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New AUSA book is first-ever bio of ‘unique’ Army leader

Friday, September 27, 2019

Gen. John “Shali” Shalikashvili was the first immigrant, draftee and Officer Candidate School graduate to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Born into a noble European family just before World War II, Shalikasvili’s life went from riches to rags and back to riches. Entering the Army as a private, his upbringing and unconventional leadership style guided him through the ranks until he replaced Gen. Colin Powell as the nation’s top military leader.

This remarkable figure is the subject of Boy on the Bridge, a new entry into the Association of the U.S. Army’s Book Program. It is the first biography of a man whose life and military career are the embodiment of the American dream.

We spoke with author Andrew Marble about his new book.

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AUSA: Why did you decide to profile John Shalikashvili?

Marble: Because of his uniqueness. He came from two aristocratic families who’d served king and country with distinction for centuries, yet he himself was born in Poland, a citizen of no country.

After barely surviving the Warsaw Uprising, his family escaped to Germany to live off the charity of relatives. Pure luck brought them to the United States in 1954. An unenthused U.S. Army draftee, he graduated from artillery OCS in 1959 and ended up becoming the top American general in 1993.

Also unusual was his sterling reputation. People invariably found him honest, straightforward, low-key, self-effacing and informal.

A consensus builder who understands teamwork. Someone extraordinarily sensitive in terms of caring for people and whose humility was bone deep.

AUSA: How did his background affect his military career?

Marble: One major way was that during WWII, he witnessed the extremes of human behavior. For instance, forced to live underground after their apartment was divebombed, his family had to pay others to carry his grandmother’s stretcher through Warsaw’s cellars.

Yet he also saw the compassion of escaping Polish partisans who, rather than leaving their war dead behind, carried them through the sewers up into the Shalikashvilis’ yard to give them a proper burial.

AUSA: How did his leadership style compare to that of Gen. Colin Powell?

Marble: Having seen firsthand the devastating consequences of warfare, Shalikashvili became a leader skilled

in maximizing constructive consensus. As Gen. Wes Clark told me, “His genius was that he could always find something—an idea, a strategy, a wrinkle—to prevent destructive conflict and to bring people together and advance the mission.”

Powell was comfortable with a more confrontational tone, and his political skills and post-Gulf War popularity made him a powerful figure in Washington.

AUSA: What lessons from his career are most valuable for today’s Army?

Marble: As detailed in Boy on the Bridge, Shalikashvili’s three pillars of leadership were competence, love ofsoldiers and character.

Interestingly, Marine Gen. Jim Mattis’ new memoir, Call Sign Chaos, has a similar breakdown. Two men from different services and with quite different personalities coming to similar conclusions—that should certainly intrigue students of leadership.

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To order a copy of Boy on the Bridge,please visit www.ausa.org/books.