Book Review: General Lesley J. McNair: Unsung Architect of the U. S. Army


by Mark Calhoun

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. xx, 412. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0700620699

The Man Who Organized the Army for World War II

Prof. Calhoun (Army School of Advanced Military Studies) gives us the first proper biography of an officer who hitherto has usually been overlooked or even mentioned disparagingly in histories of the Army or of World War II. The highest ranking American to be killed in World War II, albeit by “friendly fire,” McNair (1883-1944) played a critical role in the development of the Army between the wars and in the planning for the massive expansion during mobilization that only really began in 1940.

Calhoun opens with a chapter on McNair’s early life, one on his service, in the Great War, during which he revealed a penchant for technical matters and attention to detail, resulting in temporary rank as a brigadier general, and one on his immediate postwar service as a war planner. There follows a chapter on his tour of duty as an ROTC instructor at Purdue, during which he demonstrated unusual skill in training citizen soldiers. One chapter looks at McNair’s experience and growth while at the Army War College, followed by his service as head of the artillery school, and his rise to senior rank on his merits as a planner and trainer.

Calhoun then takes up McNair’s role in the mobilization for and the conduct of World War II, which takes up about half the book. Rescuing McNair from earlier unfounded criticisms, Calhoun by no means overlooks McNair’s few faults. But he sets McNair’s achievements against the magnitude of the task of planning, raising, organizing, training, and equipping the mass army that carried on the war from 1942 to its end, an army that was indelibly shaped by many of McNair’s ideas, such as “modularity,” so that, for example, all elements of each branch of the army should be as interchangeable as possible; so, for example, an independent 105 mm howitzer battalion should be organized and equipped on the same basis as one organic to an artillery regiment. While this worked quite well, and more or less remains a standard concept in the Army, some other ideas didn’t work out so well, such as “pooling,” which held certain assets centrally, to be allocated to front line divisions as needed, such as anti-aircraft or anti-tank units.

In addition to giving us the life and work of McNair, Calhoun also provides insights into the service and contributions – not always positive – of many other officers, notably George C. Marshall, with whom McNair worked closely, including Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Ben Lear, Walter Krueger, and more.

A volume in the University of Kansas series “Modern War Studies”, General Lesley J. McNair is an important read for anyone interested in the U.S. Army in the twentieth century.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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