When I was a member of Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in college, I was a member of a drill team called the Pershing Rifles.
The national organization was named for General of the Armies John J. Pershing. I read the brief history of the organization and knew that Pershing was commander of U.S. forces during World War I, but I knew little else.
In the readable volume “Pershing: Commander of the Great War,” John Perry gives an overview of a man we can identify as the first modern military commander, along with the forces that shaped him.
Pershing’s life story parallels the story of America. Born during the Civil War, his journey from a middle-class American upbringing to service on the western frontier and then in Cuba and the Philippines is tied to the growth of the United States from a frontier society to a colonial power and world influence.
Along the way, Pershing learned many lessons that molded his view of military strategy and national service.
Perry does a good job of pointing out how Pershing developed the skills that made him a unique military leader in the early 20th century.
He was, first of all, a teacher. He taught black children, college students (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the Pershing Rifles was formed), West Point cadets, Moro natives in the Philippines, and young officers in the field.
As Army Chief of Staff, he revamped and modernized the Command and General Staff School and the War College.
He mentored men like George Marshall, Douglas McArthur and George Patton, who would play a decisive role in World War II.
Pershing was one of the first American military leaders to understand the importance of organization and logistics in winning a war.
Troops could not do their job effectively without supplies, food, armament and the necessities of life.
As leader of U.S. forces in France during World War I, he insisted that everything be in place before committing his troops to battle.
He also understood the importance of an overall strategy and not just individual battles or campaigns. He was a “big picture” commander.
His service in the west with Native Americans and African-American “buffalo soldiers,” in the Philippines with the Muslim Moros, and in Mexico taught him the importance of learning the culture of a people.
He was remarkably tolerant and accepting during a time when Americans were notoriously racist and xenophobic. Pershing attempted to understand the people to whom he related and negotiated before resorting to physical force.
The author tries to emphasize the humanity behind the stern commander, perhaps most significantly in his personal relationships.
Although a notorious “ladies’ man” when he was a bachelor, he became a devoted husband and father.
When his wife and daughters died tragically in a fire, he continued to show his commitment as a father to his son, Warren, but he dallied with several women and maintained a relationship with a French mistress for more than 30 years.
In all his personal relationships, he was generous and giving even in times of stress.
Perry gives some attention to understanding Pershing’s religious experience. Although Pershing’s religious upbringing is unclear, he often acknowledged his dependence on God and this became more pronounced as he faced greater challenges in life.
He and his family joined the Episcopal Church while they lived in the Philippines.
After his retirement from the military, he committed himself to the completion of the National Cathedral in Washington as an expression of “American values.”
Perhaps his commitment comes through most clearly when he tells an interviewer after the war that he no longer wants to talk about war, courage and sacrifice.
“The most glorious thing is life,” Pershing said. “And we who are alive must cling to it, each of us helping.”
Pershing was innovative in areas of military life including the coordinated use of artillery, air and ground forces and the establishment of the Military Police.
However, he was never a proponent of a strong air force and could not understand the need for armor (tanks) as an independent force. Both of these would play a decisive role in World War II.
This is by no means a comprehensive biography, but Perry gives us a very helpful review of the life of one of the most important military leaders of the early 20th century, one whose choices shaped the role of the United States later in the century.
This is a good contribution to “The Generals” series of books.
Ircel Harrison is coaching coordinator for Pinnacle Leadership Associates and is associate professor of ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. He blogs at BarnabasFile.blogspot.com. His Twitter feed is @ircel.