George C. Marshall & the importance of self-mastery

by Ferrell Foster on September 28, 2016 in CLC

I wonder today how many Americans are familiar with the name and exploits of one of the greatest persons of the 20th century – George C. Marshall.

Marshall orchestrated one of the greatest military victories of history – World War II -- and then shaped one of the greatest achievements of peace after the war with what came to be known as the Marshall Plan. In essence, Marshall led in the defeat of America’s enemies and then built them back into friends. Truly astonishing!

The New York Times columnist David Brooks highlights Marshall in one chapter of his book, The Road to Character. The chapter on Marshall is titled “Self-Mastery.”

Marshall did not start life well. In addition to being a poor student, he was “mischievous and troublesome,” Brooks writes. But after overhearing his brother tell their mother of his concern that the younger Marshall would “disgrace the family name,” the young man decided to take mastery of his life and seek to overcome his natural inclinations.

In the prewar Army, Marshall’s competence proved so obvious that commanding officers refused to promote him for fear of losing his services. When World War II began, competence became more important. Marshall became chief of staff in order to organize the war effort. Brooks writes:

The quintessential Marshall moment came in the middle of the war. The Allies were planning Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, but still no overall commander had been selected. Marshall secretly craved the assignment and was widely accepted as the most qualified for it. This would be among the most ambitious military operations ever attempted, and whoever commanded it would be performing a great service to the cause and would go down in history as a result of it. The other Allied leaders, Churchill and Stalin, told Marshall that he would get the job. Eisenhower assumed Marshall would get the job. Roosevelt knew that if Marshall asked for the job, he would have to give it to him. He had earned it, and his stature was so high. 

But Roosevelt relied on Marshall to be nearby in Washington, whereas the Overlord commander would go to London. . . .

FDR called Marshall into his office on December 6, 1943. Roosevelt beat around the bush for several awkward minutes, raising subjects of minor importance. Then he asked Marshall if he wanted the job. If Marshall had simply uttered the word “Yes,” he presumably would have gotten the job. Still, Marshall refused to be drawn in. Marshall told Roosevelt to do what he thought best. Marshall insisted that his own private feelings should have no bearing on the decision. Again and again, he refused to express his preference one way or the other. 

FDR looked at him. “Well, I didn’t feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.” There was a long silence. Roosevelt added, “Then it will be Eisenhower.”

Today, we expect people of high competence to pursue great recognition, to almost demand it. Marshall did not. He had committed himself to service, and he stayed true to the commitment, even though he wanted more.

Eisenhower returned triumphantly to parades and celebrations, and the thankful people soon elected him president. Eisenhower was a man of greatness, as well, but Marshall probably had a greater impact on history, and he did it by holding his own desires and passions in check, much as did Eisenhower, who was prone to fits of anger, which does not match the public image of the man to this day.

We could use more self-mastery in this new day, but we Christians understand that true self-mastery comes only with God's help as we listen God's  guidance in Scripture and yield to His Holy Spirit.

American culture has pretty much ignored the Christian teaching about humankind’s sinful nature. We are created in God’s image, but we, all of us, have this self-centered bent that causes others and ourselves harm. Many parents even encourage this self-centeredness, and our culture honors self-expression, even if that expression is vulgar and mean.

It might be hard for our culture today to produce a George Marshall, and if there are no George Marshalls for this new day, who will lead when humankind attempts to stem the flow of evil. If the U.S. cannot produce such persons of character, maybe some other country can – maybe Germany or Japan or Mexico or Brazil or South Africa or Israel. And in thinking in such ways, we begin to see how important the United States has been to the world and how critical it is that we return to nurturing character and doing so in a way that honors the biblical truth that we all are sinners, not angels.

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