Steven L. Ossad. Omar Nelson Bradley: America's GI General. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017. 492 pp. $36.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8262-2136-0.
Reviewed by Zoe Rose Buonaiuto (Princeton)
Published on H-War (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Biography is a tricky literary genre: write too little and you do your subject a disservice, failing to convey essential historical highlights. Write too much and you risk overwhelming your reader with inconsequential minutia. Steven L. Ossad strikes a healthy balance in Omar Nelson Bradley: America’s GI General, published in late 2017 by the University of Missouri Press. Ossad aims to distinguish Bradley from his more illustrious American contemporaries: “If it succeeds, this biography will help take Bradley from obscurity and expose him once more to critical light, where his considerable achievements—and his glaring shortcomings—can be recounted, examined, and evaluated on their own terms” (p. 16). Ossad aligns himself with the historiographical camp that characterizes Bradley as a humble, unassuming general, especially when compared to generals Douglas MacArthur or George Patton. But Ossad’s biography steers far from hagiography; here, Bradley is exposed, quite literally, warts (or rather boils and piles) and all.
Ossad is an independent historian who has spent his writing career marrying the genre of biography, the field of military history, and the psychology of military leadership. His prior publications include articles on the lives of Lloyd L. Fredendall, Joseph Mansfield, and Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, as well as a co-authored biography of General Maurice Rose. In addition to his academic work, Ossad operates a military staff-ride company catering to business groups, leading case studies in teamwork, effective leadership, and high-stakes operations. The successful Army career of Omar Bradley, known as the “GI’s General” for his relatable nature and concern for ground troops during World War II, has likely been an important example in Ossad’s staff-ride programming and with this book readers, too, can share in the experience.
The biography is organized in three parts. Part 1, “Becoming a Commander,” focuses on Bradley’s development at West Point and his early career advancements stateside and in North Africa and Sicily. Part 2, “The Liberation of Europe,” begins with Bradley’s appointment as commander of the US First Army in September 1943, and ends with the Allied victory in Europe. Part 3, “Shaper of the Post-War World,” highlights Truman’s 1945 decision to make Bradley the head of the Veteran’s Administration (VA) and, later, the Army chief of staff and the inaugural chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Ossad’s major triumph in this biography is using an archival network analysis, piecing together insights into Bradley’s personal life and decision-making by way of his contemporaries’ observations, letters, and papers. This is a feat all the more impressive when you consider how Bradley and his second wife, Kitty, attempted to control his image, as the author references throughout the biography. Ossad uses Bradley’s own collected writings and memoirs as the basis for his analysis, but checks his recollections against those of both well-known military men like Dwight Eisenhower or J. Lawton Collins, and the lesser known British Major Thomas S. Bigland. Ossad deftly demonstrates the courtship between Bradley and the American news media—a relationship first fostered by war correspondent Ernie Pyle during the 1943 Sicilian campaign and later curated by Kitty.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of Ossad’s biography centers on Bradley’s postwar military career. This is certainly the period of the general’s life that provides our author with his greatest amount of source material, but it clashes with Ossad’s early admonitions of other biographers he deems “inadequate ... especially in their lack of serious attention to his postwar career and life” (p. 7). Yet, Ossad spends but two chapters on Bradley after World War II. The absence of a third section as rich as the preceding parts of the book leaves this reader wanting of greater evidence that Bradley “became a shaper of profound changes in American culture,” as Ossad claims (p. 17). True, Bradley headed the Veterans Administration during its period of greatest expansion, but this was a strategic presidential appointment that Bradley viewed as a demotion. Bradley succeeded in decentralizing the management of the VA, making it a more efficient organization capable of rolling out the benefits of the GI Bill. But the GI Bill’s merit stands on its own, separate from Bradley. Ossad seems too eager to conflate Bradley’s administration and the lasting significance of the GI Bill. Bradley did not draft the legislation; he simply happened to be selected as head of the VA during the bill’s time of implementation. I’m not convinced this makes Bradley a “shaper” of postwar period; he was certainly not the formulator of postwar policy like George Marshall. Ossad could have taken more time in the third section of his book to better articulate his case, but part 3 ends rather abruptly, summarizing the period of 1953-81 in only nine paragraphs. Readers should take this latter critique lightly; writing a biography must be an exhausting endeavor, and the assessment stems from a positive viewpoint: I wish Ossad had written more, given the strength of his first three hundred pages.
All told, if biography “lends to death a new terror,” as Oscar Wilde observed, Omar Bradley has nothing to fear. Ossad’s book is an objective and detailed piece of scholarship, one that demonstrates his command of broad archival research and a gift for making sense of a human complexity. Specialists and general readers alike will find Omar Nelson Bradley: America’s GI General a valuable addition to their bookshelves.
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Zoe Rose Buonaiuto. Review of Ossad, Steven L., Omar Nelson Bradley: America's GI General.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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