Thursday, April 25, 2013

A SOLDIER'S STORY - Book Review - AN INSPIRING MILITARY AUTOBIOGRAPHY

A CLASSIC INSPIRING MILITARY AUTOBIOGRAPHY 
A Soldier’s Story by Omar N. Bradley
BOOK REVIEW
by
VIKRAM KARVE

Book Details

Title:  A Soldiers Story
Author: Omar Nelson Bradley
ISBN:  0375754210
ISBN-13: 9780375754210, 978-0375754210
Binding: Paperback
Publishing Date: First Published 1951 (Latest Paperback Edition 1999 by Random House Publishing Group)

Book Review

AN INSPIRING MILITARY AUTOBIOGRAPHY and A Classic on THE ART OF LEADERSHIP

I love reading autobiographies, as there is nothing more inspiring and authentic than learning about the life, times, thoughts and views of a great person in his own words.

It’s a lazy hot afternoon in Wakad Pune. 

I browse through my bookshelves and pick out the book:

A Soldier’s Story by General Omar Nelson Bradley.

This book is one of my favourite autobiographies. 

And certainly this book is my all time favourite military autobiography. 

Come Dear Reader, sit with me for a while, and let’s leaf through and peruse this fascinating book.

General Bradley (1893-1981) known for his calm and resolute leadership and affectionately called the “Soldier’s General” commanded the largest American combat force in history and rose to be the first Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

At the beginning of his autobiography A Soldier’s Story, General Bradley states:

This is a story, not of my life, but of a campaign ... I have sought ... to tell a story of how generals live and work at their chosen profession ...” 

and then he goes on to tell us his memoirs which focus on his participation in World War II.

Candidly written with remarkable humility in beautiful expressive language, this is a wonderful memoir embellished with interesting episodes and lucid characterizations of many renowned military personalities.

In the preface General Bradley says:

“In this book I have tried to achieve one purpose:
 
To explain how war is waged on the field from the field command post ...
 
To tell a story of how and why we chose to do what we did, no one can ignore the personalities and characteristics of those individuals engaged in making decisions ... 

Where there are people, there is pride and ambition, prejudice and conflict.
 
In generals, as in all other men, capabilities cannot always obscure weaknesses, nor can talents hide faults ... 

I could not conscientiously expurgate this book to make it more palatable ... 

if this story is to be told, it must be told honestly and candidly ...”

The author writes in a wonderfully readable storytelling style and starts his riveting narrative on September 2, 1943, driving to Messina along the north coast of Sicily when, suddenly, General Eisenhower summoned him to tell him that he had been selected to command the American Army in the biggest invasion of the war – the liberation of Europe from the Germans. 

He then goes back in time and starts his story with vignettes from his early formative days of soldiering.

General Bradley vividly describes how, from General Marshall, he learnt the rudiments of effective command which he himself applied throughout the war:

“When an officer performed as I expected him to, I gave him a free hand. When he hesitated, I tried to help him. And when he failed, I relieved him”

I am sure this leadership lesson is valid even in today’s world, the new IT driven world, where delegation seems to be taking a back seat and excessive micro-management, monitoring, interference and intervention seem to be on the rise.

Rather than encourage yes-men, ego-massage, sycophancy and groupthink, General Marshal sought contrary opinions:

“When you carry a paper in here, I want you to give me every reason you can think of why I should not approve it. If, in spite of your objections, my decision is to still go ahead, then I’ll know I’m right”.

When it was suggested to General Marshall that a corps commander who had an arthritic disability in the knee be sent home rather than be given command of a corps in the field in war, he opined:

“I would rather have a man with arthritis in the knee than one with arthritis in the head. Keep him there”.

General Bradley writes on his assignment overseas in February 1943 to act as Eisenhower’s “eyes and ears” among American troops on the Tunisian front in North Africa:

“For the first time in 32 years as a soldier, I was off to a war” 

He vividly describes the chaos after the American defeat at Kasserine, the arrival of General George S Patton on the scene who growled:

“I’m not going to have any goddam spies running around in my headquarters”

Then Patton immediately appointed Bradley as his deputy. 

This was the defining moment of Bradley’s illustrious combat career.

This is easily the best book on Patton’s stellar role in World War II.

A Soldier’s Story complements General Patton’s Memoirs:

War As I Knew It 

and 

Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago

These three books are a must for any student of military history who wants to study General Patton. 

Though his admiration for Patton is evident, General Bradley writes about his long association with Patton with fairness and honesty and reveals unique and remarkable facets of Patton’s leadership style and character.

Sample this:

Precisely at 7 Patton boomed in to breakfast. His vigour was always infectious, his wit barbed, his conversation a mixture of obscenity and good humour. He was at once stimulating and overbearing. George was a magnificent soldier. 

Can there be a better description of General Patton?

Bradley vividly describes how Patton transformed the slovenly and demoralized II Corps into a fighting fit formation:

“The news of Patton’s coming fell like a bombshell on Djebel Kouif. With sirens shrieking Patton’s arrival, a procession of armoured scout cars and half-tracks wheeled into the dingy square opposite the schoolhouse headquarters of II Corps ...
In the lead car Patton stood like a charioteer ... scowling into the wind and his jaw strained against the web strap of a two-starred steel helmet.”

General Bradley writes superbly, as he describes how Patton stamped his personality upon his men and by his outstanding charismatic leadership rejuvenated the jaded, slovenly, worn-out, defeated and demoralized II Corps and transformed it into a vibrant, disciplined, fighting fit organization that never looked back and went on winning victory after victory in most difficult circumstances and against all odds.

There are bits of delightful humour in this book. 

Commenting on the ingenuity and improvisation abilities of Patton’s staff, the author writes:

“ ... Indeed had Patton been named an Admiral in the Turkish Navy, his aides could probably dipped into their haversacks and come up with the appropriate badges of rank ...” 

Though, at times, the author appears to be in awe of and enamoured by Patton’s larger than life charisma, he is candid, dispassionate and, at times, critical when he describes how he was bewildered by the contradictions in Patton’s character and concludes:

“At times I felt that Patton, however successful he was as a corps commander, had not yet learned how to command himself.”

Their techniques of command varied with their contrasting personalities. While the soft-spoken unassuming Bradley preferred to lead by suggestion and example, the flamboyant Patton chose to drive his subordinates by bombast and threats, employing imperious mannerisms and profane expletives with startling originality; and both achieved spectacular results.

Many of us are at a loss for words when asked to qualitatively appraise our subordinates. 

Yes, fair and objective performance appraisal, bringing out both the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in a dispassionate and balanced manner is a difficult task, especially while putting your appraisal down on paper.

See how easily General Bradley lucidly evaluates his division commanders, bringing out their salient qualities, in so few words with elegant simplicity and succinctness:

“ ... To command a corps of four divisions, toughness alone is not enough. 

The corps commander must know his division commanders, he must thoroughly understand their problems, respect their judgment, and be tolerant of their limitations ... 

among the division commanders in Tunisia, none excelled the unpredictable Terry Allen in the leadership of troops ... but in looking out for his own division, Allen tended to belittle the role of others 

… Ryder had confirmed his reputation as that of a skilled tactician ... his weakness, however, lay in the contentment with which he tolerated mediocrity 

... the profane and hot-tempered Harmon brought to the corps the rare combination of sound tactical judgment and boldness 

... none was better balanced nor more cooperative than Manton Eddy ... though not timid, neither was he bold; Manton liked to count his steps carefully before he took them.” 

Isn’t the author’s understanding of his subordinates profound, his observation thorough and fair, and his communication and articulation skills precise and remarkable?

Throughout the book, we find honest, frank and incisive appraisals of characters in this story – superiors, peers and subordinates – most of them renowned and famous personalities. 

He writes with candour about the problems of command during the planning of the invasion of Europe.

From then on the story gathers speed and moves in such a captivating and engrossing manner that you are is spellbound as you read the author fluently narrate the events of the campaign with remarkable preciseness and detail, and you realize what an engaging and compelling book this is – it is simply unputdownable.

All important events, turning points, and personalities are vividly described with the aid of maps, charts, pictures and appendices - from D Day (the Normandy Invasion) to the surrender of the German forces, the whole story is recounted vivdly. 

Towards the end of his memoirs General Bradley reflects:

“Only five years before ... as a lieutenant colonel in civilian clothes, I had ridden a bus down Connecticut Avenue to my desk in old Munitions Building ... I opened the map-board and smoothed out the tabs of the 43 US divisions now under my command…stretched across a 640-mile front of the 12th Army Group ... I wrote in the new date: D plus 335 ... outside the sun was climbing in the sky. The war in Europe had ended.”

I feel that this autobiography is a “must read” for military men and students of military history.

I am am sure it will benefit management students and professionals for it is an incisive treatise on Soft Skills encompassing aspects of Leadership, Communications, and most importantly, the Art of Human Relations Management in the extremely complex and highly stressful scenario of War where achievement of success (victory) is inescapably paramount. 

It is a primer, a treasury of distilled wisdom, on all aspects of management, especially human resource management. 

One can learn many inspirational, motivational and management lessons from this book.

Nothing can surpass the experience of learning history first hand from a man who lived and created it rather than a historian who merely records it.

The Art of Leadership is better learnt from studying Leaders, their lives, their writings, rather than reading management textbooks pontificating on the leadership and giving how-to-do laundry lists.

The Art and Science of Management owe its genesis and evolution to the military.  

Modern Management theories, concepts, techniques and practices emerged from the experiences and lessons learnt during World War II (particularly in The United States of America).

It is ironic that the reverse is happening today and the military is trying to re-learn management from civilians and military men are running to business schools to acquire MBA degrees.

It was the military that gave modern management principles to the civilian corporate world.


And today we see the amusing scene of military men running to civilian management institutes to “learn” management and to acquire the coveted MBA which is the sine qua non and all important passport for entry into the corporate world. 

I love reading stories, all kinds of stories, fiction, fantasy, parables, fables, slice of life. 


I like Life Stories, Biographies, particularly Autobiographies, as there is nothing more credible, convincing and stimulating than learning about the life, times and thoughts of a great person, especially from his own writings. 

It’s called verisimilitude, I think.

A Soldier’s Story is a magnificent book. 


It is a unique masterpiece, a classic! 

This autobiography is enjoyable, engrossing, illuminating and inspiring. 

Dear Reader, I commend this superb book. 


Do read it. 


I am sure you will learn a lot about the art of leadership and feel inspired by this life story.


VIKRAM KARVE
Copyright © Vikram Karve 2013
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this review. 
© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

Did you like reading this book review? 
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About Vikram Karve

A creative person with a zest for life, Vikram Karve is a retired Naval Officer turned full time writer and blogger. Educated at IIT Delhi, IIT (BHU) Varanasi, The Lawrence School Lovedale and Bishops School Pune, Vikram has published two books: COCKTAIL a collection of fiction short stories about relationships (2011) and APPETITE FOR A STROLL a book of Foodie Adventures (2008) and is currently working on his novel and a book of vignettes and short fiction. An avid blogger, he has written a large number of fiction short stories, creative non-fiction articles on a variety of topics including food, travel, philosophy, academics, technology, management, health, pet parenting, teaching stories and self help in magazines and published a large number of professional research papers in journals and edited in-house journals and magazines for many years, before the advent of blogging. Vikram has taught at a University as a Professor for 15 years and now teaches as a visiting faculty and devotes most of his time to creative writing and blogging. Vikram Karve lives in Pune India with his family and muse - his pet dog Sherry with whom he takes long walks thinking creative thoughts.

Vikram Karve Academic and Creative Writing Journal: http://karvediat.blogspot.com
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