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Gen. Franks: a man of his time

September 11, 2004|TIM RUTTEN

Toward the end of his long career, Gen. George C. Marshall, the greatest American soldier-statesman since George Washington, was invited to write his memoirs.

He declined.

Marshall did not think it seemly to profit from the positions of trust he had held. He did not spend his life in public service, he told one associate, so he could "sell a story to a popular magazine."

Marshall, of course, was a protean figure -- architect not only of the Allies' military victory in World War II but also of the economic reconstruction of Germany and Japan, as well as the network of collective security arrangements that constrained Soviet expansion in the long, cold conflict that followed. Even by the standards of the time, his modesty and rectitude were exemplary rather than the rule.

Yet examples they were.

Today, throughout American public life, the memoir -- and its attendant cash advance -- are regarded simply as another retirement benefit, like lifetime health care. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, generals and senior bureaucrats hardly have time to cash their first pension checks before their editors start demanding manuscript pages. Everyone has a story to tell and every story is for sale. Marshall's example may have seemed extreme to his contemporaries, but it was intelligible. Today, it seems not simply quaint and charming -- perhaps a little priggish -- but also odd, even alien.

If the contemporary American psyche has a concrete analog, it is EBay -- always open for business, a vast and invisible auction in which anything can be bought and sold and everything has a price. A life is just another commodity, and if it includes public service, that's an extra -- sort of like leather seats -- and worth whatever the market will bear.

If Ken Lay and the Enron crooks had not come a cropper, sooner or later, they'd almost certainly have started trading reputation futures. After all, what publisher wouldn't want to hedge a little of the risk that comes with today's seven-figure advances?

All of this brings us to the delicate question of an author with a good and well-deserved reputation, Gen. Tommy Franks, whose memoir, "American Soldier" (Regan Books, 590 pages, $27.95), is currently near the top of the bestseller lists.

It's easy to see why. Franks and his collaborator, Malcolm McConnell, have produced an energetic, engaging and genuinely informative book of considerable interest. So-called collaborative biographies -- books by celebrities who hire a professional to do the actual writing -- now constitute a recognized genre in American publishing. While wholly within the conventions of the form, "American Soldier" deserves to be ranked near the top of its class. Teamwork was a hallmark of Franks' military career and he clearly did not stint, as many celebrity "authors" do, when it came to working with his collaborator.

The requisite recitation of epiphanic childhood anecdotes is deftly and economically accomplished. Some, such as Franks' inadvertent discovery that he was adopted, are genuinely moving and recalled with an authentic delicacy of emotion. Similarly, his recollections of how he failed to appreciate adequately his hardscrabble parent's effort to provide him with a comfortable childhood, his academic failure at the University of Texas and his subsequent neglect of his family while on active service are given without excuse or maudlin guilt. Franks is the worthy son of the solid parents he obviously holds in such affection.

The Army, through whose enlisted ranks he rose, clearly is his other great love. But what makes Franks' book of obvious value is his account of his tenure as commander in chief of United States Central Command, and his conduct -- first of the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and, subsequently, against Iraq. Franks' accounts of his dealings with President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- with whom he developed a particularly close relationship -- form a useful complement to Bob Woodward's bestselling "Plan of Attack," which reconstructed the run-up to the second Gulf war.

There's no mystery as to why Rumsfeld, the military reformer, was drawn to Franks and the general to the technophilic secretary. Drawing on the lessons he learned as a field commander in Operation Desert Storm, Franks believes he devised a new, highly mobile war-fighting strategy that advances Carl von Clausewitz's famous dictum that concentrated forces are the key to victory. "To achieve victory, Clausewitz advised, a military power must mass its forces at the enemy's 'center of gravity.' But the victory in Desert Storm proved that speed has a mass all its own."

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