[September 12, 2020] Who was John “Black Jack” Pershing? I remember my dad talking about how he met Pershing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, during the 1930s and how impressive and focused the retired Army General was at the time. But John Pershing is, at best, an elusive figure in American history, where the fog of time obscured his accomplishments and demeanor.
If three words could condense the essence of Pershing, it would be “duty in action.” He graduated academically 30th of 77 in his West Point class in 1886 but was selected as First Captain in cadet rank by the authorities and elected president of his class.1 A classmate of Pershing described him this way, “He always did his best in everything.”
Pershing was assigned to the 6th Cavalry in Apache country in the campaigns against the Apache chiefs and acquitted himself admirably. He devoted himself to learning the Indian dialects from the “tame” Indians, a task very few officers assumed as a duty obligation. On a winter march through the Dakotas, his troops were caught in a blizzard but had been provided for properly by Pershing. Translation: meticulous and tireless attention to duty, reaching out beyond standard requirements.
He had been appointed an instructor at West Point when a year later, war with Spain broke out. But his sense of duty compelled him to seek combat, and he went to Cuba with the 10th Cavalry. His Brigade Commander declared Pershing as “the coolest man under fire I ever saw.”2 Secretary of War Elihu Root, said that he “found that Pershing was the rare officer who could carry out a directive and assume responsibility without buck-passing.” Translation: he had good judgment and recognized his duty to accept responsibility.
In 1899 he sailed for the Philippines to campaign against the toughest jungle fighters in the world. His campaign to pacify the fanatic Moros was a classic blend of force and restraint, patience, and harsh action, with compassionate human understanding.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Pershing was designated commanding general of forces to be sent to France. His struggles to establish the integrity of the American Army in France were as great as his battlefield achievements.
A few comments:
- One vital requirement of duty is loyalty to subordinates.
- One’s duty goes far beyond what is written or given.
- Duty is a lifetime responsibility that translates into everything we do or do not do.
- Duty arises from a social system of ethics and morality.
- Sacrifice of one’s own self-interest is predicated on one’s duty.
- Pershing was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action.