Major General Fox Conner’s commitment to mentorship and innovation ensured his enduring impact on military history.
Two years ago, I spoke to a group of midshipmen interested in becoming Navy explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officers. As an EOD officer finishing platoon and company command, I tried to focus my remarks on the aspect of work I had found the most challenging and rewarding—leading small teams of bomb disposaleers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever their eventual service-selection choice or assignment, I reasoned, I hoped they would walk away with an appreciation for the team-building skills and earnest moral energy I had found essential in my career and that I felt applied for any naval officer.
It was apparent when we transitioned to questions, though, that I had missed the mark. I had intended to spark a broader discussion of naval leadership. Instead, the midshipmen returned to questions centered on the same theme: How could they one day lead without the opportunity to “prove themselves” in a combat environment? It was clear that the perception they held—and one that I had probably abetted—was that command and leadership were synonyms and that the rest of one’s responsibilities as an officer were administrative or, even more pejoratively, “staff” functions.
Instruction in naval leadership rightly emphasizes great examples of combat leadership and battles of great significance. Nelson is immortal for his leadership at Trafalgar and the order that “No Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”1 It was the Battle of Cape St. George that forever made Arleigh Burke “31-knot” Burke, and we recall Rear Admiral David Farragut for saying “Damn the Torpedoes” at the Battle of Mobile Bay. This history is essential for new naval officers, and I think we rightly emphasize command at sea as the apogee of naval leadership. My conversation with these midshipmen, however, made me consider that we may be underemphasizing the rest of what makes for naval or military leadership, and limiting the conception of what is required of the successful military leader.
I soon realized that while I owed a broader definition of military leadership to that group of midshipmen, I also needed to consider that same question for myself. As I transitioned out of company command and looked toward service as a department head and executive officer, I felt I had to transition the focus of my own professional growth as well. Platoon and company command had demanded technical competence and small-unit leadership skills. Looking ahead, however, I would be asked to develop more broadly as a naval officer and military professional. I suspected that finding a model for leadership outside command might not only help my next conversation with a group of midshipmen, but my own professional development.
Influence Behind the Scenes
After talking to the mids, I read Mark Perry’s Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace. An enlightening history of the relationship between these giants of military leadership, Perry’s book was an insightful look at the interpersonal dynamics of leadership at the highest levels during World War II. Apart from the title characters, though, Perry’s history included a third figure whose counsel was routinely sought by both Eisenhower and Marshall but with whom I was entirely unfamiliar.
Major General Fox Conner retired from the Army in 1938, but the mark he left on two of the great military leaders of World War II had a significant impact on the American war effort at odds with Conner’s relative obscurity. Indeed, Eisenhower referred to Conner as the “ablest man I ever knew.”2 Both Marshall and Eisenhower had classified couriers journey to Conner’s retirement retreat in the Adirondacks with maps and plans for Operations Torch and Overlord so that their mentor could provide his own fastidious notes in the margins. Though Eisenhower and Marshall would come to outrank Conner, he was referred to simply as “The General” in the two men’s correspondence.
Reading more about Conner, I discovered him to be the true exemplar of military leadership outside command, a man whose greatness may have eluded us in part because of our focus on leaders and the battles they led. Conner did not see combat in his career or hold what we may term a command at sea. Much of his service was spent between wars in staff positions in an under-resourced Army. Conner’s skills and successes, I thought, proved an excellent answer to the questions the midshipmen had raised about leading outside command and an excellent example of military professionalism for my own peer group.
Conner’s career demonstrates at least three crucial roles of the military leader outside command: mentor, innovator, and student of the military profession. He proved himself a leader in each of these roles in ways that proved critical to those whose careers are more chronicled. Though he never commanded in battle, his example charts the way for future military leaders in the roles they must fill outside command while also revealing enduring character traits for the military leader.
A Model for Mentorship
George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton all credit mentoring relationships with Fox Conner as invaluable to their successes. Identifying Marshall as a promising young officer, Conner arranged to have the then-major shadow him for one day a week while he served as the operations officer for the 1st Division of General John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). The two became close enough they were referred to as a “mutual admiration society,” and the mentorship Conner offered from 1st Division Headquarters would last through the end of Marshall’s career.3 Patton credits Conner as the man who introduced him to the tank, convincing the young officer who then thought that “tanks weren’t worth a damn” that he should take the job as the Army’s first tank department commander.4
Conner’s approach to mentorship is best documented, however, in his close relationship with Major Dwight Eisenhower when the future Supreme Allied Commander served as executive officer to the general on the 20th Infantry Brigade Staff in Panama in the early 1920s. Eisenhower referred to it as an education far beyond what any war college could provide him. Conner invited Eisenhower to make use of the floor-to-ceiling library of military history and strategy that occupied his home and began nightly one-on-one conversations with Ike spanning millennia of military history, fiction, and current events. Conner used works of history for wargaming exercises with Eisenhower, stopping him at each historical figure’s decision points and asking for Ike’s own estimate of the situation and the decisions to be made.
Conner’s relationships with Marshall, Eisenhower, and Patton are a model for military mentorship and a window into the values required of a leader outside command. In each relationship, Conner saw a particular attribute in each junior officer worthy of development and sought to add what he could to it. He saw Marshall as a master organizer and brought him under his wing as an operations chief. He saw Patton as a warrior and combat leader, and played matchmaker with his future weapon of war, the tank. And in Eisenhower he saw the skill to lead a coalition. Having experienced World War I and certain that the U.S. Army would one day return to the battlefields of Europe, Conner was eager to train young officers in the skills necessary to fight as a coalition. In Eisenhower, he felt he had identified an able student. Conner’s mentorship demonstrated humility and selflessness, a lifetime spent preparing others for challenges that he knew lay ahead and would demand all that he could offer future leaders.
In 2003 then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark’s guidance directed that mentorship be a “preeminent focus” for the Navy and that the service create a “mentoring culture.” To do so, I think we should recognize that mentorship is inseparable from naval leadership. It is not an extracurricular activity to be conducted off-duty nor confined to midterm counseling between FITREPs. It should be the expectation that mentorship relationships are developed with the same diligence used when updating the Defense Readiness Reporting System-Navy and Planned Maintenance System, albeit with a bit more creativity. Mentorship is leadership carried out in the recognition that the return on the time investment may come well over the horizon in the form of great deeds done without us. Conner also demonstrates the need for diverse kinds of leaders in the military. Too often I have found mentorship to be closer to “careership,” noting how junior officers should keep to homogenous career paths and professional-development experiences. This kind of guidance should be a component of officer mentorship, but Conner’s example suggests that we should also be identifying skills in those more junior and developing them in ways that may be of use to the country and institutions we serve—even when it makes for an irregular career track.
The Leader as Innovator
Conner was not satisfied merely to mentor future military leaders, though. He also proved adept at identifying and developing the tools the Army needed for new ways of warfare and encouraged others to do the same. Fox Conner was a career artillery officer and, as a captain, had the opportunity to serve on exchange with a French artillery unit. During his time with the 22nd Artillery in Versailles, he took the time to improve his French with night schooling, in part to better understand French artillery technology and tactics.5 Later, as a senior instructor at the “School of Fire,” Conner leveraged his experience evaluating topography in planning with the French artillery regiment to pioneer techniques for using aircraft to direct artillery fire and to select commercial tractor technology for hauling artillery pieces. He faced opposition to both advances from those skeptical of aircraft and others who believed it undignified to have artillery pulled by common tractors rather than horses.
It may have been Conner’s affinity for mobile artillery that made him an early proponent of an American tank corps. While serving in Pershing’s AEF, Conner observed the British Mark 1, the first tank on the battlefield. He became so convinced of its future value that he pushed a young George Patton to reconsider them. The tank, and Conner’s predilection for new ideas and promising young leaders, also brought him and Eisenhower together. Ike observed Patton’s experimentation with tanks at Fort Meade, Maryland, after World War I and was inspired to write an article for Infantry Journal arguing for the importance of using tanks independent of the infantry. The chief of the Infantry Branch was sufficiently incensed to inform Eisenhower that his career would be limited to coaching football at Fort Meade. Having met Major Eisenhower over dinner at the post, Conner considered the railroading of the young officer’s career by the Infantry Branch to be something of a mistake. So Conner made Eisenhower his executive officer at his next assignment in Panama, and began the future Supreme Allied Commander’s education in coalition warfare.
Conner’s dedication to looking forward, both in artillery techniques and when confronted with a tool that could challenge his chosen career path in the tank, contains an important lesson. As an officer, he was able to transcend his own skill set to see what could be of absolute value to Army warfighting, regardless of the challenge it may have posed to the capabilities he currently possessed. Today’s Navy seems to retain a tendency to tribalism. Officers from each domain of naval warfare—aviation, surface, undersea, and expeditionary—tend to see the future of naval warfare from the perspective of their own skill set rather than as a future fleet battle problem to be solved by the right mix of capabilities, whatever they may be. The Marine Corps’ culture of support to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force appears to be a model of how to get officers from different backgrounds focused on integrated combined-arms maneuver rather than advancing their own particular platform at the expense of a larger operational problem set. Conner’s approach to innovation endorsed this broad perspective, one that recognized that to lead as an officer he had to work to make the Army into what it had to be to fight and win wars—even if it meant pulling artillery with tractors or diverting resources into the tank.
Study as Preparation
General Conner’s broad perspective on warfighting can be attributed to a third facet of leadership outside command: paying constant attention to preparing for greater responsibility as a military leader by being a student of the profession. From early on in his career, Conner saw himself as a military leader. He did not define himself by his particular billet, branch, or service, but as an officer charged with preparing to lead the nation in war. Since before World War I, Conner had been a student of European military history and tactics. As a captain, he even taught himself German to better immerse himself in the publications of the Prussian Kriegsakademie and what they might illuminate about a German way of war.6
Conner’s time in Europe, while on exchange and with the AEF, provided unique insight into the political dynamics of the continent. He returned to Washington after the war fluent in French and German, having spent four years on the continent, and holding a firm conviction that he knew precisely how the next war in Europe would begin. As a result, he focused his own reading on preparing for the challenges of multinational command and imploring Eisenhower to take particular note. Conner’s approach to preparing for military leadership also comes through in his tutelage of Eisenhower. The general assigned plenty of military theory and history including Clausewitz and Thucydides, but also drama and fiction, including Hamlet and Mary Johnston’s novel of the Civil War, The Long Roll.7
Eisenhower’s reading list from his mentor and Conner’s commitment to reading Prussian military theory in its original language recalls John Paul Jones’ insistence that the naval officer be of “liberal education.” Marine Corps General James Mattis put the value of such study of military theory and history succinctly, saying to a staffer in a now famous viral email that “thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully).”8 I wish I had access to the general’s own thoughts on why Shakespeare and The Long Roll were required for a field-grade officer’s military education. Regrettably, these seem to be lost to history. By reading theory, one may uncover the principles of war. By studying history, one may observe their application of these principles on the battlefield by commanders. In my estimate, however, there is no comparison to fiction as a tool for understanding that war is a violent human struggle, a contest of wills negotiated with blood and territory. The shock, fear, and confusion of combat cannot be replicated in training, are absent in theory, and too often ignored in history.
Fiction can be an essential component for comprehending the shock of combat’s impact on a unit, on a leader, and on the mission. As a junior officer in Afghanistan, it was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that taught me the most salient lesson of my deployment. Kurtz provided the constant reminder that the further one gets from peace, from human kindness and dignity, the more one’s integrity and purpose are tested. It was an essential insight for me to realize that war, in John Keegan’s words in The Face of Battle, aims “towards the disintegration of human groups.”9 The combat leader’s mission is in part to prevent this, to maintain purpose and moral integrity for his unit despite the momentum of evil in warfare. In war, it seems that without leadership, evil always rolls downhill. Perhaps this was what Conner intended Eisenhower to take from Hamlet’s descent into madness or the shock for the characters in The Long Roll that a war between fellow citizens and brothers could last past the first Battle of Bull Run.
When taken together, Conner’s strengths as a leader outside of command—his focus on mentorship, innovation, and the study of his craft—all reveal themselves as symptoms of what truly animated him as a leader: He possessed an ardent belief in preparing for a future that he knew would not belong to him, but that required the ideas, the tools, and the capable leaders his country demanded. Conner never led a multinational coalition in war, but his student Eisenhower succeeded as Supreme Allied Commander. Conner never commanded an armor assault as Patton would in North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, but he had introduced Patton to the tank. He did not organize the Army for the war, but he helped train Marshall to do so. He did not lead an artillery volley, but made the tactics more effective.
The next time I am asked what it means to lead outside of command or consider what it means to be a military professional, I will refer to Fox Conner. The general reminds us that the function of military leadership is not only to command a force but also to build it. To build it well, in his estimation, we owe the country the mentorship of future military leaders, innovative warfighting methods however they may challenge current modes of business, and constant study of the next potential adversary—all without ever forgetting the momentum of evil in warfare and the necessity of leadership to constrain it.
2. Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower. Vol. 1 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 73.
3. George C. Marshall, Memoirs of My Services in the World War 1917–1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 120.
4. Edward Cox, Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship (Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2010), 79.
5. Ibid., 42.
6. Ibid., 74.
8. Geoffrey Ingersoll, “General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Email About Being ‘Too Busy To Read’ Is A Must-Read,” Business Insider, 9 May 2013, www.businessinsider.com/viral-james-mattis-email-reading-marines-2013-5.
9. John Keegan, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme (New York: Penguin, 1976), 298.
Lieutenant Commander Shell is an explosive ordnance disposal officer currently assigned to Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2005 with a degree in history and completed an M.Phil in international relations in 2007 from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.