Friday, July 31, 2020

'Bradley Even Called War a Calamity'

A reader in Dallas has sent me a small treasure: “Five-Star Schoolmaster” by A.J. Liebling.  Thank you, Jay. The two-part profile of General Omar Bradley (1893-1981) was published in the March 3 and 10, 1951 issues of The New Yorker, and recycled as Liebling’s introduction to Bradley’s memoir, A Soldier’s Story (1951). What my reader has given me is a reprint of the story published as a pamphlet by the magazine – white cover, New Yorker typeface, drawing of Bradley on the front.

Bradley was known as the “G.I.’s General,” often in contrast to General George Patton, whom he succeed as commander of the American II Corps in North Africa in April 1943. Liebling admired Bradley for just that reason. His profile opens with a description of Bradley’s first meeting with American and British war correspondents in Tunisia. Liebling writes:

“The General wore a tin hat—not buckled under the chin [as Patton wore his], probably because his reconnaissances sometimes took him into shelling and he didn’t want his head jerked off. He also wore a canvas field jacket, G.I. pants, and canvas leggings, thus qualifying as the least dressed-up commander of an American army in the field since Zachary Taylor, who wore a straw hat.”

That captures Liebling’s manner – attentive to detail, in possession of odds and ends of information, a muted comic voice. In 1951, Bradley was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior military commander since the start of the Korean War. Liebling’s description of Bradley in those roles will nicely confound those of the reflexively anti-military persuasion:

“’Military mind’ is a term as meaningless as ‘Jewish mentality’ or ‘feminine logic.’ Soldiers have all kinds of minds, just as they come in all shapes and sizes. What Bradley has, as it happens, is an antimilitaristic mind. He recently astonished a think-piece writer who, meeting him for the first time, asked him what he believed would happen if the Communists took over all of Europe and Asia. ‘We’d have to militarize the country completely for a hundred or a hundred and fifty years,’ the General said, ‘and that would be as bad as defeat.’ In a speech a year or so ago, Bradley even called war a calamity. Because he hates the prospect of a militaristic state, he is determined that we shall not be thrown back on the Western Hemisphere.”

Liebling shifts deftly back and forth from Europe in 1944-45, to Missouri (Bradley’s home state) in 1910, to West Point in 1915, to Washington and Korea in 1951. Technically, his profile of Bradley is a marvel. Like a first-rate reporter, he provides readers with lots of information concisely and almost delicately, but with confidence and brio. He never lays it on thick. Here are some Lieblingesque samples:

“Men went as fast and as far for him as they ever went for the rhetorical Bonaparte.”

“This reputation for sincerity even when it hurts makes General Bradley a star attraction as a witness before Congressional committees, which try to book him as often as the Copacabana books Joe E. Lewis.”

“Distinguished losers—like Ludendorff and Napoleon—accumulate legends and neuroses. Distinguished winners—like the Duke of Wellington, who had the answers to all the young Victoria’s questions, even how to clear the Crystal Place of sparrows (‘Sparrow hawks, Ma’am!’)—develop a self-assurance like a good heavyweight champion’s or an accomplished surgeon’s. This in the case of General Bradley takes the form of friendliness.”

“The paper he sees first in the mornings, while he is still at home, is not the Daily Racing Form, which is perhaps as well for his record of punctuality, because he likes to work out the probable winners from past performances when he has an opportunity.”

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