October 17, 2011

Review of "Pershing"

Thomas Nelson, Inc., provided me with a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review of it.  Per Uncle Sam's instructions, I have now made that fact glaringly clear.  Let me also make glaringly clear that Uncle Sam should be ashamed of himself for not seeing to it that I knew who the subject of this biography was BEFORE I read this book at the age of 34.

Generals John Pershing and George Washington are the only two men in American history who have held the rank of 6-star general, and Pershing was the only one who received it during his lifetime, rather than as a posthumous honor, author John Perry informs us.  You'd think we would all have heard more about this man, wouldn't you?  After reading this brief biography of him, I can only guess that his incredible story as Commander of the American Armies during World War I got lost, as did his entire war, in the greater monstrosity that was World War II.  (We STILL don't have a national monument for the soldiers of World War I, for goodness sake!)  I've been obsessed with history since childhood, so I figured I would enjoy this historical biography when I saw it listed as one of my choices, and indeed, I was right.

Pershing: Commander of the Great War is a very straightforward biography, setting forth the major themes and events of the general's life in chronological fashion.  At 224 pages, it is a somewhat shallow coverage of the subject, but its very brevity--along with an engaging writing style--make it accessible to the non-specialist.  Within a few pages, I found myself genuinely interested to see what happened next, and impressed that Perry's handling of a military hero fleshed out his personality enough to make me care about him as a human being.

A couple of discordant notes made the experience a bit jarring in places.  Foremost of these was the author's attempts to squeeze every possible bit of traction out of any mention Pershing ever made of his religious views or beliefs.  I understand that the book was commissioned and published by an overtly Christian publishing house, but Perry's efforts to make a religious figure out of an individual he had already labeled as a heavy drinker and a lady's man did not ring true.  The overall impression in the book is of a decent man with strong principles, devotion to duty, and his own take on right and wrong.  He's a likable figure, and a brilliant strategist, but a great moral leader he was not.

I was utterly baffled by Perry's handling of the end of World War I.  He talks about Pershing's views on the signing of an armistice, versus an unconditional surrender.  Though the general may not have been happy with events, and his pessimism was proven to be founded, Perry behaves as if Germany was given a slap on the wrist and this was the sole reason that World War II happened.  He never once mentions the crushing reparations demanded of Germany and the other Central Powers by the Allies, though it is generally accepted historical doctrine now that the humiliation Germans felt over those reparations helped vault Hitler into power.

Like most biographies of its kind, this book contains photographs of the subject and his family between each major section, with one significant difference.  I don't know whose brilliant idea it was to caption the photographs in such a way that they inform you of huge events about which you CANNOT POSSIBLY HAVE READ YET, but this was an enormous frustration.  I had to just skip over the photos and not even look at them after one maddening spoiler that made me almost want to stop reading.

Those grumbles having been put forth, however, I must say that I really enjoyed this book for what it was intended to be--an introduction to an extraordinary man whom Americans should never have been allowed to forget.  If you're looking for a good, sound history of WWI, this is not it.  Moreover, if military biographies bore you, this book probably won't be your cup of tea.  But if you like a solid story with characters you can cheer for and the poignancy that a true story brings to a book, you'll probably appreciate this one.

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