Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mississippi Mentor

The tiny rural community of Slate Springs, Mississippi would be one of those towns about which folks would warn, "don't blink driving by on the highway or you'll miss it" except that it's not even on a highway.   In fact, if one wishes to visit Slate Springs (and there isn't much to recommend a visit) one must first find and triangulate therefrom, the not-so thriving ruralopoli (the opposite of metropoli) of Calhoun City, Winona, and Eupora.  

And, finding one of those towns is no easy feat of navigation, even with GPS.

The comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda uses GPS all the time when she is riding with the Colonel.  

"Goodness!  Please Stop and get some directions from somebody!"

The Colonel digresses.

Slate Springs can boast of little.  Except for one big thing.

Slate Springs produced the man arguably most responsible for the superpower success of the United States in the 20th Century.

If the Colonel were a betting man he would bet a punch in the jaw, and give you fifteen minutes to draw a crowd of witnesses, that not five percent of the thousands of you who regularly imbibe of the irregular literary libations ladled out in posts hereon would recognize the name of the man in question.

If the Colonel were really a betting man he'd make the wager a punch in the jaw and a swift kick in the pants that not one percent knows the name.

Fox Conner.

The Colonel will wait on the front porch of the Big House at Eegeebeegee, here at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere, until dark to collect on the bet.  He'll be resting in a rocking chair -- delivering several thousand punches and kicks will tax him a bit.

Fox Conner, son of Robert Conner, a former Confederate soldier blinded at the battle of Shiloh, and Nannie Fox (whose maiden name undoubtedly influenced the Christian name given their son), graduated from high school in 1894, and having been regaled by war stories at his father's knee, saw service in the U.S. Army as his only opportunity to escape the grinding poverty of the rural South. 

A maternal uncle with political connections to Mississippi Senator (the Colonel is not making this up) Hernando De Soto Money, gave Conner an opening to apply for a nomination to the United States Military Academy at West Point. 

His rudimentary secondary education in rural Mississippi notwithstanding, Fox Conner graduated seventeenth of fifty-nine in the Class of 1898.  While at West Point, his instructors evidently nourished a passion for history, languages, and mathematics in Conner.  All three topics would prove instrumental in his rise through the ranks and his impact on the Army and America.  One of those instructing Conner at West Point was a rising star in the Army -- John J. Pershing.  

Conner's successful personal career in the Army can best be characterized as marked by two parallel paths -- opportunity and application. At each assignment, he made the utmost of the opportunities afforded him to learn something new and important about his chosen profession -- even if the subject lay far outside the narrow confines of his specialty. And, at each assignment, the application of his self-sacrificing consummate professionalism caught the eyes of seniors who marked him for greater future responsibility.

Commissioned as an artillery officer, his first assignment after gunnery school was to the occupation forces in Cuba, one of many possessions wrested from Spain in the brief war of 1898.  The listless nature of occupation duty has a deleterious effect on most soldiers.  But not on Fox Conner.  He found professional pursuits to occupy his time and so began to instill in himself a character of constant study and self-improvement, regardless the duty to which assigned.

With a knack for mathematics and a historical view of the inevitable (and necessary) evolution of tactics to match technological advances in weaponry and transportation, Conner found himself on the cutting edge of transitioning field artillery from its centuries-old role as a line-of-sight, direct-fire front-lines battlefield weapon to that of an indirect-fire from behind-the-lines weapon in support of front-line infantry.  His pioneering work and writing regarding gunnery and fire-direction in support of attacking infantry formations landed him the first of two such assignments teaching the subject at the Army Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas -- even though as a young captain he was somewhat junior to the majors who were his students in the course.

In 1911, having excelled in French in both high school and at West Point, Conner was identified as one of the few French-speaking officers available to respond to an invitation to send an American officer to serve for one year in a French artillery unit and then attend the foremost military school of the time -- L'Ecole de Guerre.

Although events and policy changes regarding officer assignments back home prevented his attendance at the French War College, Conner had made the most of his field assignment with the French Army.  He came away from the experience with not only a wealth of technical expertise with some of the most modern weaponry (far advanced of anything in the US Army at the time), but with many significant contacts and a deep understanding of the customs, traditions, and politics of the French Army.

Next assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, Conner's artillery unit was deployed to the border with Mexico in 1914 and placed under the command of General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing and the  "Punitive Expedition" sent to confront Pancho Villa -- the Mexican warlord making cross-border incursions into the United States.  

Conner served under Pershing for a third time when the two were assigned to Army Headquarters in Washington in 1916.  Evidently, the culmination of the three shared assignments was a deep appreciation by Pershing of Conner's talents and professionalism, as Conner became Pershing's most trusted staff officer and his first pick for any important task for the next two decades.   

The first such assignment was as a staff officer to a stateside military conference of the new French/British/American alliance following American entry into the First World War in 1917.  Pershing was highly impressed with Conner's contributions to the conference, his great tact dealing with the French and British, his attention to every detail of operational planning, and his appreciation of the unprecedented logistical effort required for introducing vast American forces to the European war.

When President Wilson appointed Pershing to lead the American Expedition Force (AEF), an anticipated commitment of over one million U.S. troops to the War in France, Pershing turned immediately to the one man he trusted most -- Fox Conner -- and appointed the newly-promoted colonel to the most critical assignment in the AEF -- Chief of Operations.  

To this point in his career, Fox Conner had been mentored to one degree or another by outstanding leaders, Pershing chief among them.  Now, in addition to the not-so trivial task of developing the tactical, operational, and strategic plans that would vault the U.S. Army from a small, backward, ill-equipped force to the greatest army on the planet, employing the newest technology and the most effective warfighting doctrine -- all in the space of less than a year -- it was his turn to apply all that he had learned about mentoring.

On the AEF Operations staff under Colonel Fox Conner was a lieutenant colonel by the name of George C. Marshall.   Conner quickly recognized and mentored the development of Marshall's talent.  Indeed, Conner later confided to another young protege (who the Colonel will introduce to you shortly) that Marshall was "a genius."  High praise from the man to whom Pershing would refer as the one "indispensable man" in the entire AEF.

Hopefully, not too many of the thousands of you perusing this post are scratching hat rests and asking "George C. Who?"  But, just in case  --  George C. Marshall was Army Chief of Staff and the General on whom FDR depended most for strategic advice during World War Two. 

Secretary of State under Truman; Marshall Plan. 

That George C. Marshall. 

Fox Conner was arguably the single greatest professional influence in Marshall's career.  At a time when the notoriously trigger-happy Pershing was firing several senior officers a week for even the least significant of perceived faults, Conner and Marshall so impressed the AEF commander that there is never any mention of unhappiness with either of them.  Credit Conner. 

In fact, Conner was probably Pershing's closest confidant in the AEF.  Conner may or may not have taken advantage of that closeness with the boss, but he was resented for it in varying degrees by other senior officers.  One of whom was a glory hound by the name of Douglas MacArthur.  In fact, no love was ever lost between Pershing/Conner and MacArthur.  Pershing detested MacArthur and the feeling was reciprocated; to Conner by association.  

To convey Conner's brilliance as the operational planner who orchestrated every aspect of the AEF's training and operations from the introduction of the first American division in France to the  masterful American participation in the final offensive that ended the war would take far more room than is available in this already too-long post.  Suffice it say:  Credit Conner.

Besides Marshall there were several other now-famous 20th Century military men on whom Fox Conner is considered the greatest single professional influence.  

Ever heard of George S. Patton? 

Conner and Patton first served together in Pershing's "Punitive Expedition."  They were reunited in France.  Patton was present when Conner, on an inspection tour of front-line units in 1918, was wounded in the face by German artillery fire.  Patton is said to have remarked, probably somewhat snidely, that Conner would "have a wound stripe on his sleeve and two lovely scars, and if that isn't the [insert Pattonesque language for Divine Judgement here] luck of a Field Artilleryman." 

After the war, Conner and Patton became close friends, hunting and fishing together, and sharing other common interests  -- among them, colorful language.  Patton is quoted as saying that Conner's exclamatory language upon missing a shot while hunting was "novel and innovative."  

One wonders if Patton's own famous penchant for colorful language might not be linked in no small way to his time as a Conner protege.  At any rate, there is little doubt that Patton benefited not only from a social friendship with Conner, but was also on the receiving end of a great deal of mentorship.

At the conclusion of the First World War, Conner was, like Pershing, deeply critical of the terms of the Versailles Treaty and the way that the German army had been allowed to returned home believing that they had not really lost the war, but had been betrayed by their own people and politicians.  Conner was convinced that the seeds of a second major war with Germany were sown in the treaty ending "the war to end all wars."  Conner was so convinced of this that the remainder of his career was spent in large part preparing junior officers to fight that "next" war.

It's time now for the Colonel to introduce the young Conner protege to whom he referred earlier.

A little-known officer by the name of Dwight Eisenhower had the good fortune early in his career to have been assigned with Patton.  The two shared a passion for the development of armored warfare and even co-authored rather radical articles that riled the more staid and conventional senior officers in the Army. 

During the war, Eisenhower had been unlucky to have been both a capable staff officer and talented football coach.  When the AEF was forming in France under Pershing, the stateside Chief of Staff of the Army, General Peyton C. March, refused Eisenhower's request to go to France.  Turns out that there was no love lost between Pershing and March, and March was reluctant to send any more talented officers to work for Pershing than he had to.  Eisenhower sat the war out stateside teaching tank crews and coaching base football teams.

After the war, Eisenhower's career was seemingly on a dead-end track.  He was even nearly court-martialed for an infraction of pay regulations -- serious business in a budget-limited post-war force.    

To make matters worse, Eisenhower and Mamie lost their first son in 1921 to scarlet fever.    

Fortunate for Eisenhower, Patton remained a close, caring friend.  Patton introduced Eisenhower to Conner at a social event sometime in early 1921 and Conner caught a hint of something promising in Eisenhower.  It is also clear that Patton was attempting to make Eisenhower another Conner protege.

A year later, Conner was assigned to command a brigade in the Panama Canal Zone.  Patton recommended to Conner that he take Eisenhower with him to Panama.  Conner evidently trusted Patton's judgement and also saw enough promise in Eisenhower that Conner had to expend a great deal of energy and political capital to get Eisenhower assigned to his staff.  

In Panama, Eisenhower was assigned as Conner's Brigade Executive Officer; a job that in and of itself would have been demanding enough given Conner's high professional expectations.  Eisenhower, however, also found himself immersed in a three year study of military history, operational order writing, and strategic thought that vaulted him from run-of-the-mill staff officer to consummate operational artist and strategic thinker. 

Credit Conner.

Conner assigned increasingly challenging books for Eisenhower's consumption and then grilled his protege on them.  They re-fought ancient battles, Civil War battles, battles of the War in France, and then fought the war to come.

Conner stressed to Eisenhower the importance of correctly cobbling together coalitions and how to best combine different and disparate national armies into one cohesive war-winning effort.

By the time their time together in Panama had ended, Conner had imparted his vision of how the next war in Europe would have to be fought and won.

Perhaps most importantly, Conner introduced Eisenhower to von Clauswitz's "On War" and the then-obscure Prussian's view of the foggy nature of war and the intertwining of war and policy; a view not generally accepted by an American Army still following the geometric, one dimensional approach of the French military philosopher Jomini.     
Eisenhower later summed up the Panama experience thus: "the most interesting and constructive years of my life."

In his war memoir, "Crusade in Europe," General of the Army Eisenhower wrote:

"One of the subjects on which [Conner] talked to me most was allied command, its difficulties and its problems. Another was George C. Marshall. Again and again General Conner said to me, 'We cannot escape another great war. When we go into that war it will be in company with allies...We must insist on individual and single responsibility—leaders will have to learn how to overcome nationalistic considerations in the conduct of campaigns. One man who can do it is Marshall—he is close to being a genius.'"

In 1967 former President Eisenhower wrote:  "He was the ablest man I ever knew. I can never adequately express my gratitude to this one gentleman. In a lifetime of association of great and good men, he is the one more or less invisible figure to whom I owe an incalculable debt."

Major General Fox Conner retired from active duty in 1938.  During the latter half of his nearly 40-year Army career, Conner arguably wielded greater behind-the-scenes influence on the outcome of the Second World War and the post-war preeminence of the United States on the world scene than any other single individual.  

The Colonel will leave you with one last peek into the mind of the Mentor from Mississippi.  Between the wars, Conner lectured often at the Army War College.  Here are a few examples of his "lessons learned":   

"War is essentially friction and change. The only way of avoiding changes in a plan is to plan to stay home."

"I don't like saying anything bad about Generals, but I think it's possible to have too damned many of them."
"The most valuable qualification in an officer is common sense; contrary to general belief, it is the rarest element found in mankind."

"My three Principles of War are these:
1.  Never fight unless you have to;

2.  Never fight alone; and

3.  Never fight for long."

Oh, how the Colonel wishes the current crop of strategists would pay close attention to number 3.