Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
5 December 2013
Review by Jörg Muth, Marburg, Germany
Battalion Commanders at War: U.S. Army Tactical Leadership in the Mediterranean Theater, 1942–1943
By Steven Thomas Barry
Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2013. Pp. x, 258. ISBN 978–0–7006–1899–6.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II, Education Print Version

Steven Barry argues that during World War II "the battalion leadership exercised by U.S. regular army officers provided the essential component that contributed to battlefield success in the MTO [Mediterranean Theater of Operations] despite the deficiencies in equipment, organization, and mobilization and the inadequate operational leadership" (4). Far more than officers of any other rank, battalion commanders were, on this view, "the critical cogs for early Allied success in the MTO" (5). Generals like Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton "often [took] credit for success and pass[ed] the responsibility to their subordinates for their failures" (5). The book concentrates on a specific cohort of officers who graduated from the US Military Academy (USMA) at West Point in 1930–40 with, Barry posits, an exceptional military education, then honed their leadership skills in various Army schools and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps during the Louisiana maneuvers.

Barry (USMA 1996) served as a company commander in the Armor branch. He distinguished himself in battle during Operation Iraqi Freedom, receiving a Silver Star in 2003. He taught military history at West Point and edited the History of the Military Art since 1914, a reading companion for the cadets. Lieutenant Colonel Barry is still on active duty.

Battalion Commanders at War comprises an introduction, seven short chapters, a conclusion, and a "historiography essay." The latter is effectively a lightly annotated guide to further reading rather than a discussion of relevant materials and throughout Barry relies heavily on official reports. These reveal how people wished things to be, not necessarily how they actually were.

Chapter 1, "West Point Evolution," draws mainly on superintendents' annual reports. Barry writes that at West Point in the 1930s "military history and engineering course hours totaled 112 hours for the first class, which exceeded the formerly dominant civil engineering course by 8 hours" (15). While military history was critically important for future officers, engineering was not. Like historians who tried twenty years ago to compare German and American officer education, Barry argues mainly on the quantitative basis of hours taught. Though he provides some neat graphics to support his positions, he does not discuss didactics or pedagogy. This is unfortunate since, as every experienced teacher knows, one hour well taught is better than ten badly taught.

Barry claims that "instructor quality improved and approached the standards of civilian institutions such as Harvard" (14) and that "a free-thinking atmosphere that got 'the cadets to think' and talk provided the engine for [West Point] classes" (16) in his target period. Unfortunately, he cites no source for such bold statements. Even works that deal specifically with West Point educational reforms, like Robert Nye's[1] have labeled the previous reforms fairly accurately as cosmetic. Those cited in the book for different reasons or whose papers are found in its bibliography, like Benjamin "Monk" Dickson (USMA 1918), Creighton Abrams (USMA 1936), and James Gavin (USMA 1929), left either devastating or at least highly critical accounts of their West Point education. Many other accounts are available. That of John S.D. Eisenhower (USMA 1944), for example, in no way corroborates Barry's allegations. In research on an educational institution, the voice of students is much more relevant than the opinions of a superintendent or the instructors.

Teaching at West Point in the 1930s was controlled by senior faculty who had no didactic training. They believed that cadets would acquire the "mental discipline" supposedly needed on the battlefield only by instruction in mathematics. Consequently, 70 percent of the curriculum consisted of mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering rather than military history, tactics, or leadership. Most senior faculty had been at West Point for over thirty years, while superintendents stayed only four. Their goal was to preserve their own power and mold cadets in their own image rather than train the sort of officers needed on modern battlefields. Junior faculty were recruited from former West Pointers; 97 percent of the faculty had graduated from the Academy. Expertise in subject matter and skill in teaching were virtually irrelevant. Joe Lawton Collins (USMA 1917), for example, was assigned to teach chemistry at the Academy in 1921, without any graduate training in the subject; having lived in France for two years, he had a good working knowledge of French. Matthew Ridgway (USMA 1917), who was fluent in Spanish, was assigned to teach second-year French to students more fluent than he was, and he considered his French to be inadequate even to order a scrambled egg at a restaurant. Yet the assignments were not changed even after the instructors set the senior faculty straight.

There is no evidence to suggest such practices had changed in the period 1930–40, as Barry claims. I am aware of no record of any cadet speaking of lively discussions or "free-thinking" in the classroom. The West Point teaching system was based on rote memorization of often trivial, even ridiculous data—students were graded on their ability to repeat verbatim regulations and textbook facts. Instructors gave their students small slips of paper indicating their assignments, often without any explanation. Each student had to present his results before his fellow cadets at the next class session. This nearly century-old practice of superannuated faculty using medieval didactics did not abruptly vanish or "evolve" in 1930. Certainly, cadets' letters home and diary entries contain no hint of it. The slight reforms that did occur came only after the experience of World War II.

Barry devotes six pages to a discussion of West Point role models, but just one sentence to the widespread hazing and denigration of plebes (newly arrived cadets), who "found the cadet leadership wanting, silly, and cruel, so many looked to the officers for inspiration" (26–27). But Barry fails to note that these putative officer role models turned a blind eye to the hazing. According to their biographers, Creighton Abrams,[2] Hap Arnold[3] (USMA 1907), and Dwight Eisenhower[4] (USMA 1915) did not find West Point efforts to build character as relevant for their lives and careers as their solid family upbringings. John Heintges (USMA 1936), whose interview is listed in Barry's bibliography but not quoted in the text, states specifically that his mother's influence was responsible for the discipline and character of his later life. In one of the book's frequent contradictions, many of the supposed West Point role models who served as tactical officers and instructors in the 1930s were exactly those whom Barry criticizes for poor operational leadership in 1942–43 and who, in his view, tended to foist blame for their own failures onto subordinates.

In chapter 2, "Forging Leaders beyond the Hudson," Barry rapidly surveys regular army training, the CCC camps, the Thomason Act, and the Army Service Schools, all of which he feels were enormously beneficial to the officer cohort he examines. Regular army training, however, was criticized for its generally poor didactics by George C. Marshall, who maintained that such teaching, with its long-winded, boring lectures, would never do in wartime. As in so many other cases, he proved to be correct. His thoughts and actions can be found in the Marshall papers, which are accessible online but not cited in the book. He completely reformed The Infantry School at Fort Benning on the German model and urged other commanders to make more such changes. While Barry's target officer cohort benefited from Marshall's reforms at Fort Benning, other branch schools and the army as a whole were slow to follow suit. Paul Robinett, another expert in didactics, who was responsible for some of the best army manuals of the interwar army, warned about the outdated teaching style and advised his friends to do things differently.[5] Teacher education in the US Army of the 1930s was nonexistent and West Point-trained instructors commonly confused teaching with yelling.

The CCC camps founded in 1933 and later much expanded as part of the New Deal employed hundreds of thousands of young men in trying times. They were often organized and staffed by regular army officers, who, according to Barry, had ample opportunity to exercise their leadership skills. In fact, many of their young charges resented the authoritarian behavior of the regular officers, who had never dealt with civilians, and reserve officers often fared better with them. The officer efficiency report at this time added the qualification "suited for duty with civilian components." Those few leaders able to work well with civilians were kept on as instructors and often had difficulty returning to a regular army position, unlike their more abrasive counterparts, who were quickly reassigned, usually without any repercussions. Although the CCC had a generally positive effect on the army, its story is one of failures as well as of successes—both must show up in the historiography.

The book's remaining five chapters offer tactical case studies from the landing at Oran to the battles for Sicily, highlighting battalion commanders. Barry lines up an impressive array of outstanding individuals to make his case. William O'Darby (USMA 1933), John Waters (USMA 1931,), Louis Hightower (USMA 1931), James Alger (USMA 1935), and Hamilton Howze (USMA 1930) are well known to serious students of military history. But, of some 168 battalion commanders (8) who served in North Africa and Sicily, Barry provides case studies for fewer than 10 percent. Of these, the five "stars" mentioned above occupy much of the narrative and the author repeatedly admits that they were exceptions, not the norm (157, 160). Two other cases involve elite paratrooper and ranger units. The author's own sources and eyewitness accounts often tell against his theses, but they have no voice in the book. John Waters speaks in his interview about two majors of the same age cohort who failed utterly. One did not support Waters's struggling unit with his tanks; the other, a staff officer of Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, he had known as a West Point plebe and felt should never have been graduated. John Heintges explicitly makes the case that Officer Candidate School produced officers as good as West Pointers. He mentions two lieutenant colonels from West Point who failed so miserably at the Anzio beachhead that they had to be shipped out.

Barry excuses Lt. Col. John R. McGinness (USMA 1925), a West Pointer who was "a prime example of ineffective leadership," because he "missed the West Point and service school reforms" (101). But exceptional commanders like Howze, Waters, and Hightower benefited only briefly (less than a year or two) from the assumed reforms at the Academy. The US Army did have outstanding officers in World War II, but they came as a few individuals and not in cohorts.

The author claims to write "history from the middle" (9). Voices from below the middle are needed to make such an attempt credible, but Barry elides the ample available testimony of enlisted men about their relations with their officers in World War II. He is also apparently unaware of the findings in The American Soldier,[6] a seminal sociological study of the leadership of Army officers and their relationships with the men in their commands. In addition, intelligence reports[7] show that the Germans generally were unimpressed by the battalion-level leadership of the US Army.

Steven Barry's book could have been a useful tactical study for those who cannot access primary sources about the US Army in the MTO, because it also contains statistics about tank battles. However, it propounds an overstretched thesis ill-supported by an outdated methodology, selective source citations, and contradictions. Those wishing a more balanced view of the US Army and its battalion commanders in the MTO should turn to Rick Atkinson's fine volume, An Army at Dawn.[8]

[1] "The United States Military Academy in an Era of Reform" (diss. Columbia 1968). Barry also seems unaware of the important work by Lance Betros, Carved from Granite: West Point since 1902 (College Station: Texas A&M U Pr, 2012), and (ed.), West Point: Two Centuries and Beyond (Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Pr, 2004). Not a single volume critical of West Point is cited by Barry.

[2] Lewis Sorley, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Time (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

[3] Dik Alan Daso, "Henry H. Arnold at West Point," in West Point (note 1 above) 75–100.

[4] Kenneth S. Davis, Soldier of Democracy: A Biography of Dwight Eisenhower (1945; new ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1952).

[5] Robinett's thoughts about teaching can be found in his papers, which are, surprisingly, listed in Barry's bibliography.

[6] By Samuel A. Stouffer et al. (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 1949), 2 vols.

[7] Now in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, where Barry did some of his research, according to his bibliography. Unfortunately, since he names only whole record groups, often containing thousands of boxes, it is impossible to assess what he has read and what he has not.

[8] Subtitle: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943 (NY: Henry Holt, 2002).

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