The Making of a Leader: The Formative Years of George C. Marshall
By Josiah Bunting III.
Knopf, 2024.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $30.

Reviewed by David Hein.

Although long in gestation, this study of the formation of General George C. Marshall would have benefited from even more time devoted to both its form and its content. In Josiah Bunting’s account of his subject’s early years, this reviewer was surprised to find almost no space given to a discussion of Marshall’s Christian faith and practice. 

Bunting says only that Marshall “was christened at Saint Peter’s [Episcopal Church in Uniontown, Pennsylvania] in 1881 and would remain a nominal Episcopalian all his life.” The author immediately goes on to recount an oft-told story about young George’s inattentiveness in church one Sunday: absorbed in a Nick Carter adventure story during the rector’s sermon, he missed his cue at the start of the offertory hymn and did not start pumping the manual organ when he was supposed to. “Nominal” means in name only, not in fact: a strong claim, but it is left unexplained—no evidence adduced or argument provided—and unexplored. 

That is all the information we are given about Marshall’s Christian life until much later in the book. When, as a widower, Marshall married his second wife, Katherine, the wedding took place in an Episcopal church, but Bunting omits this fact, which is not telling in itself. Five pages later, after Marshall has been posted to Fort Screven, on Tybee Island, twenty miles south of Savannah, Georgia, we receive this book’s only other piece of news concerning Marshall’s religious practice. Bunting reports that George and Katherine “loved Screven; as they would do in all subsequent postings, they sought the ton of the nearby city (here, as elsewhere, beginning with the Episcopal church).” This reference not so subtly suggests that, even to a nominal Episcopalian, this denomination could be useful for the entrée it provided into fashionable society. What this dismissive treatment leaves out is information that might contribute to a better understanding of Marshall’s character. 

In fact, one of the mediating institutions that most affected Marshall was his home parish in Uniontown. The Reverend John R. Wightman, the young rector of St. Peter’s, made a lasting impression on the future general. Marshall recalled him in a letter that he wrote at the height of the Second World War, on August 6, 1943: “Mr. Wightman exercised a profound influence on my character and life. While I was a mere boy in my early teens he honored me with his friendship. We often took walks in the country together, and I spent many hours with him at the Parish House, which had just been constructed.” 

Confirmed at St. Peter’s at the age of 16, George Marshall continued for the rest of his life in the way he had been brought up. Throughout his career, Marshall regularly attended church services, and he always tried to build up the churches—both the physical structures and attendance at worship—on the posts to which he was assigned. Chaplains testified to the sincerity of Marshall’s faith; they said he always asked them to pray for him. He ended his days as a faithful communicant of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Leesburg, Virginia. 

As a young lad, Jim Winn, General Marshall’s step-grandson (the son of Katherine’s daughter, Molly Brown Winn), often stayed with the Marshalls at Dodona Manor, their home in Leesburg. Mr. Winn told this writer that as a boy he regularly accompanied the man he always refers to as his “grandfather” to church—and that his grandmother typically did not join them. The years that Mr. Winn is referring to are the 1950s, when Marshall had no public role: that is, years when a retired general would feel no push to be a conspicuous example of religious commitment and no pull to forge alliances with society’s elite. Marshall’s funeral service (which this writer has described in Touchstone magazine) was very much in the Episcopal tradition and in accord with not only Marshall’s wishes but also his character as a humble Christian.

Thus we should not underestimate the significance of the Church and of the Book of Common Prayer in the formation of Marshall’s character. Historians cite the impact of the Rules of Civility on George Washington and of Groton headmaster Endicott Peabody on Franklin Roosevelt. With at least as much assurance they should name prayer-book spirituality as a steady influence on George Marshall, not only as a boy but throughout his life. A conservative internationalist, Marshall initiated and helped to secure passage of a program for western European recovery that we can at least say was wholly consonant with both his grand strategy as an American statesman and his practice as a faithful churchman.

For all its historical detail, this book often seems superficial in its treatment of its core themes. With respect to Marshall’s virtues, one misses a clear attempt to specify and to analyze precisely what these moral traits were and how they influenced his subsequent decisions. We hear much about Marshall’s character—a word that is often, inexplicably, rendered in quotation marks as “character”—and we read about his tenacity, will, resolution, concentration, and self-discipline, but apparently relevant virtues such as prudence, moral courage, temperance, and perseverance are left unexplored.

The writing style could have been improved by the efforts of a first-rate copy editor. Frequently, quotations are not introduced in the text (author, speaker?), citations are missing, jarring factual repetitions occur within pages of one another, misspellings intrude (“forebearer” twice, “ascetism”), the demonstrative pronoun “this” rarely appears with a (helpful) noun after it, the word “thing” is lazily overused, parallel constructions break down, quotations from published sources are sloppily transcribed, questionable derivations are cited (licere, source of our word “leisure,” means “to be allowed,” not “to be free”), technical terms are left unaccompanied by a darting phrase (for example: chasseurs = French light infantry), a reference to World War I’s “dwindling cohort of survivors” will cause readers to wonder when this material was written, and some stabs at grandiloquence are simply obscure. For example, the author refers to “militarism and its sacramental fluorescences.” This reviewer knows what this phrase’s individual words mean, but he is not sure what the author intends the phrase itself to denote. In another place, Bunting refers to Elihu Root as having “a certain Benthamite case [sic] of mind.” Does he mean that Root had a utilitarian outlook? (In the same chapter, Bunting makes Root out to be a kind of progressive, but one suspects that Root, a constitutional conservative, would have wanted to steer clear of that designation.)

Often Bunting seems on the verge of saying something interesting, but then he drops his point just when further comments are called for. For example, he mentions that Francis H. Smith, the first superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute, visited Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School, “whose mission must have struck him as directly pertinent to his own purposes for VMI.” But then Bunting says nothing about how Arnold’s work would have been construed as pertinent to Smith’s plans for the Institute. The author could have accomplished what is needed here in a quick sentence or two. 

The failure to draw a line and take the sum recurs: assertion without full explanation, let alone careful argumentation. The final chapter, “Conclusion: A Soldier for Democracy,” is a similarly missed opportunity. Occasionally in this book, Bunting demonstrates that he has his eye on military leadership and training in our own time. As well he should: Commenting on the steep decline in Gallup respondents who have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, Graham Hilliard, writing in the Washington Examiner (“John Kerry and US Military Rot,” April 16, 2024), asks: “Is any of this [decline in confidence] surprising given the war-losing, the wokeness, the naked politicking, and the general incompetence that have attended America’s officer class for the last two decades?” And Bunting himself points out that Marshall was unlike today’s military officers: he “did not flock to award ceremonies or boast on his public attire the many military marks to which he was … entitled.” Later Bunting laments “the usages of militarism and the pretensions of military culture,” and he refers to “militaristic rigmarole.” 

Therefore, in his book’s conclusion, he could have followed up on Thomas Ricks’s The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2012) and offered a fascinating analysis of and commentary on American military culture—its virtues and its vices—since 1960. In his last two pages, Bunting mentions “habits of character,” but he needs to name and analyze these virtues of command, viewing the American present and recent past through a Marshallian lens. Instead, the book’s ending seems rushed and formulaic—a vague and watery conclusion. 

Marshall was reticent about his inner life. He left no diary and wrote no memoir of his experiences in the crucial period 1939–1951. Therefore, no Marshall biographer has an easy time of it. Although not as strong as it could be, this book has some fine moments with much to tell the attentive reader. A revised edition could be more valuable still.

David Hein is Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and the author of the forthcoming Teaching the Virtues (Mecosta House).

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