What does it take to rise to the absolute top of the U.S. military? Dr. Andrew Marble’s new biography is the first-ever recounting of CJCS Gen. John Shalikashvili’s remarkable “riches to rags and then back to riches” American success story: how a stateless-penniless-WWII refugee with a little-known-but-staggering-backstory managed to become the highest-ranking officer in the world’s most powerful military primarily by developing an unusual personal philosophy toward human interaction.
Tell me a little bit about Boy on the Bridge:
It’s a very unusual biography, which is fitting because Gen. “Shali,” as he liked to be called, was an unusual American military leader and I’m an unusual person to write a military biography.
Intriguing? Let’s start with the general. What made him so unusual?
Three big things, actually. For one, it’s hard to believe America’s highest-ranking military officer took to sheltering in cellars and sewers during the Warsaw Uprising after his family’s apartment had been divebombed. Fleeing Poland shortly after the uprising finally ended, he then lived as a stateless refugee relying on the charity of relatives in Germany. That’s a pretty unpromising start for a great success story.
The title, “Boy on the Bridge,” refers to a very dramatic night in Bavaria at the end of WWII when a young Shalikashvili first sets his eyes on American soldiers.
Second, he actually came from royalty. Who would have guessed America’s chief military advisor to the president was born a prince in a line of Georgian princes dating back to at least they year 1400? Or that his great grandfather and namesake, a major general, fought so valiantly in the Crimean War that Alexander II awarded him a gold saber and the title “The Brave”? More astoundingly, his mother was actually born in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg where her mother and aunts served as ladies in waiting to Alix of Hesse and the Grand Duchess at the very last court of Imperial Russia. Wow!
Yet it was a third thing that clinched it for me: his curious reputation. Shali was known as being “low key,” “self-effacing,” a “consensus builder” who “understands teamwork” and “is willing to examine options and adjust to political realities.” Someone “extraordinarily sensitive in terms of caring for people” and who was expert in balancing “firmness” with “compassion.” Even more head-shaking, his self-professed greatest weakness was that he didn’t like confrontation. Really?! I just had to understand how such a man gets created.
What makes you an unusual biographer of this book?
When I first heard of Gen. Shali, I was an editor who’d just ended seven years working in Asia and had returned to the US to take a job at an Asia policy think tank in Seattle. I had no background in the U.S. military, but hearing those three curious things about Gen. Shali, our newest board member, thoroughly intrigued me.
I’d seen the movie Patton – and Shali was clearly no Patton! That got me to wondering: had Shali’s dramatic WWII childhood plus his jaw-dropping aristocratic heritage somehow influenced the reputation he managed to build for himself as a senior Army officer? And what role had all three things—WWII childhood, aristocratic heritage, and curious reputation—played in helping Shalikashvili achieve his improbable American success story?
On a personal note, having worked in both academia and policy circles for many years, I’d had my fill of dry writing on narrow issues that were read by few people and that edified even fewer. I longed to write something akin to The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s astounding work on New York’s park commissioner Robert Moses—a painstakingly researched, in-depth, and thoroughly engaging portrayal of an intriguing figure who few people knew about, let alone understood.
But this kind of “soaking and poking” into a subject requires substantial time investment. So in 2010 I did the unthinkable: I quit my job, gave up health insurance, put my possessions in storage, and set out on an open-ended research trip. I cut expenses drastically. I house sat, couch surfed, and even lived out of my car.
Was it worth it? Yes! Going “all in” allowed me to travel to over 30 cities spanning three countries and two continents, to access two restricted archives, and to interview well over 300 people—including Gen. Shali and his extended family, childhood friends in Europe, classmates in America, and people who knew him while he wore the uniform, from fellow privates in the late 1950s to colleagues from when he was the 13th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1993-97), including Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Bill Perry, and others.
What makes the book unusual?
So many biographies of four-star generals focus on what the subject achieved at the height of his or her powers. They tend to detail, often excruciatingly so, the campaigns and policy decisions that allowed the general to shape his or her times.
But “Boy on the Bridge” is different. For starters, it reads like an engaging novel. It is light on names, dates, and acronyms and heavy on intriguing and multi-dimensional main and supporting characters, including his parents, grandmother, great aunt, and even high school girlfriend. It’s chock full of cliffhangers as well as both flashbacks and jumpforwards in time.
These literary devices are all used to bring to life Shali’s journey to the chairmanship, not what he did once he arrived at the chairman’s position. By carefully and exhaustively reviewing the unfolding of his personal and professional lives, I’ve worked to create a thoughtful, multi-generational story of how nature and nurture combined to create that rare kind of leader: someone both genuinely caring and extremely effective.
Was there one thing that stood out to you about John Shalikashvili life/story while you were writing this book?
During the first few months of extensive research, I uncovered precious little insight into how “Shalikashvili the man” differed from “Shalikashvili the reputation.” What motivated him to act in the glowing ways everyone had been describing to me? What internal forces could drive someone to behave so consistently across the decades? It was hard to discern. Shalikashvili was known for being “tight-lipped, like WWII heroes.” Even those closest to him were often unaware of basic facts or major events of his life.
But then, in the wake of Shalikashvili’s death in July 2011, a woman reached out to me. “Blondie” had met Shalikashvili at a pivotal juncture: when, as a newly arrived teenage refugee in the mid-1950s, he was straddling a rupturing fault line, with the weight of his Old World experiences on one side and the uncertainty of New World promise on the other. When he was young enough, lonely enough, and lost enough to be uncharacteristically open, especially with another wayward soul.
The things Blondie shared made me realize that his European roots were absolutely key to understanding John Shalikashvili as a human being. So much so that I soon boarded a plane to Europe in order to better understand the storied accomplishments of his ancestors, the mettle of four close relatives, and the full weight of his Old World childhood experiences. Most of all I went to look into secrets Blondie had confided in me.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Yes. Shalikashvili’s command of Operation Provide Comfort in 1991 was a huge turning point in his career. That’s when the former stateless refugee got the chance to lead troop from 13 different countries and aid workers from over 50 IOs, NGOs, and PVOs in the successful rescue and relocation of well over 500,000 stateless Kurdish refugees trapped in the dangerous mountains along the Iraqi-Turkish border in the wake of Gulf War I. It was a virtuoso performance that earned the three star, whose career was in danger of ending, the respect of CJCS Gen. Colin Powell, who later stated that Shalikashvili “had worked a miracle” in those mountains. Here’s a scene from Shali’s first on-the-ground inspection of a mountain refugee camp:
“As Shalikashvili walked about Isikveren, it was painfully clear that moving these refugees was the humane thing to do. Most were not warriors. They were farmers, shopkeepers, doctors, and other middle-class professionals. Accustomed to life in small cities and large towns, they were withering under these cruel conditions.
The youngest were suffering most. The first special forces to enter the camps had been met with a grisly sight: strewn on trash piles were the corpses of infants. And because the Kurds preferred sons, these were most often the bodies of girls. Ominously, 70 percent of women of childbearing age were pregnant. Of the four hundred deaths that Ken Getty would estimate took place on April 20, three hundred were children. “And most,” he added grimly, “were females.”
Later analysis would confirm how terribly the children suffered. The crude mortality rate for all ages would increase fifteen times during this crisis—from 0.6 to 8.9 per 1,000. Two thirds of these deaths would be children aged five years or younger, and one of every two deaths would be an infant shy of a first birthday. An estimated 12 percent of all infants—more than one out of every ten refugee babies—would perish in the first eight weeks of this crisis, mostly from diarrhea/dehydration and respiratory disease. Because 70–80 percent of the children suffered severe diarrhea, they often walked around camp naked from the waist down.
The plight of the young did not escape Shalikashvili’s notice. He was known for caring about children. As a captain, “without missing a beat” he’d rush over to babysit a colleague’s child when the babysitter bailed. No matter how senior he became, he’d often kneel down on the floor to play with young kids when attending informal social functions. As battalion commander, he’d “walk the floor” with his X.O.’s daughter when she was crying. Heading the 9th Infantry Division, the two star made anonymous donations to support at-risk children. “He’d have made a great high school principal,” said one subordinate. When Shalikashvili ran the DIVARTY, the son of one of his battalion commanders broke a leg one weekend while the parents were away. “Shali took care of it—he took him to the hospital. He never even called us—he didn’t want us to worry,” recalled one subordinate. “He was like a mother hen.”
But it wasn’t just the refugee children who were suffering. You could hear it in the sobs of a Kurd who held a sick loved one in their arms or who stood heartbroken as a body was being taken away for burial. You could see it in the faces of too many Kurds who sat there in a stupor, blank eyes looking straight ahead, seemingly disconnected from everything around them.
To feel lost and alone. To watch helplessly as loved ones are torn from you. To have your sense of home demolished. Any observer watching Shalikashvili, three black stars adorning each collar tab of his army camouflage, might assume such weights had never touched him. But they had. And not just because he too had been a war refugee. There’d been other blows, ones dealt as he’d sought to construct a new life in America.“
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Andrew Marble has written the first biography on Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (1993–1997).
In 8 years of research he traveled over 30,000 miles to 30 cities, 12 states, 3 countries, and 2 continents; accessed 2 restricted Shalikashvili archives; and interviewed well over 300 people, from Shalikashvili and his family and childhood friends to President Bill Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell, Sec. of Defense William Perry, Sec. of State Madeleine Albright, and other leaders from the 1990s.
His research was partially funded by a George Marshall Foundation Baruch Fellowship Award. In both 2014 and 2016 he was one of three finalists for the Biographer International Organization’s (BIO) Hazel Rowley Prize for best proposal for a first biography.
Andrew holds a PhD in Political Science from Brown University (2002), an MA in Law and Diplomacy from Tufts University’s Fletcher School (1994), and a BA in East Asian Studies from Middlebury College (1990).
He lived in Taiwan for 8 years, and was editor of Issues & Studies, a social science quarterly on China, Taiwan, and East Asian affairs.
After returning to the United States he was founding editor of Asia Policy, a peer-reviewed journal of the National Bureau of Asian Research, and edited NBR’s Strategic Asia series.
He currently serves as Outreach Editor for the Taiwan Journal of Democracy and is a reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. He is also a member of both Biographer’s International Organization and the Authors Guild.
He lives in Washington, DC