My review of “The Generals” by Thomas E. Ricks

16157481A clear-eyed, sobering look at the decline of a critically important part of the U.S. Army, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks pulls no punches.

Names are named and costly mistakes by both those wearing the suits of politicians and uniforms of high rank are pulled under the bright light for thorough examination as Ricks attempts to identify how the world’s most powerful military in 1945 became “hollow” less than thirty years later and technically without peer but strategically shortsighted another thirty years after that.

Perhaps because I was career military myself, I place a very high value on a willingness to “speak truth to power” — that is, a subordinate having the moral courage to say what needs to be said instead of what their boss wants to hear. Much as he did in his examination of the U.S. invasion of Iraq,  Fiasco (read my review here), in The Generals Mr. Ricks “speaks truth” and gives the reader an unvarnished look at Army leadership that is quite often at odds with what the public has been told or believes to be true.

Walking the reader forward from the Army’s high-water mark — General George C. Marshall’s service as Army Chief of Staff during World War II — to the utter failure of top-level leadership and performance as Iraq fell apart in 2004, Mr. Ricks takes us on a sobering journey that includes stops in Korea and Vietnam before the Army bottomed out and began a resurgence that is only partially complete to this day, despite  picture-pretty but misleading successes such as Desert Storm.

Deeply researched, the book is highly readable and written with straight-forward and — a potential pitfall deftly avoided — unemotional prose.  There is no table-thumping here, nor is it needed: the facts speak for themselves and the conclusions drawn by the author are therefore compelling.

One of those conclusions, which based on comments I’ve read appears to be a lightning rod, is the belief that the Army has suffered because its leaders have abandoned the practice of firing generals for failure to perform.

 “During World War II, senior American commanders generally were given a few months in which to succeed, be killed or wounded, or be replaced. Sixteen Army division commanders were relieved for cause, out of a total of 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat during the war. At least five corps commanders also were removed for cause.”

— Ricks, Thomas E. (2012-10-30). The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (p. 7). Penguin Press HC, The. Kindle Edition.

 Contrast that with the modern military where the only sure path to relief of a general involves criminal charges or moral laxness. Cases in point: Chosin Reservoir, My Lai, Firebase Mary Ann, Abu Ghraib, Tora Bora and Phase IV in Iraq, none of which involved what would be considered “relief for cause” of a general officer.

It is important to note, too, that those reliefs during WWII were conducted from within; the Army did its own dirty work. As Mr. Ricks points out, since WWII the vast majority of the few officers to lose their jobs were ousted by the military’s civilian overseers, not their own service branch.

Also, being relieved during WWII was not the career ender it is today; many of those relieved continued to contribute to the war effort in other positions, and a few like hard-drinking General Terry de la Mesa Allen returned to combat command at a later date. Mr. Ricks suggests that each branch of the U.S. military would benefit from a return to kinder/gentler and more commonplace relief; I do not disagree with the theory, however given the active-duty officer culture I remember, enacting that as policy would be contentious and very difficult.

Another theme which runs throughout The Generals is the decline in the ability of Army to produce leaders capable of developing comprehensive war strategies supple enough to react to the inevitable changes brought on in warfare, either from political pressures or events on the battlefield. Marshall and his protégé Dwight D. Eisenhower certainly did in WWII but Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks were not only clueless and tone-deaf to the need, but worse yet did not believe it was their responsibility.

“…four times— in 1989 in Panama, in 1991 and 2003 in Iraq, and in 2001 in Afghanistan— Army generals would lead swift attacks against enemy forces yet do so without a notion of what to do the day after their initial triumph, and in fact believing that it was not their job to consider the question.”

— Ricks, Thomas E. (2012-10-30). The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (p. 349). Penguin Press HC, The. Kindle Edition.

Finally, I would add that although the book focuses nearly exclusively on the Army, the concerns cited are not limited to that branch of the military. There is much for everyone to learn here, and I highly recommend The Generals. It is a thought-provoking, insightful study of Army leadership that should generate serious debate and discussion among our military and political leaders.

For more of Mr. Ricks’ take on national security, please visit his blog, The Best Defense.



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