Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reflections on Leadership

Major General Fox Conner
General George Marshall

General Dwight D Eisenhower

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

This post comes from Small Wars Journal and their posting of the Summer 2008 issue of the US Army War College’s Parameters.

One article is based on remarks delivered 21 April 2008 at the US Military Academy by Dr. Robert Gates Secretary of Defense. His words resound with an understanding of history and military strategy that have been lacking in the leadership in Washington for decades.

Last year I read Partners in Command, a book by Mark Perry. It is an account of the unique relationship between General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George Marshall, and how they played a significant role in the American victory in World War II and laid the foundations for future success in the earliest years of the Cold War. Eisenhower and Marshall are, of course, icons, legends etched in granite. Their portraits hang in my office.
One of the things I found compelling in Partners in Command is how they were both influenced by another senior Army officer who is not nearly as well-known and in fact, as a reader of history, I had never heard of. His name is General Fox Conner, a tutor and mentor to both Eisenhower and Marshall. Conner and Marshall first became friends when they served together on the staff of General “Black Jack” Pershing during World War I. In the 1920s, Eisenhower served as staff assistant under Brigadier General Conner in the Panama Canal Zone.

Three Axioms

From Conner, Marshall and Eisenhower learned much about leadership and the conduct of war. Conner had three principles of war for a democracy that he imparted to Eisenhower and Marshall. They were:

1. Never fight unless you have to.

2. Never fight alone.

3. And never fight for long.

All things being equal, these principles are pretty straightforward and strategically sound. We have heard variants of them in the decades since, captured perhaps most recently in the Powell Doctrine. Of course, all things are not equal, particularly considering the range and complexity of the threats facing America today, from the wars we are currently in to the conflicts we are most
likely to fight. So I would like to suggest how we should think about applying Fox Conner’s three axioms to the security challenges of the twenty-first century.

Gates looks to General George Marshall as an example of the qualities of leadership for military officers.

General Marshall has been recognized as a textbook model for the way military officers should handle disagreements with superiors and in particular with the civilians vested with control of the armed forces under our Constitution. In these situations, an officer’s duties are:

1. To provide blunt and candid advice always.

2. To keep disagreements private.

3. And to implement faithfully decisions that go against you.

Whoever becomes President in November would be an idiot, if he let Robert Gates go out with the present administration.

For more on General Fox Conner.

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