What’s Past is Prologue: A Story of U.S. Army Lineage, from 1915 to 2015

April 30, 2015

Michael E. Haskew, West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On (Zenith Press, 2014)


Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the Air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Michael Haskew opens his recent book, West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On, with this note, written by Eisenhower and to be released only in the event of the failure of the D-Day landings that he oversaw as supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. For any historical work in which Eisenhower is a central figure, this would be appropriate. The invasion was the most consequential event of Eisenhower’s already consequential military career. As a literary, scene-setting technique, such an opening foreshadows the climactic moment that neatly separates the rising and falling actions of World War II. And the note is quite rightly lauded as a supreme act of leadership and character in an institution — the U.S. military — that instills these virtues in its people as a matter of necessity. However, the D-Day landings didn’t just mark the apex of Ike’s military career, but also an era in which history was influenced to a vastly underappreciated degree by a particular group of men: the graduates of the United States Military Academy’s class of1915. Haskew tells the stories of these men and their pivotal, collective role in history.

The book’s value as a work of history is self-evident: There was a fascinating story to be told, and Haskew tells it well. But in reading it, I was struck by the remarkable alignment between these officers’ experiences and those of their modern-day counterparts, and between the challenges, in times of both war and peace, faced by the Army in which the class of 1915 served and that of today. Such a conclusion is indeed surprising. While today’s Army rolls into battle in 40,000-pound vehicles equipped with cutting edge technology, Ike and his classmates commissioned into an Army still heavily reliant on horses. They would fight and lead soldiers on battlefields that could not appear less similar to the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Baghdad. The nation that their Army served was an instinctively isolationist one that could hardly conceive of itself as the world’s dominant power. And yet, plus ça change

When the members of the class of 1915 arrived at West Point, they encountered an institution steeped in tradition. And while tradition plays an important and powerful role in the military, it seems to be in perpetual conflict with another quality that is equally important to a fighting force’s ability to win on the battlefield: dynamism. Once commissioned as lieutenants, the cadets would see and experience the hallmarks of successive, monumentally new forms of warfare: from battlefields crisscrossed with trenches extending to the horizons, to the blitzkrieg tactics of a new age of mobile warfare. And yet despite recognizing that the world itself was changing, “the long shadow of Sylvanus Thayer continued to shape virtually every facet of the cadet experience.” Thayer had been the school’s superintendent nearly a century before, and the instruction cadets received was little changed since his tenure. “The vast majority of instructors, as they had been for generations, were army officers who taught the same curriculum they had been taught,” much of which “was mind-numbing rote memorization.”

Reading those words transported me to a classroom at Ft. Huachuca, where I was christened a branch-qualified military intelligence officer after 15 weeks of instruction, much of which can only be described in the same way: mind-numbing rote memorization. I had become sufficiently familiar with the Worldwide Equipment Guide — I could answer questions about the BTR-80 and the BMP-1, explain the upgrades featured in the T-72 tank, and knew how the capabilities between the SA-7 and SA-14 MANPADS differed. I had accepted as a matter of faith the absolute inviolability of the 3:1 force ratio in planning for attack or defense. I was a perfect Cold Warrior, and in less than a year, I was in East Baghdad, where EFPs and lob bombs were a bit more threatening than armored personnel carriers and air defense missiles. I learned how to be a 21st century Army officer on the job, the same way the class of 1915 learned to be 20th century officers. One hundred years later, the U.S. Army at its best is a flexible, dynamic organization on the battlefield, despite the encumbrances imposed by staid, outdated curricula that struggle to prepare its servicemembers.

The class of 1915 also demonstrated a characteristic that has featured in the men and women of the Army that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan: a keenness, when the nation is at war, to be a part of the fight. It was remembered of one graduate of that class, who was not deployed during World War I and who subsequently left the Army, that “not being sent to France was one of the greatest disappointments of his life.” Echoes of that sentiment still exist today. To be sure, that desire is easily muted by multiple deployments, just as it was for those whose service in theater during either of the World Wars dragged on, to end only when the war was complete. Perhaps this is a function of the sense of duty in today’s force, which, like the West Point class, was comprised of volunteers. Perhaps there was a fear of shame that would accompany not having deployed. The desire to go to war is separate from questions of politics, strategy, and even morality. And it has certainly not been universal over the past 13 years, nor was it likely to have been among the 164 graduates in 1915. But it is real.

The subtitle of Haskew’s book features the names of Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, two men who would serve in key leadership roles in World War II. But an astounding 59 members of the class — more than a third of its graduates — would wear general officers’ stars on their shoulders. This fact is what made this a book worth writing. This was a group of officers whose careers were bookended by global conflicts. So while their experiences as cadets and at the tactical level resonate today, those of their later years in senior command roles during World War II also do so, but at an operational and strategic level. Thus, in 1933, when Eisenhower was named special assistant to Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, he found the office busy with a set of problems with which current Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno can certainly identify. Not only did MacArthur’s Army see funding decreases amid nationwide economic struggles, but he was tasked with defending the decreases as necessary and appropriate. Soldiers today are conditioned to understand that all else is subordinated to the needs of the Army (indeed, “needs of the Army,” so often uttered along with a surrendering shrug of the shoulders, plays the role today that Tennyson’s “Theirs not to reason why…” has for generations of soldiers). But as Eisenhower’s time in the chief of staff’s office taught him, and as today’s budgetary battles make clear, the needs of the nation come first.

Perhaps most striking are those parts of the book that describe a problem faced by both the Army of Eisenhower, Bradley, and their classmates, and the Army of today, but which the two sought to solve in very different ways. Two examples are particularly illuminating. First, the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor not only precipitated the U.S. entry into World War II, but is considered one of American history’s clearest instances of intelligence failure. Sixty years later, the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would launch the United States into another war and would quickly come to be treated as an equally clear intelligence failure. After the Pearl Harbor attack General George C. Marshall, head of the Army General Staff, selected Joseph T. McNarney as his chief of staff. McNarney, a graduate of the 1915 West Point class, was given responsibility for a crucially important task. According to McNarney, Marshall had realized that “too many people were reporting to him, and it took too long to get any paper through the War Department. Everybody had to concur. About 28 people had to pass on matters.” Marshall wanted McNarney to streamline the Army’s headquarters. Within weeks, among other major reorganizational steps and cuts decreed by fiat, the staff departments (G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4) were each told they “can have 10 General Staff people and 20 helpers and no more.” They had previously expanded greatly, to 100 or more.

It is utterly inconceivable that any staff in today’s military might have its manpower cut by 70 percent or more. These bureaucracy-cutting measures proved vital to the Army’s ability to shape itself to fit a conflict for which it was hitherto entirely unprepared. On a broader, national security level, it is very much the opposite of changes made within the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11. To be sure, a reorganization was needed to correct dangerous firewalls that inhibited information sharing. But in practice, the resulting growth in the U.S. national security bureaucracy could not more clearly contradict the spirit of the Army reorganization McNarney engineered. And within the Army itself, the service and the Defense Department as a whole did embrace (albeit slowly) the notion of empowering lower-level leaders on the complex battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. But that complexity also drove a response that was the opposite of McNarney’s work among rear-echelon staffs, the massive growth of which during the post-9/11 wars anyone who visited Multi-National Corps – Iraq’s headquarters at Al Faw Palace can attest to.

The second example of how the 1915 class’s Army differed from today is indicative of the organizational flexibility the Army General Staff reorganization was intended to create. In 1941, Eisenhower was still toiling away as “an obscure lieutenant colonel.” Less than a year later, on June 25, 1942, he informed his wife that he was being sent to Europe, most likely for the duration of the war. She asked him what post he was going to have. “I’m going to command the whole shebang,” he told her with a grin. He had been named commander of U.S. Forces, European Theater of Operations, promoted four ranks in just over a year.

When I commissioned, I knew to the day when I would be promoted to first lieutenant and exactly when I would make captain. I even had a reasonably sure idea when I would make major if I stayed in. Of course, competition for further field-grade promotions and within the general officer ranks meant that these timelines become less precise as an officer’s career continues. And the systematic way in which promotions are handled among junior officers (and to some extent among enlisted soldiers) is a natural byproduct of the sheer numbers involved. But to think that a lieutenant colonel might, in the space of just more than a year, pin on a lieutenant general’s three stars seems preposterous by today’s standards. The amount of training alone required for each promotion, and the previous experience necessary to serve in particular roles, means that there is a floor below which time-in-grade requirements cannot be dropped. But Eisenhower’s meteoric rise, itself a function of recognized leadership capabilities, is indicative of an organization that prioritizes placing the right people in the positions where they are needed. The apparent lack of that prioritization today — the lack of a structurally meritocratic system — risks driving away leaders and soldiers who add the most value in the Army’s formations.

West Point 1915 is an exceptionally well-executed book. Part biography and part military history, it will certainly appeal to a diverse set of readers. But among its most valuable and perhaps most unexpected contributions is its highlighting of the parallels between the past and today. The admonition that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it has in many ways been rendered less meaningful by too-frequent attempts to find analogies that push against the boundaries of human imagination. But there are times at which we err by not learning from history. This book suggests the Army is an institution with an incredible amount to learn from its own past.

When I was in Iraq, a 40-page missive was circulated among (mostly junior) officers. It was written by a captain who decried the gap between the perspectives of two generations — what he called GWOT officers and ‘90s officers. He commended the former for embracing innovation and leaning into the uncertainty of the battlefields on which they were tested; the latter, he argued, were married to doctrine and the rigid, field exercise mentality of a peacetime force. Now, as the Army transitions away from a wartime footing, that captain’s opinions might begin to appear to reflect a pendulum swung too far in the direction of improvisation as a military imperative. But likewise, tradition-based, inflexible training such as that that the class of 1915 received swings too far in the other direction. Maybe, however, tradition and history need not be in total conflict with dynamism and innovative thinking, after all. Perhaps the key to creating the adaptable Army needed to fight and win our nation’s wars, at least in some part, is in learning the lessons of the Army’s past.


John Amble is Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.