Review Of Matthew B. Ridgway: Soldier, Statesman, Scholar, Citizen
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/20/06
Of all the great American military leaders the last century produced, from Black Jack Pershing to the World War Two icons- Dwight D, Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz, George Patton, Omar Bradley, George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, through Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, perhaps the greatest of them all, militarily speaking, was General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, the man who took over from MacArthur after Big Mac was dismissed by President Harry S. Truman during the Korean War. It was Ridgway, Commander of the U.S. Eighth Army, who rallied the UN Forces from nearly being pushed into the sea by the North Koreans, Russians, and Chinese, and forced what has been an over half century long stalemate. Because of things as this, General Marshall, in fact, called Ridgway, ‘the finest soldier I have known.’ General called it ‘the greatest feat of personal leadership in the history of the Army.’
Yet, the book Matthew B. Ridgway: Soldier, Statesman, Scholar, Citizen, rereleased in 2002 by Stackpole Books (231 pages, $15.95), and penned by George C. Mitchell, does little to expand on the essence of the man. His personal life is a virtual cipher, which renders his son’s accidental death, years before his own death, a mere fact, with no pathos nor gravitas given to it, for we hardly know the boy, nor his relationship with his father, to care that much over the loss. At best, this book is a straightforward rendering of the four aspects of the man its subtitle claims. While this makes for a good encyclopedia entry, as a book, it makes for rough reading. Especially odd is that this rather dry rendering was written by Dr. George C. Mitchell, a well known journalist, diplomat, and educator who had the advantage of knowing his subject before his death before his July 26, 1993, death at the age of 98. Yet, he never exploits this fact to his reader’s benefits, with personal anecdotes nor reminiscences of the great man in his dotage. There is no play with form nor stretching of the medium. Of course, given its subject, the book could not be bad, for even an A to B to C journey through the life of such as man as Matthew B. Ridgway is informative and enlightening. Yet, the book never makes a claim for putting its subject on a par with his contemporaries, as MacArthur nor Patton.
Consider the film version of the life of Patton, which focuses on the man, his foibles, and his military exploits in World War Two. It brilliantly evokes, through the Francis Ford Coppola screenplay, its subject by anchoring us to his subjective point of view, especially in the memorable opening scene of George C. Scott declaiming to the viewer. Or, consider the controversial technique Edmund Morris used to give insight into President Ronald Reagan, in his faux memoir Dutch, by inserting a fictive version of himself into real and made up scenes. Now, even if one abhors such men as Patton and Reagan, one cannot but admire the willingness to hagiographize in a new way that both those media did to their subjects. Instead, Mitchell gives us a rather easy vanilla portrait, much too content to let the man and his life speak for himself. Not only does this smack a bit of laziness, especially considering the paltry length of the book, and given its subject, but the writing, itself- Mitchell’s and Ridgway’s, is just so banal. Here is an example of what Mitchell considers Ridgway at his best, on liberty:
We should expect to pay a price, to make a sacrifice, to retain those treasures. Measured against their loss, no price would be too high to pay, no sacrifice too heavy to endure.
Not exactly Lincoln, nor even JFK, in terms of rhetoric. On the plus side, we do get a small sense of what Ridgway was- at least as a soldier, which was a patriot- in the most uncomfortable sense of the word, as well as a religious zealot, despite three marriages. His religious beliefs often led him to take on the most dangerous assignments, because he believed God would not let him be killed while carrying out his mission. He defined his ideals for leadership as the three C’s: character, courage, and competence. Yet, unlike some of his more well known contemporaries, Ridgway was also more visibly human, disdaining lecturing from podia in favor of getting into the aisles to speak with soldiers at West Point. He said, ‘I always disliked standing above people. I’m no better than they are- in rank, yes, in experience, yes; but not as a man.’ Once, during a foggy day in Korea, the general’s driver was having trouble driving, so Ridgway took over the wheel and drove his subordinate driver. One can never imagine Patton nor MacArthur doing such a thing. They would have abused the soldier as incompetent. Nor could one imagine either of them having such a total faith in subordinates, versus machinery and ordinance, and uttering such words as these, about how to achieve military victory:
There is still one absolute weapon- the employment of which dominates every consideration of National Security- the only weapon capable of operating with complete effectiveness- of dominating every inch of terrain where human beings live and fight, and of doing it under all conditions of light and darkness, heat and cold, desert and forest, mountain and plain. That weapon is man himself.
Yet, after his retirement from the military, after Korea, Ridgway spent nearly four decades speaking out on issues that concerned him- such as budget cuts he felt threatened national security, or the Vietnam War. That the book is divided into the four sections that the subtitles describe does a little to alleviate the dry recitation of facts and quotes, but not enough to recommend the book as a read, even if its subject matter is certainly worthy of the attention.
I just hope that a book like this will serve as a spur to a future military historian who feels that Matthew B. Ridgway deserves better and deeper treatment. Often it takes a third or fourth stab at a biography of a historical figure to get the true historical significance of a man. Perhaps someone like a David McCullough, if he ever decides to turn his attention to more recent times, will take a stab at Ridgway before he, too, leaves this earth. The only other book to really even deal with Ridgway in any extended manner was Clay Blair’s The Forgotten War: America In Korea, 1950-1953, but that only did so in a few sections about the larger war. Ridgway, of course, won many honors, such as a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, a Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Medal of Freedom, as well as a Combat Infantryman Badge- rarely given to officers, and he was also decorated by many other nations. Would that these words held the same regard for him and the time reading this book would be a good way to be entertained while learning. As it is, even a stroll through the factual online mess that is Wikipedia can satisfy the casual fact hunter as well as this book can. It will also save your fingers the burden of turning pages, although it may not ease you into sleep as well. Such tradeoffs are what military men endure in life, and what some leave after their deaths.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Midwest Book Review website.]
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