David's Bookclub: Until the Last Trumpet Sounds

Before I read Gene Smith's biography of John Pershing, Until the Last Trumpet Sounds, I had no idea that America's one and only six-star general was such a babe magnet!

Pershing enjoyed a passionate love match to a woman 20 years his junior, tragically cut short by a housefire that killed his wife and three of their children. In his widowhood, he conducted an intense romance with the sister of the future General George S. Patton, then embarked on a decades-long relationship with a French painter. Before his marriage, he was reputed to have fathered a child by a Filipino woman during his service in that country. Over 88 years of life, there seem to have been more affairs and flirtations than Gene Smith could identify and tally.

Pershing was a devoted father too to his one surviving son, who went on to a hugely successful Wall Street career, and a doting grandfather to two grandsons, one of whom was killed in action in Vietnam.

Pershing's family life crucially assisted his military success. Promotion came slow in the tiny professional army of the late 19th century. The woman with whom Pershing fell so intensely in love happened, however, to be the daughter of Senator Francis Warren, who was not only the richest man in Wyoming, but also chairman of the Senate Armed Forces committee and a close friend to both Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Shortly after the wedding, Pershing was promoted to brigadier-general, overstepping 835 more senior officers.

But maybe you are only moderately interested in Pershing's personal life? Maybe you want an assessment of the military career launched by his fortunate marriage, and especially of his command of U.S. forces in the First World War? After all, probably no American general has ever exercised broader authority over troops in action than Pershing, subject to less control or restraint by civilian authority: not Washington, not Winfield Scott in Mexico, not Ulysses Grant, not Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur, and very much not the generals of the era of modern telecommunications. Subject only to the one restriction that he submit to the segregationist ideas of President Woodrow Wilson - ideas obnoxious to Pershing who had commanded the all-black 10th Cavalry in the 1890s - Pershing was otherwise free to organize and deploy the American Expeditionary Force almost exactly as he pleased.

So how'd he do? Weirdly, that's a question that seems to interest biographer Gene Smith hardly at all.

As commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Pershing made two all-important and bitterly controversial decisions. The first decision was that the AEF would fight as an independent corps, rather than be integrated into the existing French and British command structures. This decision is usually praised as a great act of American nationalism, and Gene Smith so praises it in his biography, but it had the effect of sending American troops into the battles of 1918 still practicing the tactics of 1915. The British in particular had learned a lot about how to fight a trench war, at horrific human cost. The Americans under Pershing declined to learn those lessons on the training ground, and so ended up learning them from bloody battlefield experience. Compared to the British imperial forces, the Americans in 1918 spent more lives to advance less far, defeat fewer German forces, and take fewer German prisoners. Even with numerical advantages of as much as 8:1, the US forces failed to do anything like the damage to the entrenched Germans as the Canadians and Australians farther north.

The second decision was to reject the British emphasis on artillery, aviation, and tank combined arms, but instead to rely on massed ranks of riflemen. Pershing was committed to this second decision by his prior decision to deploy the AEF as an independent corps. President Wilson had not prepared the country for war, and US industry in 1917 was not tooled to produce the kind of weaponry that made possible the great British imperial onslaught of the Hundred Days campaign from August to November 1918. Fighting a British style of war would have meant using British weapons - and thus would have compromised the independence of action on which Pershing set such store. America's dangerously lightly armed forces would take 120,000 casualties in just six weeks fighting in the Argonne offensive that commenced September 26, 1918. They gained ground, but unlike their British Imperial counterparts, never broke the resistance of the Germans before them.

These two great decisions, the most momentous of Pershing's life, occupy about four pages of Gene Smith's book. They are neither justified nor condemned. They are merely saluted, with the biographer parroting Pershing's own justification for them, notwithstanding that the justification for decision 2 especially is facially idiotic. World War 1 was not a rifleman's war, and there is something very seriously wrong with a general who as late as 1918 was still arguing the contrary.

Gene Smith offers almost no analysis at all of Pershing's First World War leadership, although he does deftly and evocatively describe Pershing's daily wartime routines. Smith did a creditable job narrating Pershing's (unsuccessful) 1916 expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa. But to tell that story requires only a vivid summary of day-to-day events, which Smith does well. What Smith seems uninterested or unable to do is go deeper than summary, to offer any kind of judgment on Pershing's military decisions and their results.

Meanwhile, page after page after page is devoted to recording the honors and accolades Pershing collected after the war. We learn more about Pershing's postwar speech-making than we ever learned about his wartime war-making. Until the Last Trumpet Sounds is biography on the most human scale. It's engagingly and even artistically written. It's only fault is that it fails to offer any insight into the chapters of history that would cause one to wish to read a biography of John Pershing in the first place.