Army General's Impact Extends Far Beyond a Famous Recruiting Slogan

Gen. Maxwell Thurman's portrait as vice chief of staff of the Army.
Gen. Maxwell Thurman's portrait as vice chief of staff of the Army. (U.S. Army photo)

The U.S. Army's "Be All That You Can Be" recruiting campaign is now as common as advertising slogans for soda pop and sneakers. Like most familiar slogans, it has also been parodied. The same is true for the forceful man behind the campaign, Gen. Maxwell Reid Thurman. His nicknames have included "Maxatollah" and "Mad Max" because of his aggressive style and take-charge manner.

Thurman's career encompassed most of what the Army has to offer, including an ROTC scholarship, an artillery command during the Tet Offensive and key administrative posts. This varied experience gave him the knowledge he needed when he became commander of the U.S. Army Recruiting Command in 1979.

At that point, enlisting had come to be seen as the choice for dropouts, slackers and lower-income teenagers. Working out of Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Thurman developed the "Be All That You Can Be ... Because We Need You, In Today's Army" campaign. The slogan and the accompanying public relations work blotted out perceptions of enlistment as the "court of last resort" and began a new Army trend of attracting high-quality recruits.

The quality of the average soldier was greatly improved during this period in the mid-1980s. An Army press release states that under Thurman's guidance, "the modern professional Army we now possess came into existence." By reversing the downward slide of Army recruiting, Thurman had a strong role in changing public perceptions of the Army in particular and the military in general. For a country that had recently been shaken by division over the Vietnam War, this change was vital.

Thurman was about to retire from the Army in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush appointed him commander of the U.S. Southern Command, Panama. Pledging to confront "tyranny in all its insidious forms," Thurman led the invasion that ousted Manuel Noriega's regime. He was widely credited with convincing the administration and the military that it was necessary to use force in the operation.

One officer said Thurman drove his staff crazy "because he was a bachelor and the guy never went home." That's because Thurman's true love was the Army he served so well. "He was a visionary who carved out a path for the Army of today," said Gen. John Shalikashvili, "and by doing so, showed us courage, talent, intelligence and strength of character."

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