History-minded leader of an Army looking for lessons from past

John O. Marsh Jr. has seen much history from close up. As a young lieutenant at the end of World War II, he guarded Hungary's gold reserve during its return from Allied storage. As a rising politician in the 1960s, he served on active duty in Vietnam while a member of Congress. He worked for his good friend then-Vice-President Gerald Ford during the last days of Watergate, then stayed on as one of President Ford's key advisers.

Such exposure to important events may explain why today, as secretary of the Army, he takes evident pleasure in historical artifacts. His desk was used by Lincoln's son; his office clock belonged to Jefferson Davis.

Mr. Marsh is serving as civilian head of the Army at a time when the service itself is examining history more and more for its lessons. Staff colleges are offering more courses in military history than ever. Groups of senior officers walk Civil War battlefields, refighting the conflicts. The service's main field operations manual now includes detailed analyses of Grant's Vicksburg campaign and the World War I battle of Tannenberg.

This revival would have taken place without him, but Marsh has definitely urged it on. Upon taking office his first directive to his four-star chief of staff dealt not with M-1 tanks or the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, but with the American Revolution. ``It is my desire that the Army theme for 1981 should be `Yorktown -- the Spirit of Victory,''' it said.

Considering today's environment on Capitol Hill, where Army weapons such as the new LHX helicopter are imperiled and Navy Secretary John Lehman seems to have Congress in his grip, some think-tank analysts say Marsh should do less theme-setting and help his undersecretary, James Ambrose, fight over details. But Marsh says that Army study of history involves more than commemorations of events.

``There are lessons in it to be learned from the standpoint of leadership and forces and organization,'' he says.

Consider Antietam and Gettysburg, two Civil War battlefields that are favorites for Army study partly because of their proximity to Washington and the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. Both battles illustrate how new technology and doctrine can outpace tactics in war, something the Army is concerned about today.

In both, Union and Confederate sides used tactics of an earlier age, marching masses of men directly toward enemy defenses. But new types of accurate rifles and newly invented fused, exploding artillery shells decimated the oncoming ranks, producing the enormous casualties for which these battles are infamous. The armies involved were at the time some of the largest ever assembled, but their communications methods were hopelessly outdated. Though it was the dawn of the age of the telegraph, semaphore flags and waving swords were used to send messages.

Today's Army is trying to avoid such mistakes. AirLand Battle, the service's current official fighting doctrine, emphasizes quick movements, rear-guard attacks, and reliance on cutting-edge weapons such as laser-guided artillery shells. Army commanders used to planning operations in terms of 10,000-soldier infantry divisions, are studying the command-and-control problems of multidivision corps movements.

``You've got to be certain that you're taking advantage of technology as it applies to tactics today,'' Marsh says.

Of course, getting soldiers fully to utilize new technology is not always an easy task. The Army's chief of staff, Gen. John Wickham, poking his head into Marsh's office during an interview, uses the new troop-carrying Bradley Fighting Vehicle as an example. It isn't that soldiers don't want to ride in the Bradley, General Wickham says. It's that once they get in one, they are often reluctant to get out.

Little things such as this can make a large difference in war, where the simplest task becomes difficult. Walking the terrain of past battles can educated officers about the little things, Marsh says.

At Antietam one day, Marsh and a contingent of staff officers noticed that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's command post had a far superior view of the action than did that chosen by his opponent, Union Gen. George McClellan.

``Someone said to me, you know, that is one of the biggest problems we still have with battalion commanders -- picking the right place for their command post,'' Marsh says.

Marsh himself picked a command post or two in his day. Commissioned into the Army in 1945, he served with US occupation forces in Germany. He was a National Guard officer for 25 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Among other things, he spent a month in 1966 on active duty in Vietnam, when he was a congressmen from Virginia's Seventh District.

He says that perhaps his most vivid military memory was the 1946 trip into Hungary, to return the $33 million in gold bullion that the Allies had been holding in storage.

The Hungarian government gave the gold's guards a state dinner in gratitude, on what happened to be Lieutenant Marsh's 20th birthday. Informed of this happy coincidence, the Hungarian prime minister -- one Feranc Nagy -- invited the young officer to the head table and wrote him a short note of congratulations.

Twenty year later, Nagy -- deposed and exiled by the 1947 Communist coup -- stopped by Rep. John Marsh's Capitol Hill office on a round of courtesy calls. Marsh says the long-past dinner was fondly remembered, and the two became close friends.

Marsh, appointed at the beginning of the Reagan administration, is within a few months of becoming the longest-serving Army secretary since the Defense Department was established in 1947.

Asked what he likes about the institution with which his life has so long been intertwined, he says: ``Very strong friendships, close ties which continue to this day.''

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