in this story – superiors, peers and subordinates – most of them renowned and famous personalities. He writes with candor about the problems of command during the planning of the invasion of Europe.
From then on the story gathers speed and moves so captivatingly that one is spellbound as one reads the author fluently narrate the events of the campaign with remarkable preciseness and detail, one realizes what an engaging and compelling book this is – it’s simply unputdownable!
All important events, turning points, and personalities are vividly described with the aid of maps, charts, pictures and appendices; from D Day (the Normandy Invasion) to the surrender of the German forces. Towards the end of his memoirs General Bradley reflects “Only five years before…as a lieutenant colonel in civilian clothes, I had ridden a bus down Connecticut Avenue to my desk in old Munitions Building… I opened the mapboard and smoothed out the tabs of the 43 US divisions now under my command…stretched across a 640-mile front of the 12th Army Group...I wrote in the new date: D plus 335…outside the sun was climbing in the sky. The war in Europe had ended.”
While this autobiography is a “must read” for military men and students of military history, I am sure it will benefit management students and professionals for it is an incisive treatise on Soft Skills encompassing aspects of Leadership, Communications, and most importantly, the Art of Human Relations Management in the extremely complex and highly stressful scenario of War where achievement of success (victory) is inescapably paramount. It is a primer, a treasury of distilled wisdom, on all aspects of management, especially human resource management. One can learn many motivational and management lessons from this book.
There is nothing to surpass the experience of learning history first hand from a man who lived and created it rather than a historian who merely records it. The Art of Leadership is better learnt from studying Leaders, their lives, their writings, rather than reading management textbooks pontificating on the subject and giving how-to-do laundry lists.
The Art and Science of Management owe its genesis and evolution to the military. Modern Management theories, concepts, techniques and practices emerged from the experiences and lessons learnt during World War II [particularly in The United States of America].
It’s ironic isn’t it? It was the military that gave modern management principles to the civilian corporate world, and today we see military men running to civilian management institutes to “learn’ management and get the coveted MBA which the sine qua non and all important passport for entry into the corporate world.
I love reading stories, all kinds of stories, fiction, fantasy, parables, fables, slice of life. I like Life Stories, biographies, particularly autobiographies, as there is nothing more credible, convincing and stimulating than learning about the life, times and thoughts of a great person from his own writings. It’s called verisimilitude, I think.
A Soldier’s Story is a magnificent book. A masterpiece, a classic! It’s enjoyable, engrossing and illuminating. Read it.