By Alan Axelrod. 224 pp. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. $21.95.
Omar Bradley was the cautious general. He avoided unnecessary risks and always considered logistics before moving forward. This was a far cry from the aggressive, headline-grabbing styles of George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, and one might think Bradley dull and timid in comparison. On the contrary, his style made him one of the most respected generals of the war—the “GI’s General,” as Ernie Pyle dubbed him.
Bradley, the latest offering from the “Great Generals” series edited by Gen. Wesley K. Clark, highlights the general’s rise through the ranks to his eventual command of the 1.3 million troops in the 12th Army Group in Europe, the largest group of soldiers ever to serve under an American field commander. Born in Clark, Missouri, the son of a poor schoolteacher, Bradley began his long military career as a cadet in West Point’s Class of 1915, known as the “Class the Stars Fell On” because fifty-nine of the cadets, including Eisenhower and Patton, became generals.
Alan Axelrod, author of Patton on Leadership and Patton (the latter also part of the “Great Generals” series), takes useful time to characterize the interactions between Bradley and his counterparts. He depicts Bradley and Patton as having a mutual dislike for each other early on, but forming an almost symbiotic rapport during the war. Patton admired Bradley’s foresight and planning, while Bradley saw potential in Patton’s aggressiveness and willingness to take risks. They became a winning combination in Europe.
By contrast, Montgomery squared off with Bradley (as he did with virtually all American generals), starting with Operation Market Garden—provoking a rare level of animosity from a Yank known for his low-key politeness. This split endured through the Battle of the Bulge and the war’s end.
Bradley’s association with George C. Marshall more closely resembled a father-son relationship; Bradley admired Marshall for his decision-making and overall manage ment of the armed forces. Axelrod explains how these diverse influences made Bradley the efficient, straightforward field general soldiers liked serving under.
What also made him a standout was how ordinary he appeared. Not too brash, not too passive, he rarely drew attention to himself. Over the course of the war he remained what he had been at the Point: a team player, earning stars as he quietly rolled back Axis gains.
When the war ended, Bradley kept going. He headed the Veterans Administration for two years, doing a great deal to improve its care facilities and shepherding educational benefits to ex-GIs. In 1949, he became the first official chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A year later, he became the fifth and last General of the Army—and first chairman of the NATO Committee. When Douglas MacArthur agitated to expand the Korean War, Bradley rebuked him; when MacArthur was finally dismissed, Bradley testified to Congress that war with China would be “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
From 1958 to 1973 he ran the Bulova Watch Company. In 1970, he was a consultant on the film Patton; in 1971, he was honored on This Is Your Life. After his death in April 1981, one of his sayings lingered on, cementing his reputation as the GI’s general: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.