- Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili's American Success by Andrew Marble
One of the principal military leaders in the tumultuous period after the end of the Cold War, General John Shalikashvili played a key role in questions of U.S. [End Page 264] doctrine and force structure. His path to the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) was as unique as it was unlikely. Shalikashvili's leadership techniques and approach to problem solving potentially have much to offer today's rising officers. In addition, his personal history makes the most dramatic Horatio Alger story seem mundane. In short, a scholarly and detailed biography of Shalikashvili is long overdue.
Unfortunately, this is not that book. Andrew Marble deserves credit for producing the first biography of Shalikashvili, but it is far from being what the general deserves. Many of the book's shortcoming relate to style and focus. Marble jumps up and down the timeline of Shalikashvili's life, which can be distracting. The book also has the feel of a soap opera, seeming to promise salacious or even shocking revelations. The major revelation is that Donna Bechtold, the general's high school sweetheart, was pregnant when she left town without ever telling Shalikashvili. Ms. Bechtold later experienced a miscarriage, again a fact of which Shalikashvili was unaware. As far as revelations go, this amounts to very little.
Much of Boy on the Bridge provides information regarding the Shalikashvili family's history and background. The family came from East European aristocracy. Senior military ranks and titles are found frequently in the family tree. However, the family's fortunes fell as Shalikashvili's father, Dimitri, fought first for the Russian Tsar and then for the army of Free Georgia. As the Soviet Union rose from the ashes of the Russian Empire, Dimitri Shalikashvili wound up a refugee in Poland, where he met and married his wife, Missy, herself the daughter of a Russian count and general. Dimitri fought for Poland against Germany and experienced another defeat. When the Third Reich established the Georgian Legion, Dimitri enlisted. The unit was later folded into the Waffen-SS, and Dimitri finished the war once again as a major and a prisoner. The family lived in Warsaw until the Soviet advance forced them to take refuge with family relatives in Pappenheim, Germany, where John Shalikashvili met his first U.S. soldiers. The family remained in Pappenheim until 1952, when, thanks to the generosity of an extremely distant U.S. relative, the family emigrated to Peoria, Illinois. John Shalikashvili was sixteen years old at the time.
Years later, as Shalikashvili faced his confirmation hearing after being appointed JCS chairman, his father's service in the Waffen-SS became a subject of congressional interest. The central question was how much Shalikashvili knew about his father's military service and whether the Clinton administration had looked into Dimitri's history. Marble convincingly argues that Shalikashvili lied under oath. If this is true, the false testimony represents a significant ethical failure on the general's part. However, this in no way appears to be an example of habitual behavior.
Thankfully, the rest of the book is mostly focused on episodes with more direct bearing on Shalikashvili's career. He was a draftee and eventually applied for Artillery Officer Candidate School (AOCS). The AOCS was a hazing-filled struggle with a high percentage of failure. Shalikashvili survived to be commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Army Reserve. When sent to Vietnam, he served as a Senior District Adviser, not in command of U.S. forces. This was not the background of a potential JCS chairman. [End Page 265]
Marble goes through much of Shalikashvili's career at too rapid a pace. At times he provides interesting vignettes, but unfortunately a great deal that is of interest is not examined in detail. Shalikashvili had experience both in command and in Washington, DC. Both types of tours require distinct competencies and styles. A much deeper look...