- - Monday, June 22, 2015


By Gen. John R. Galvin, U.S. Army (Ret.)

University Press of Kentucky, $39.95, 560 pages

As the leadership of the United States Army has become intensely intellectualized in recent decades, Gen. John R. “Jack” Galvin gained a deserved reputation as one of the “brainiest generals” ever to don a uniform.

Born into an Irish-American family in small-town Wakefield, Mass., Gen. Galvin was a protege-quality student from the beginning. After West Point he began his career as an airborne infantry officer. His account of the care taken to measure such things as drop-zone wind speeds should bring solace to anyone who has ever jumped out of an airplane.

Next, Vietnam, and here Gen. Galvin’s career took a potentially terminal dip. He was involved in helicopter attack operations, and he and a superior office did not mesh. So he was shunted back to Saigon as a logistics officer — relieved, essentially. (A later Vietnam tour was successful). During a teaching stint at West Point, he moonlighted as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, studying the poet Yeats. And at one point he almost resigned to teach college full-time.

But a knack for languages — Spanish and German — brought him prime assignments in NATO and Central America. His account of the latter experience shows how the attitudes and policies of local leaders can affect what the United States can do, militarily and diplomatically.

Striking examples are given in Gen. Galvin’s account of his dealings with two Latin leaders during a period when Central America dominated the national security debate. The contrasting figures were Enrique Bermudez, commander of the contra forces trying to oust the Marxist dictatorship of Nicaragua; and President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador, who was fending off a communist-led insurgency.

According to Gen. Galvin, Bermudez spent little time in the field, had no knowledge of the Sandinista forces, and seemed bent chiefly on receiving American aid. His political following outside the military was meager. And the contras lost their struggle. Duarte, by contrast, recognized his military could succeed only if civilian leaders provided relief to the impoverished countryside.

When a communist squad killed several Marines in a sidewalk cafe, the United States offered to bomb a guerrilla stronghold in retaliation. Duarte refused. The Salvadoran people, he said, would view such attacks as “repaying violence with violence and substituting violence for persuasion.” And, falsely, guerrilla propaganda would accuse “the U. S. Marines . of killing campesinos.” No air strikes were made. And Duarte prevailed against the insurgents.

During his 44-year career, Gen. Galvin would hold three major four-star positions: serving as commander in chief of the United States Southern Command in Latin America; the commander in chief of the United States European Command; and as NATO supreme allied commander, Europe.

Gen. Galvin’s greatest contribution to national security was his central role in adapting a post-Soviet NATO to the radical changes in the international balance of power. He was the man trusted by the military to insure America’s national security was not damaged by the drastic arms reductions — especially in nuclear weapons — following the Soviet collapse.

Gen. Galvin also tosses out an intriguing account of an episode during the early days of the Gulf War. The general went with a NATO delegation to Moscow. The Soviet armed forces commander, Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev mildly chided him for a lack of coordination. “If we had pooled our intelligence,” he told Gen. Galvin, “we might have recognized what Saddam Hussein was up to. We could have stopped him with a relativity small cooperative effort. Now it is out of hand.”

And Gen. Galvin also heard a prescient warning from President Mikhail Gorbachev at a later meeting of NATO and Russian officials. He was emphatic that the new Russian state needed to be “governed by law,” with the aid of the military. But by Gen. Galvin’s account, Mr. Gorbachev seemed a bit nervous, and he glanced at Russian military officers at the table when he said, “There are people there are dangers of separatist elements, pro-fascist elements.” In notes written at the time, Gen. Galvin commented that despite expressed military acceptance of Mr. Gorbachev’s reforms, “in an organization as large as the Soviet military, these concepts suffer some attenuation as you go down through the ranks to the bottom of the pyramid.”

A constant theme throughout his book is the necessity of leadership at all levels of command, and to care for troops and dependents. While in Vietnam he realized that wife Ginny’s monthly checks arrived so late she was always cash-strapped. Galvin had a heart-to-heart talk with bankers that resolved her problem — and that of other military wives.

Fittingly, in retirement Gen. Galvin was dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University to train a new generation in diplomatic and military skills. A valuable read for anyone interested in the continuing evolvement of the American military.

Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 non-fiction books.

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