Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Worst generals’ memoir of World War II?

I’ve just finished reading Gen. Mark Clark’s Calculated Risk, and I have to say I think it is one of the dullest war memoirs I’ve ever read, and certainly the worst I’ve seen by an American general who served in that war. (I have yet to read some of those by MacArthur and his band ...

567294_100706_army.mil-2008-09-16-1325372.jpg
567294_100706_army.mil-2008-09-16-1325372.jpg

I've just finished reading Gen. Mark Clark's Calculated Risk, and I have to say I think it is one of the dullest war memoirs I've ever read, and certainly the worst I've seen by an American general who served in that war. (I have yet to read some of those by MacArthur and his band of sycophants, though-they are staring at me from the bookshelf but I have been avoiding tackling them.)

Clark comes off as a slippery customer, constantly glossing differences that I know from other books are mighty interesting. Monty? What a jolly fellow. Patton? Troops love him. He really has surprisingly little to say, and so peddles meaningless anecdotes about how dangerous it was to fly around in a Piper Cub. He says almost nothing interesting about his peers or subordinates. Patton absolutely loathed Clark, wishing at one point in his diary that "something would happen" to him, but you wouldn't know that from Clark's jolly references to old "Georgie."

I was particularly struck by Clark's anodyne account of Montgomery ordering Eisenhower to put out a cigarette, on the grounds that he didn't permit smoking in his office. Clark claims that afterwards, he and Ike "got a good laugh out of the incident." I am inclined to credit more Kay Summersby's account that after the meeting, Ike was so angered by the insult that his face was red and the veins in his forehead were throbbing.

I’ve just finished reading Gen. Mark Clark’s Calculated Risk, and I have to say I think it is one of the dullest war memoirs I’ve ever read, and certainly the worst I’ve seen by an American general who served in that war. (I have yet to read some of those by MacArthur and his band of sycophants, though-they are staring at me from the bookshelf but I have been avoiding tackling them.)

Clark comes off as a slippery customer, constantly glossing differences that I know from other books are mighty interesting. Monty? What a jolly fellow. Patton? Troops love him. He really has surprisingly little to say, and so peddles meaningless anecdotes about how dangerous it was to fly around in a Piper Cub. He says almost nothing interesting about his peers or subordinates. Patton absolutely loathed Clark, wishing at one point in his diary that “something would happen” to him, but you wouldn’t know that from Clark’s jolly references to old “Georgie.”

I was particularly struck by Clark’s anodyne account of Montgomery ordering Eisenhower to put out a cigarette, on the grounds that he didn’t permit smoking in his office. Clark claims that afterwards, he and Ike “got a good laugh out of the incident.” I am inclined to credit more Kay Summersby’s account that after the meeting, Ike was so angered by the insult that his face was red and the veins in his forehead were throbbing.

First question: Is there a relationship between the quality of generalship and the quality of a memoir? I think there is, if only because the more adept and successful generals have more interesting stories to tell. In this sense, war memoirs invert Tolstoy’s famous observation that all happy families are alike. All successful generals are different, but all defeated generals are essentially similar-or at least their memoirs are. Two of the best generals’ memoirs of World War II, I think, are Slim’s and Eisenhower’s. Likewise, the best Civil War memoir is Grant’s. By contrast, what would Fredendall or Short have to say?      

Clark wasn’t a failure, but he was mediocre. So his memoir is worse than his record would indicate. 

Any other nominations for Worst War Memoir Ever?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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