Book Review – General Lesley J. McNair: Unsung Architect of the US Army

Mark T. Calhoun, General Lesley J. McNair: Unsung Architect of the US Army. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2015. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 25 B/W illustrations. xvii + 412 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Andrew Stewart, Reader in Conflict and Diplomacy, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London (at the Royal College of Defence Studies)

McNair

This is a fascinating and genuinely meticulously researched study of one of the Second World War’s most senior Allied commanders. That this figure has been almost entirely unknown to a contemporary British audience, even one interested in military history, makes it all the more interesting and valuable. This reviewer’s prior experience of this US Army officer comes from involvement in numerous staff rides organised by the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham. During another of these visits, studying the breakout phase of the Allied invasion of Europe, an elderly French farmer acted as an informal guide identifying the remote field where he, as a small boy, had been told an American general had been killed by bombs dropped from the air by his own side. He was referring to General Lesley J. McNair, who rests at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Plot F, Row 28, Grave 42, one 9387 graves of US military personnel who died in France during the Second World War, most of them during the D-Day landings.[1] One of the two highest-ranking American officers to be killed in action in the war, he is the subject of this overdue and much-needed biography.[2]

McNair grave

The grave of General Lesley McNair at Collevile-sur-Mer

Following a long military career, the author, Dr. Mark T. Calhoun, is currently an associate professor at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. He has rightly already received some very positive reviews for what must have been a difficult first book to write. It is a biography that faces perhaps the greatest structural challenge – one which is acknowledged freely at the outset – of there being ‘few personal papers’ relating to its principal subject (p. 2). Indeed, the preface provides an extended justification for why the decision was taken to attempt a study of an individual whom most historians believed had left no personal records of any note. This critical gap in the available research material has led the author to work very hard to fill it examining a broad range of other original, and often previously, unused sources. In so doing, this has enabled Calhoun to produce an important study that demonstrates effectively how McNair’s ideas about modern warfare developed throughout his career. As another short review published elsewhere has highlighted, this is not really a biography but more a study of the impact this senior commander had on the US Army and his contribution to its development, both before and after the outbreak of the Second World War.[3]

Writing this review from the Royal College of Defence Studies, of specific interest were the references to professional military education (PME) which was a central theme of McNair’s life. In May 1924, he had reported to Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana where he spent the next four years as the new professor of military science and tactics and gained ‘direct experience turning civilians into soldiers’ (p. 83). He also used this time to write several articles outlining his thinking on military training, which is liberally quoted from, both here and elsewhere in the book. The later discussion of the year spent as commandant of the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth adds to the PME theme and reiterates the degree to which McNair filled a wide range of important roles throughout his long career (pp. 177-192). Reference to this relatively brief period from 1939 to 1940, is also used as a means of refuting those previous references which have under-estimated his impact on the US Army or, intentionally or otherwise, left readers with a negative impression of his military performance.

From the outset, the author strives to develop the argument that McNair had a military career spanning forty years but, on the relatively rare occasions when he is remembered, it is only the final four years and his last two appointments. Constructed around nine chapters and split into three parts, the book’s weighting and flow, with roughly half of it covering the period from 1940 to 1944, seems to follow the trend. It is difficult to avoid a focus on the most significant phase of his long career and the fact that, after 1940, McNair ‘designed and led the most thorough and intensive individual and collective training effort the army had ever undertaken before a war’ (p. 6). In August of that year, he reported to Washington DC to serve as Chief of Staff, General Headquarters. This was undoubtedly a critical position, taking responsibility for organising, training and equipping all the forces that were then mobilising. With his previous influence on army doctrine, the organisation’s training and even the development of equipment, this was a natural role for him to take. The chapter expands upon the challenges McNair faced, not least that he ‘found his authority limited from the start, and he watched it continue to dwindle as time passed’ (p. 217). Nonetheless, by June 1941, he had been promoted to the temporary rank of Lieutenant-General and played a leading role in that year’s Louisiana and Carolinas maneuvers (sic) which he and his small staff planned and oversaw. In March of the following year, the War Department was re-organised and McNair and was elevated to the role of Army Ground Forces commander. The subsequent extended discussion of how, during the period that followed, the US Army ‘learnt whilst fighting’ will likely be of greatest interest to the general reader, beginning with North Africa and the Kasserine Pass and continuing through to the Normandy landings (pp. 274-311). There are invaluable insights about how US armour and infantry formations developed based upon the encounters they had with often superior German equipment and fighting units. The general’s tragic and untimely accidental death during the shaping phases of Operation COBRA in July 1944 is, in many respects, an after-thought and discussed only briefly in the epilogue (pp. 312-324).

It is a fascinating read on many levels and ably corrects the previous failure referred to in the conclusion, that ‘General Lesley J. McNair has long remained an enigma to many military historians’ (p. 326). It does this, despite the fact that there are long sections that make little or no reference to him. As an example, ‘The Difficult Transition to a War Economy’ covers 21 pages (pp. 193-212) and offers an invaluable contextual discussion about strategic thinking and how the US Army responded to the global war taking place around it but McNair only appears at the very end. This is not to detract from the scholarly nature of this section of the text or any other part of the book, but it merely serves to confirm that, whilst this can be considered an informative and extremely well-researched account of the general’s career, it is one that is positioned within a much broader study of the US Army and its development from 1904 onwards when ‘Whitey’ McNair graduated 11th out of 124 in his West Point class. If the reader can proceed no further, the ‘Introduction’ provides a particularly useful review of the literature discussing US military development throughout the first part of the twentieth century and its eventual involvement in the Second World War’s European Theater (sic) of Operations (pp. 1-25).

This is a generally well written and structured book although there are various points where some additional editorial refinement would have improved the flow of the writing. At times, it can delve deeply into technical manuals and historical specifications – perhaps again, a reflection of the requirement to trawl widely for source material. Having reached the end of such a thoughtful study, it is also not clear why the epilogue was not split to provide both a conclusion to McNair’s life story and then a final postscript which would allow the opportunity to expand upon some of the most reflective themes that are put forward here (pp. 324-331). As it is, the claim that the study has value and applicability regarding better understanding US Army effectiveness in the contemporary era is not as convincing as it might otherwise have been. Developing this will no doubt be the subject of further work by the same author who has demonstrated his considerable skill at producing what many other historians would have dismissed as a largely impossible proposition.

Citation: Andrew Stewart, ‘Review of Mark T. Calhoun, General Lesley J. McNair: Unsung Architect of the US Army’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 18 March 2016

A copy of this review can be downloaded here.

[1] ‘Normandy American Cemetery and Monument’, American Battle Monuments Commission, n.d., p. 7.

[2] Ibid, p. 10. McNair was posthumously promoted in 1954 to four-star rank by a special act of Congress which, according to some interpretations, makes him the most senior US officer ever to die in combat

[3] Timothy K. Nenninger, ‘Review – General Lesley J. NcNair: Unsung Architect of the US Army by Mark T. Calhoun’,  Journal of Military History, 80(1) (January 2016), pp. 256-257.

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