Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Where are the Fox Conners of today?

Here is a discussion I had with Ed Cox, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Kosovo (remember Kosovo?) about his new book, Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship. If you don’t know who Fox Conner is, you don’t know your 20th century American military history — so read on, mes ...

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Here is a discussion I had with Ed Cox, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Kosovo (remember Kosovo?) about his new book, Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship. If you don't know who Fox Conner is, you don't know your 20th century American military history -- so read on, mes petites choux.

--What does your book tell us about Fox Conner that we don't know already?

I spend a lot of time in my book discussing Conner's life as a cadet and a young officer. One of the things that first interested me in Fox Conner as a subject was small historical inaccuracies I found in the works of others. For example, I have seen it asserted that he was not high enough in his class at West Point to get cavalry as his branch. When I did a little research, I found that no one in his class branched cavalry due to the needs of the Army at the time. What little material there is on Conner in previous works tends to dwell on his relationship with Eisenhower. I spend time on this relationship in my book but also discuss the effect he had on others, and the effect that his mentors had on him.

Here is a discussion I had with Ed Cox, a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and Kosovo (remember Kosovo?) about his new book, Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship. If you don’t know who Fox Conner is, you don’t know your 20th century American military history — so read on, mes petites choux.

–What does your book tell us about Fox Conner that we don’t know already?

I spend a lot of time in my book discussing Conner’s life as a cadet and a young officer. One of the things that first interested me in Fox Conner as a subject was small historical inaccuracies I found in the works of others. For example, I have seen it asserted that he was not high enough in his class at West Point to get cavalry as his branch. When I did a little research, I found that no one in his class branched cavalry due to the needs of the Army at the time. What little material there is on Conner in previous works tends to dwell on his relationship with Eisenhower. I spend time on this relationship in my book but also discuss the effect he had on others, and the effect that his mentors had on him.

 –What was the biggest surprise to you in what you learned about Conner?

There were two big surprises. The first was his transformation from average student into a mentor and role model. I think this book has a lot of lessons for leaders at every level, but especially for young leaders in the Army. Here’s a man who was an average cadet who got in more trouble than most. Shortly after he graduated, however, he was fortunate to work for a few commanders who showed him what it means to be a professional at his craft and a lifelong learner. He was inspired to follow their example and later he inspired others as well.

The second big surprise was how big an influence he and his cohort had on the Army and the nation. His graduating class at West Point had a higher percentage of general officers (37.2%) than the famed class of 1915, “the class the stars fell on” (35.9%). With a few exceptions, like Malin Craig and Guy Henry, Conner and his classmates’ contributions are all but forgotten. In the 1930s graduates of the class of 1898 commanded 3 of the 9 Corps Areas, and at one time or another they commanded the chemical corps, the tank corps, the cavalry branch, four divisions, and at least five Army posts. They served as War College commandants and Army Chiefs of Staff, and many remained active with reserve units and civic organizations after they left the active force. They embodied the ideal of a lifetime of service to the nation for which West Point is famous.

–What do you think Eisenhower’s career would have been if he had never encountered Conner? (And do you think the course of World War II would have been different if Conner had never existed?)

Eisenhower himself said that meeting Fox Conner (a meeting arranged by George Patton in October 1920) was the pivotal moment in determining his Army career. Ike was a very talented young officer, but I don’t think he would have risen to the heights that he did without the guidance, coaching, and mentorship of Fox Conner.

I’d like to think that even if Conner had never existed, some other leader would have taken Marshall, Patton, and Eisenhower under his wing. After all, each of them looked to several leaders and mentors for their development, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say we would have lost the war without Fox Conner. World War I, however, may have been another matter. Pershing called Conner his indispensable man and told Conner upon his retirement that, “I could have spared any other man in the A.E.F. better than you.”

–Are there Conners in today’s Army? If so, do you see them in any particular area?

Mentorship is a popular buzzword these days, both in and out of the military. People assume that if mentorship leads to better performance, everyone deserves a mentor. One of the challenges the Army faces is that mentorship, by its nature, seems to clash with the institutional value of equality because of the inevitable favoritism that can result from it. As my book discusses, mentorship cannot be scaled up to mass production. It begins as a very personal connection between a senior who has mastered his craft and a subordinate who seeks to master it as well. There’s leader development, coaching, counseling, and then there’s mentoring. The first three can be done mechanically, albeit with lower results. They can be bureaucratized using forms and procedures. Only the last one, mentorship, requires as its starting point a heartfelt desire to pass on the expert knowledge of the profession to its junior members. There are definitely Conners in today’s Army. We need more.

Ed Cox graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a commission as a lieutenant of armor. Since then he has served in various command and staff positions in combat units, including two years in Iraq and seven months in Kosovo. He graduated from the esteemed Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 2008 with master’s degrees in public administration and international relations.

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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