CNN, which is doing extraordinary and courageous reporting in Ukraine, relies for much of its military analysis on retired Major Gen. James “Spider” Marks.
Calling on his expertise, the network tells us much of what we need to know about Russia’s depraved strategy there, but in my viewing has yet to answer a question that begs explanation:
What’s up with the nickname “Spider?”
Seeking an answer traps one in a tangled web – CNN’s own biography of the general doesn’t address this, nor do any of his profiles on the Internet, save for a few that speculate it dates from his high school football days.
This whets curiosity for how other military leaders got nicknames ranging from the terrifying to the humorous. For instance, why is retired Marine Gen. James Mattis known as “Mad Dog?”
Mattis, who served as Donald Trump’s defense secretary until he repudiated the former president and resigned, says he got that nickname from the press.
This came after his testimony before Congress during his confirmation hearings for defense secretary, when he made comments on soldiering such as, “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
Another nickname hard to beat belonged to World War II Gen. George Patton, who told his junior officers they would find the war horrific and “You will be up to your neck in blood and guts.” His own men decided that the appropriate name for Patton would be “Old Blood ’n’ Guts.”
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, of Gulf War fame, had two nicknames, one of which, “Stormin’ Norman,” he disliked because it referred to his hair-trigger temper. He had a fondness for the other, “The Bear.” Where that came from was obvious – the general was 6 feet 4 and weighed 240 pounds.
Charles de Gaulle was an inch taller with an ego to match, but his classmates in military school provided him a dash of humility. Because of his height and high forehead, they nicknamed him “The Great Asparagus.”
The champion of nicknames was Napoleon, who supposedly had 21 of them, including “The heir of the Republic,” “The Eagle,” “The Corsican Fiend,” and, because of his stature of 5 feet 6, “The Little Corporal.”
Some military nicknames bespoke unusual valor, like one earned by British Royal Air Force hero Douglas “Tin Legs” Bader.
Group Captain Bader lost his legs in a 1931 air show accident and reported for duty during World War II wearing metal prosthetics.
He led squadrons in the Battle of Britain that helped stymie the Nazi Luftwaffe, was eventually shot down and taken prisoner, and became legendary in his attempts to escape before Americans liberated his prison camp in 1945. Credited with shooting down more than 20 German aircraft, he later became an inspiration to people with disabilities.
In our time, as we follow events in Ukraine, it’s apropos to invoke World War II Gen. Joseph W. “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, so known because of a caustic tongue that minced no words.
He adopted as his battle motto a tongue-in-cheek declaration that originated with British intelligence officers, the faux-Latin phrase “Illigitimi non carborundum.” If Vinegar Joe were around today, he’d be happy to provide Ukraine with the spurious, but buoying, translation:
“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com), a frequent contributor, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.