By Mitch MeadorMay 16, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla., May 16, 2019 -- If nice guys finish last, then the late Gen. John Shalikashvili was the exception that proves the rule.
Despite taking the bargain-basement route to becoming an Army officer, he rose to the armed forces' loftiest position, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he served from Oct. 25, 1993, to Sept. 30, 1997.
The alumni association of the Field Artillery Officer Candidate School (FAOCS) that operated on Fort Sill from 1941 to 1973 esteems Shalikashvili as its highest-ranking graduate.
Now his story is about to be told in "The Boy on the Bridge," a biography by Dr. Andrew Marble that was nine years in the making.
University Press of Kentucky plans to announce its publication as part of its American Warrior Series in October, during the annual Association of the United States Army (AUSA) conference in Washington, D.C.
But on May 9, Marble read excerpts from his book to FAOCS alumni here at Fort Sill for their annual reunion. Afterward he fielded questions from the audience and chatted with one alumnus from Ohio who served with then Maj. Shalikashvili at Fort Lewis, Wash.
After hearing part of the general's astounding history, one audience member asked Marble how many languages Shalikashvili spoke. The author repeated the same self-deprecating reply Shali used early in his career: "Fluently, none."
His forebears on both sides were of noble birth, Georgian on his father's and Russian on his mother's. His paternal great-grandfather earned the right to be called "Ivan the Brave" for serving with distinction in the Crimean War. His maternal grandmother was a lady-in-waiting to Alexandra, Russia's last tsarina. His mother was born in the winter palace in St. Petersburg. Another ancestor was the first Russian admiral in the navy to circumnavigate the planet.
Yet his parents had to flee to Poland following the twin revolutions of 1917. During the Warsaw Uprising a dive-bomber reduced their apartment there to rubble. For five or six weeks the family's only home was the cellars and sewers of Warsaw.
Once the uprising was over, the family gathered up what belongings they could carry and in October 1944 headed to the Bavarian village of Pappenheim in southern Germany. For eight years, the penniless family had to depend on the charity of relatives to survive. Worse, their three children were stateless. No European country would grant their children citizenship because they were born in Poland to parents who weren't Polish.
The United States was the only nation that offered them the hope of a homeland, but here John Shalikashvili faced a torturous uphill climb. In 1959 he signed up for FAOCS, which one grad has described as the worst form of institutionalized hazing ever practiced in the Army.
The best way to survive it was not to stand out. Unfortunately, Shalikashvili stood out like a sore thumb. His last name was too long to fit the standard nametag, so for the first day he didn't have one. When one was issued, people joked that it filled up his whole uniform or called him "Lt. Alphabet." Back at boot camp on Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., one exasperated drill sergeant had shortened his unpronounceable surname to "Shali," and it stuck.
Worse, when he spoke, his American peers thought he was German -- not a good thing to be in the U.S. Army of 1959.
Slowly, people began to revise their view of him. Marble said he interviewed close to 50 OCS alums for his book, and over and over, they had noticed Shali quietly helping others. If someone collapsed from exhaustion, he was there to pick up their things and lift them up.
Setting a good example, doing the right thing, standing up for what's right, taking time for others -- these were lifelong habits of the general, which Marble attributed to his aristocratic roots and being a penniless refugee in war-torn Europe.
As Colin Powell said when he chose Shalikashvili to be his successor, "He's a quiet, decent man, and a very hard worker. There is a mistaken notion that you have to have Pattonesque qualities to be a great general. You don't need to rant and rave or be an arrogant jerk to be successful. Shali showed that."
Marble, who has a doctorate in political science from Brown University, was working as an editor for The National Bureau of Asian Research in Washington, D.C., when the subject of his book first came to his attention. Shali was on the board of advisers, and Marble was drawn to him for several reasons: his dramatic World War II childhood, his incredible family backstory and his curious reputation.
"I wondered if these three things were interlinked somehow, and most importantly, I wondered what role they played in allowing him to achieve his improbable American success," he told the FAOCS Alumni Association attendees.
The general had always resisted having his story written, but after he suffered a stroke in 2004, his family became more interested in getting it down on paper. Marble approached Shali's son first, and after getting the general's permission to do the authorized biography he quit his job in the fall of 2010, and spent two weeks interviewing Shali, his wife, and his son in early 2011. That was just the beginning of his extensive research, which took him to 30 cities in 12 states, three countries, and two continents. About halfway through his cross-country trek from Seattle to D.C., he stopped by the FAOCS Hall of Fame and has been in contact with its caretakers, Randy and Penny Dunham, ever since. He's now interviewed well over 300 people, many of them multiple times.
Although the book's formal launch isn't until October, Marble said it's possible to get a 30 percent discount by pre-ordering on the University Press of Kentucky website.