These two biographies and one autobiography cover twentieth-century U.S. military history. Walter Bedell Smith, known as "Beetle," first saw action in World War I, rose to become General Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff in World War II, and ended his career as the number two in the State Department during Eisenhower's presidency. Victor Krulak, known as "Brute," watched the rise of Japanese aggression as an intelligence officer in Shanghai in the 1930s and was active in the Pacific theater during World War II, leading a raid on the Solomon Islands and helping plan the invasion of Okinawa. He rose through the Marine Corps, making himself an expert on counterinsurgency, until he eventually fell out with President Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam. Shelton saw action in Vietnam and was involved in a series of later operations, from the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 through the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bill Clinton, overseeing the Kosovo intervention, and retired just after 9/11, as the Afghanistan campaign was getting under way.
Shelton is the odd one out. Tall and square-jawed, he looked the part and made it right to the top. Smith and Krulak were both small, intense, driven characters eventually frustrated in their ambitions. Smith is described as "combative, inarticulate when expressing personal feelings, covetous and resentful of those better off; a secretive loner bordering on antisocial." Krulak denied awkward aspects of his life (being Jewish and having an early failed marriage) and exaggerated his achievements. Despite their flaws, Smith and Krulak were talented staff officers, men with a knack at getting military machines to work. Their biographies demonstrate how much operational brilliance depends on the Smiths and Krulaks who can turn big ideas into workable plans.
Of the three books, Beetle is the weightiest in every sense, a major contribution to the history of World War II. Crosswell gets all the important things Smith did after the war out of the way in the opening chapters in order to concentrate on the Allied campaigns of 1944-45, the real meat of the book. From Smith's vantage point, one sees the defeat of Germany in a new light, with Crosswell constructing a masterly account of how the larger-than-life personalities of the key Allied commanders, including George Patton and Bernard Montgomery, struggled to develop a coherent strategy against a surprisingly resilient foe.
Coram writes well, and Krulak is an interesting subject, especially when it comes to his distinctive position on Vietnam. But Coram seems to appreciate Krulak largely for what he did to preserve the institutional independence of the Marine Corps. Shelton's autobiography is a story of achievements and promotions, interspersed with passages about how he recovered from breaking his spine after falling off a ladder. His approach is more descriptive than analytic, but the book contains a warm portrayal of working with Clinton and is enlivened by the settling of old scores with figures such as General Wesley Clark and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.