History does not provide a blueprint or and cannot act as a crystal ball. Its greatest gift is that it may act as a guide for future decisions.
History helps to provide a framework that equips an agile mind to make informed decisions. History provides a background as maneuver leaders reflect on personal experience in training and combat.
The study of history should be, as Clausewitz suggested, “meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life.”
Studying past leaders helps leaders to understand their responsibilities. Leaders know the importance of discipline and the need to build confident, cohesive teams. These teams will be resilient to the debilitating effects of combat trauma and the corrosive effects of persistent danger.
One effective way is to study military leaders. Leaders and history are inseparable. Examining the brilliant military careers and intriguing personalities of the great captains of history reveals not only their genius and impact, but offers relevant lessons that military commanders can use later.
Through the lens of history would be as Sir Michael Howard observed, “not to make us cleverer for the next time,” but instead to help make leaders “wise forever.”
Ike in history
General Dwight David Eisenhower (Ike) is one of the most fascinating figures in American military history. He is one of five Presidents who was also a General.
He never held a command higher than a battalion, (1940) as a lieutenant colonel and two years later he was a Major General a commander of an Army Corps. By 1944, he commanded the largest army ever assembled for the invasion of France on D-Day.
Ike the Man
Ike is a character of consequence like Churchill, Stalin and Mao. He was a man who fulfilled a time in history. He knew the importance of the time he was living in and did his best to live up to it.
Born into hardscrabble poverty in rural Kansas, the son of stern pacifists, Dwight David Eisenhower graduated from high school more likely to teach history than to make it (D’Este, 2003). There was nothing in his family background, but a surplus of love. This would form the backbone of his Midwestern values and how he saw the world while in command.
West Point and World War I
Ike graduated from West Point in the Class of 1915, “the Class the Stars Fell On.” In the U.S. Army, the insignia reserved for generals is one or more stars. Of the 164 graduates that year, 59 (36%) attained the rank of general, the most of any class in the history of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Two, Ike and General Omar Bradley, reached the rank of five-star General of the Army. There were also two four-star generals, seven three-star lieutenant generals, 24 two-star major generals and 24 one-star brigadier generals. Ike graduated the middle of his class, but as history has shown, class standing at West Point has been never a prediction of military greatness.
When the US entered World War I in 1917 he repeatedly requested an overseas assignment, but was repeatedly denied due to a talent for training National Guard units.
It was here he earned his reputation as an officer who was straight, blunt, and not a buck passed. His excellent organizational skills and his ability to assess junior officers’ and a units’ strengths and make optimal placements of personnel gained him a reputation of someone who could get things done.
Before he went overseas World War I ended. World War I, was important because it allowed future leaders, like George Patton, to distinguish themselves in war and seek recognition in combat.
In World War II, rivals who had combat service in the first great war (led by British General Bernard Montgomery) sought to denigrate Eisenhower for his previous lack of combat duty, despite his stateside experience establishing a camp, completely equipped, for thousands of troops, and developing a full combat training schedule.
The Interwar Years
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Eisenhower’s career in the postwar army stalled somewhat, as military priorities diminished. Between the world wars, there was a glacial rate of promotion in the army and Ike would remain a Major for 15 years. Eisenhower served under a succession of talented generals learning how to command- Fox Conner, John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall.
Ike learned command, debate and policy from MacArthur. In 1930, Chief of Staff of Army MacArthur, Ike was his aide- de-camp. MacArthur said of Ike in a fitness report, “… this is the best officer in the army.” He served in the Philippines with MacArthur and watched him build an Army from scratch.
World War II
After Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was assigned to the General Staff in Washington, where he served until June 1942. He was responsible for creating the major war plans to defeat Japan and Germany. General George Marshall, now Chief of Staff of the Army, knew his reputation as an excellent staff officer.
In November 1942, he was also appointed Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force of the North African Theater of Operations. He said, “Over the next 5 months in Africa from Dec 1942- May 1943 OPERATION TORCH violated every principle of War, would condemn the campaign at Leavenworth for the next 25 years.” He made a lot of mistakes but learned from them. The biggest lesson was the battle of Kasserine Pass.
For roles in the invasions of Sicily, Italy he was made the Allied Supreme Commander of Europe. His leadership was key in the Assault on Fortress Europe.
Assessment of Personality
A lieutenant colonel at 50 with no military future ahead of him in the stifling between-the-wars promotion system, Eisenhower became, in little more than three years and three months, a five-star general (D’Este, 2003).
Ike lived an “extraordinarily charmed life” on the basis of likability, desk-officer brilliance and the active patronage of influential men he had worked for all added to his success.
His explosive charisma, his modest, self-deprecating humor allowed some folks to be fooled by his “aw-shucks attitude” but he was a shrewd judge of character. Undoubtedly, his previous assignments and experiences were valuable preparation for handling the challenging personalities of Winston Churchill, George S. Patton, George Marshall and General Montgomery during World War II. He was a talented and complicated man.
He was a flawed leader in the opening days of World War II. He never had hands-on command of a unit in combat. His soldiers would pay heavy prices for his inexperience especially at Kasserine Pass. But he would learn from his mistakes and grow. His heart was heavy, with concerns for the enlisted men he knew would do the dying and this was always at the center of his leadership.
After WWII, he was called to service as Army Chief of Staff and the first head of NATO. He would later become President of the United States.