I Just Love the Title

This forthcoming book about Robert E. Lee by John Perry is apparently part of a new series of books on American military leaders published by Thomas Nelson.  The volume on Patton is subtitled: “Tenacity in Action.”  From the book description:

It’s no surprise that Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class from West Point. His four years there were marked by exemplary conduct and nary a demerit. He went on to become one of the most successful generals of the Confederate army during the American Civil War, inspiring his troops with his unselfish character and devotion to duty. Lee’s string of victories earned him praise on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. He was admired for his tactical success in battle, and even after surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomatox court house, his example of conduct for thousands of ex-Confederates made him a legend. After the war, he assumed the presidency of Washington College and devoted the remainder of his life to setting an example of conduct. He remains one of the most distinguished military heroes of all time.

I can definitely feel the “goodness”.

29 responses... add one

As we measure these things in our culture Robert E Lee was a gallant soldier and a Christian Gentleman. He was not perfect in any way but it is amazing what fortitude, self discipline and a sense of the ‘Good’ as we discern these qualities in our demanding world, can produce.

The subtitle is certainly a foundation for metaphysical combat.

Why is it that we are so wrapped up in Lee’s personal character? Is there any other American general’s moral profile that we go out of the way to discuss and debate? Lee may have been a “good” man, but so what. Why should I care?

Kevin,

You asked: “Why is it that we are so wrapped up in Lee’s personal character? Is there any other American general’s moral profile that we go out of the way to discuss and debate? Lee may have been a “good” man, but so what. Why should I care?”

I don’t think this phenomenon is unique to Lee. It seems to be an Anglo-American cultural trait that leaders have to have what the public perceives as being “good character”–being a good parent, spouse, etc. Logically, this doesn’t make sense–there’s historically been no correlation between being what’s perceived as “moral” and doing good in the public sphere–but that’s not how people in the U.S. and Britain (at least many people in those countries) see things. How does whether or not a politician has extramarital affairs relate to whether they make or will make a good leader? Objectively, it doesn’t, but a lot of people think it does. I think this is one of the worst characteristics of our culture.

Lee,

But it does seem unique to Lee in the context of American military leaders. Other than George Washington, can you think of another general who we go out of our way to defend or challenge his moral integrity?

Kevin,

The attention paid to Lee is certainly distinctive, but that’s probably just a function of his historical importance, no? Sherman’s inspired his own controversy in relation to his place in debates over the Law of Armed Conflict–a debate in large part based on the ethical content of his views.

Heck, we still see plenty of debate over the moral qualities of our generals in our wars. Remember the fracas over the “Betray Us Ad” moveon.org did when GEN Petraeus gave his first “Surge” update (http://pol.moveon.org/petraeus.html)? Or the similar controversy over GEN McChrystal’s relationship with the President during the recent Afghan strategy review? If you read much of the press reporting on both these generals, they sound downright Plutarchian to me–GEN Petraeus doing push-ups in his hospital room shortly after being accidentally shot in the chest as a battalion commander, as a sign of his toughness and dedication to duty (btw, this is not just press reporting–I still remember a hard-bitten Army officer talk about GEN Petraeus walking around Samarra in a soft cap to impress the importance of population-protection COIN–the only positive words I ever heard him say about a general officer); the portrayal of GEN McChrystal as a sort of ascetic warrior monk who eats one meal a day in his quest to save Afghanistan from the Taliban–I could give you plenty of other examples. And I could also give you examples from the other pole (the above-referenced moveon.org ad; various complaints about GEN McChrystal as another MacArthur (in a bad way)). Heck, one of my colleagues remembers his father (who did not care for Douglas MacArthur) claim that MacArthur walked over the bodies of dead Americans when he waded onto the beach in the Philippines to announce his own vainglorious return. For other Americans, of course, MacArthur’s a bona fide hero.

WWSH

I just love the blogging format. Here I thought I was just sharing a silly little book title on a Sunday afternoon and we end up having a fascinating discussion with readers.

I do indeed remember reading those stories about Patraeus, but the amount of attention he enjoys seems rather isolated. It’s hard to imagine that those stories will alter in any significant way the general public’s view of Patraeus now or in the future. The more I think about it the more convinced I am that Lee is unique in regards to the amount of attention focused on his long list of virtues.

“The attention paid to Lee is certainly distinctive, but that’s probably just a function of his historical importance, no?”

No. The attention paid to Lee’s “character” is a function of the place he was given after the war as the icon of Southern virtues, in contrast to Northern iniquity and avarice.

“can you think of another general who we go out of our way to defend or challenge his moral integrity”

George McClellan – some go so far as to call him a “moral coward”.

Agreed Harry, but that’s pretty much confined within the Civil War community.

Kevin,

As someone who teaches at a service academy, where we tell our midshipmen to have the courage to do the right and good thing in trying circumstances, I would not so quickly dismiss the moral and ethical components of military command. Furthermore, much of Lee’s wartime authority over his subordinates, and his post-war standing in the South would have been dependent on perceptions of his moral rectitude, or lack thereof–and while it’s true that historical perception and historical reality do not necessarily coincide, they generally have some connection. And it’s difficult to gauge and explain the level of distortion, unless one has some concept of what the underlying facts are.

While operational competence is perhaps the most important part of command–everyone loves a winner, after all–troops will fight harder and longer for commanders they respect and admire, and part of that is whether or not they are seen as “good” (btw, surely “virtue” would have been a better term than “goodness”). Look, for example, at Braxton Bragg, who is seen as tyrannical martinet, which seems to have affected his army’s morale and cohesion. By the standards of the average Confederate soldier, Lee seems to have been a “good man”–genuinely religious, not prone to abusing his power, physically courageous, etc–and I’m sure that had an effect on his army’s morale and effectiveness.

My guess is that this book is intended not so much for historians of the Civil War, but as a form of Plutarchian teaching virtue by example. As such, if you’re interested in the history per se, it’s probably irrelevant–but whether or not Lee was “good” really does matter in my opinion to historians, because it certainly mattered to his historical contemporaries, and affected their actions.

WWSH

Wayne,

First, welcome to the blogosphere. I encourage everyone to check out Wayne’s new blog, which is built around the release of his new book on the influence of West Point culture and command on the evolution and outcome of the Civil War. Both are well worth your time. A link to the site is included in my blogroll.

I agree with the thrust of your comment. Of course, the book is probably not going to be of much interest to professional historians. I am fascinated by the ethical/moral dimensions of military command since it probably does quite a bit about the spectrum of factors that help to explain combat effectiveness. Based on the number of biographies that I’ve read about Lee I have no doubt that he embodied many of the virtues that continue to dominate our popular perceptions of the man. I’m not so much interested in this book as I am with the subtitle, which reflects this preoccupation with Lee’s moral profile. You are probably in a position to answer my original question. Is there any other American military leader who comes close to Lee in our preoccupation with questions of morality and virtue? Let’s draw a distinction here between the general public and military institutions such as the Naval Academy.

Thanks again for the comment.

Kevin,

My earlier reply addresses this, but if I had to pick someone, it might be MacArthur–in large part of his political importance among his contemporaries. Of course, not being a real WWII guy, I hesitate to make any sort of definitive pronouncements, but I get the anecdotal impression he’s an even bigger lightning rod than Lee. There isn’t the issue of owning slaves, but there is the whole confrontation with Truman, questions of whether or not the Pacific campaign was distended due to his own desire for glory, etc.

WWSH

And there’s the Korean war, and his removal by Truman, and his post-war attempt at a political career, all of which bring more attention to his thinking and character. There’ve been a few works revising his standard biography. It’s kind of an inverse Lee — though he was militarily successful, his character is starting to be used as a kind of negative exemplar and his successes called into question.

Patton may be closer to Lee in terms of his historical treatment as a character/personality as much as a military figure.

A few months ago I read Stanley Weintraub’s “15 Stars”, a sort of comparative biography of Marshall, McArthur & Eisenhower, concentrating mostly on the WWII years (with some “before and after”). Weintraub did not deliver this judgement, but my opinion after reading the book is that Marshall was head and shoulders above the other two as a pillar of integrity. Probably the equal or superior of Lee in that regard.

I know you said “American general,” but a lot of Americans go a long way to distance “good” Erwin Rommel from the evils of the Nazis. In that world, he’s the enemy you can root for, because he was a brilliant soldier who allegedly never believed in the wider cause, wouldn’t persecute Jews, and proved his “goodness” by trying to kill Hitler. Think James Mason in “The Desert Fox.” Despite Pearl Harbor, another enemy commander, Isoroku Yamamoto, gets a lot of the same treatment, allegedly because he knew war with the United States was a bad idea. American media portrayals of him are almost always positive, and always include him apocryphally warning against “waking the sleeping giant.” In both cases a focus on personal character allows military buffs to admire skilled generals on the battlefield without admiring their cause.

an idle thought, I wonder how much the casting of a particular actor influences how people remember a historical figure. I confess that when I hear the name “Rommel” the first image that comes to mind is James Mason, even though I’ve seen photos of the real man. What if he had been portrayed on film by a less popular actor? Would that change how the real man is remembered?

Eric von Stroheim played Rommel as a standard German villain (thick accent, jowly features) in a 1944 propaganda movie called “Five Graves to Cairo”. It is not bad, probably due to Billy Wilder directing.

But the image did not catch on. On balance, it may have deserved to.

I think one reason Lee’s moral and religious side gets so much attention is because he cultivated that aspect of his character so carefully. Same thing with Stonewall Jackson, or with Washington’s devotion to virtue. It’s hard to separate their ideals from their biographies simply because they took such care to live up to those ideals. In other words, I think it’s become a salient feature of the Lee myth because it was such a salient feature of his own life. It reflects the needs we have when we remember history, but it also reflects some important facts about the importance of duty, religion, and virtue to people of Lee’s time, place, and class.

It does seem a little odd, though, that a Christian publisher like Thomas Nelson would do a whole series on generals, especially a guy like Patton who believed in reincarnation and cursed blue streaks.

–ML

I think Lee’s moral and religious side has also been tirelessly cultivated by the Lost Cause myth makers. It makes a great story to have a saint-like figure take on the evil empire. It’s something we all want to believe in. But when the time came to make a moral choice, Lee sided with the slave-owners. Sometimes the myth obscures the man.

I am not surprised that Thomas Nelson, a Christian publisher, would include a book on R. E. Lee. The book will probably sell quite well within the conservative Christian (and Confedrate heritage) markets. More power to them, if it sells well.

I wonder, though, if they market a volume on Robert Dabney or other soldier – Christian theologians who utilized a Biblical justification of slavery? Wouldn’t such a volume be regarded as timely during Confederate Heritage Month?

Is there any other American general’s moral profile that we go out of the way to discuss and debate?

Good question. I think Lee is the best example of the “general used as moral example.” A few other come to mind though, most notably Geo. Washington… A couple others from WWII, George C. Marshall (as the apolitical general who served his country in multiple capacities) Eisenhower (IKE! an average Joe leading the Allies to victory), and Omar Bradley (the regular soldier’s general). None reach the status of Lee though.

I have a few problems holding up Lee as a model of goodness, most notably his troops seizing both escaped slaves and free blacks as they moved though Pennsylvania in 1863 and bringing them back south. That’s hard to reconcile with the popular image of Lee as the man who disliked slavery but couldn’t bring himself to fight against Virginia.

I know first-hand that many Germans who lived through WWII, including my mother-in-law, believed that Marshall embodied the virtues of strong leadership and interest in the safety/well being of western Europe.

All Europeans remember the Marshall Plan with gratitude. It released Western Europe from the fear of Communism.

If Marshall had not become Secretary of State, probably his military role would be known only to specialists.

It is a bit ironic that Marshall’s name has been expropriated by a major conservative think-tank, which opposes government “interference” in the US economy, let alone that of former enemies. Its website does not even try to justify any philosophic connection with the great man.

http://www.marshall.org/index.php

It is like the schoolkid’s aphorism about the English Civil War:

“Roundheads, right but revolting;
Cavaliers, wrong but romantic”.

Lee is definitely the Cavalier par excellence, enobling a bad cause by his integrity. Cavaliers got whipped, but won in the historical novels (at least the kiddie ones).

It is, after all, difficult to talk about the Confederacy without mentioning its cornerstone…….

His Excellency George Washington. Good, honest George as CinC even before his Presidency and the hagiography that followed. He, like Lee, cultivated a model gentleman’s persona (though his “godliness” was not in the fore until the whole prayer at Valley Forge thing).

In homes across the south you will find pictures of Lee along with JFK and MLK on the walls of homes.

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