Leonard Mosley faced a challenge in painting this portrait of George Catlett Marshall. Call it the George Washington syndrome. Like Washington, Marshall was a giant. He served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army during World War II, also as presidential envoy to China, secretary of state and secretary of defense, all at peak moments in our history. Raise almost any of the still blazing controversies of his era -- who was responsible for Pearl Harbor; should the atomic bomb have been dropped on Japan; who "lost" China to the communists; should Gen. Douglas MacArthur have been fired in Korea -- and Marshall was there, deeply enmeshed.

Still, also like George Washington, not much heat rises from this marble man. Marshall was a general who commanded no great armies, a soldier whose name is linked to no famous battle. Winston Churchill called him "the organizer of victory." But organizers do not set the popular pulse racing.

And so, Mosley stirs in the spices to bring a rather resistant subject to more pulsating life. He goes on at exceeding length about Marshall's sex life, or presumed lack thereof, since Mosley suggests that Marshall's 26-year first marriage was probably never consummated. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of 20th-century events? Mosley stokes a one-sided (and questionable) feud, with that brilliant peacock, MacArthur, raging against the stalwart eagle, Marshall. Mosley dwells overly long on Marshall's friendship with Queen Frederika of Greece, as though association with a royal, even of a modest kingdom, will impart the desired luster and glamor to his subject.

One can sympathize with Mosley's effort to hype Marshall's career, for the man could be remotely noble, maddeningly self-effacing, almost too good to be true. The prime example: Marshall wanted desperately to be named supreme Allied commander for the invasion of Europe. President Roosevelt told Gen. Eisenhower, "Ike, you and I know who was Chief of Staff during the last years of the Civil War. But, practically no one else knows, although the names of the field generals -- Grant, of course, and Lee, and Jackson, Sherman, Sheridan and others -- every schoolboy knows them. I hate to think that fifty years from now, practically nobody will know who George Marshall was." At the time, Roosevelt was planning to give Eisenhower Marshall's job as chief of staff and to give Marshall the coveted supreme Allied command. Later, FDR changed his mind. But the foxy Roosevelt left the final decision up to Marshall. Characteristically, Marshall said that he would do what was best for the country. Thereupon, Roosevelt handed the baton to Eisenhower, who went on to become the savior of Europe, a hero to the world and twice president of the United States. Eisenhower could certainly have handled Marshall's job in Washington. Thus, Marshall's willingness to pass up the most dramatic command in modern military history suggests, along with the selfless patriot, an element of the damned fool.

Mosley's biography has obvious strengths. Marshall's formative years are sketched with novelistic flair. Mosley skillfully recreates the mood of America before the war, pulled between isolationists and interventionists. His step-by-step recounting of the American confusion and delusion that permitted the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is spellbinding.

Mosley casts a revealing light on a perennial moral quandary, America's use of the atom bomb against Japan. The debate is traditionally couched as the use of the bomb versus a conventional invasion of Japan. Marshall's own words make clear that it was not an either/or choice. Had Japan not folded, the plan which Marshall approved involved invasion and atomic weapons to vaporize the way for the invading American troops.

Mosley engrossingly describes Marshall's postwar civilian career, which he capped by the greatest intiative in the history of American foreign policy, the Marshall Plan. And it was indeed Marshall's plan, the product of his own imagination and vision.

On a less exalted level, Mosley treats the reader to delicious gossip at the top. We get a fascinating view from Marshall's high perch of the Eisenhower-Kay Summersby affair (if such it was). We encounter an unexpectedly witty and playful Madame Chiang Kai-shek through her letters to Marshall.

We will no doubt have to await the upcoming final volume of Forrest Pogue's four-volume work for a definitive life of Marshall. Still, critics who quarrel with Leonard Mosley's factual reliability (Eleanor Dulles called a press conference to accuse Mosley of hundreds of errors in an earlier book on the Dulles family, an accusation that Mosley denied) agree, as does this reviewer, that the spirit and flavor of George C. Marshall, his essential greatness, rise from these pages.