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The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today  by Thomas E. Ricks. Penguin Press, 2012, 466 pp.

Tom Ricks is imminently qualified to write such a book as The Generals. This widely published author has an extensive background in military affairs and knowledge of civil-military relations. This book does not disappoint. It is in fact two books in one. The stated thesis is that military leaders should discipline their subordinates by relieving them rather than prolonging incompetence to the point of having civilian leaders take that action. The book is also a treatise on the shortcomings of Army leaders over time and critiques attempts by the Army to change its process for selecting and protecting general officers.

The five-part tome opens with what Ricks terms “the Marshall system,” beginning in World War II. The following four parts are comparisons to Korea, Vietnam, the interwar period, and the Middle East/Southwest Asia wars since 1990. Under GEN George C. Marshall, senior officers were in many cases relieved without prejudice and given other assignments as rehabilitation (or punishment) before being offered another chance. Marshall preferred senior leaders who could produce results, which required competence and performance. He also expected senior officers to remain apolitical but become politically astute. With the high stakes of World War II, leaders were expected to perform rapidly or be relieved by their immediate commander. Subsequent to that war, according to Ricks, the Army drifted from the Marshall system, and the results were devastating. He notes many examples from Korea, most notable the firing of Douglas MacArthur by President Truman, but saves his most convincing examples for Vietnam when the Army abandoned any semblance of Marshall’s system. During this period the Army descended into an organization of risk aversion, micromanagement, conformity, caution, and lack of moral courage (see p. 257 for exchanges between the president and the joint chiefs).

 After Vietnam the Army began rebuilding its image, but that effort focused on tactical levels of fighting—particularly against the Soviets in Europe—rather than strategic and operational levels of war. While some senior leaders within the Army tried to change this focus, most of their efforts were stymied. Thus, most of the senior generals leading the Middle East/Southwest Asia wars were trained tactically for the wrong war and lacked the “flexibility of the mind” both Marshall and Clausewitz insisted upon. Ricks’ evaluation of the post–World War II conflicts shows that far too many senior leaders were allowed to remain in command despite glaring deficiencies in understanding the context of the conflicts.

There is not much to criticize in Ricks’ book, but several issues bear consideration. First, there is no discussion on the impact of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols law and how this impacted civil-military relations. In some respects this law increased the number of general officers reporting directly to the civilian leadership—without a senior military boss. Ricks cites two examples in the work (Generals Dugan and Woerner) that in fact did not report to military leaders and thus were correctly relieved by their a civilian boss. Secondly, the context of the number and age of military leaders in World War II relative to the size of the Army today should be considered. Did Marshall have a deeper “bench” from which to “hire and fire?” Surely he did, and perhaps this made it easier to execute his system. Additionally, relative to the size of the Army today, civilian oversight is also larger than in the past and could account for the increase in civilian meddling—regardless of the actions of senior military commanders.

The second thesis of this book—shortcomings of Army generals—may be just as important given the Marshall system basis. Most of the work is a critique of the foibles of senior Army leaders, and this creates some imbalance by presenting more extensive evidence to this effect. The last section, covering the latest Middle East/Southwest Asia wars, is understandably shallower than the previous sections due to the timing of publication. Coverage of Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez is adequate and relevant to the thesis, but that of Generals McCrystal and Petraeus lacks the same level of detail. None of these critiques detract materially from the keen insights provided about how the US Army and the other services should grow senior leaders, nor do they invalidate the usefulness of a Marshall-type system.   

Ricks offers many suggestions on the best ways to restore US military leadership. He intimates the transformation should begin with education, particularly advanced schools for midcareer officers and rigorous war colleges for more senior officers. This is surprising given his penchant of PME bashing. But these institutions will help create and educate the kinds of officers who have the flexibility of mind Marshall expected. Ricks also recommends the services offer second or even third chances to certain officers rather than being a “one mistake” organization—although he thinks this will be difficult to pursue in our current environment. The services should focus on performance, innovation, accountability, and a greater tolerance for risk taking—an implication of the “second chance” system. Finally, Ricks suggests that relief should not be seen as a failure of the system but rather a strength of the system, and it should be acknowledged publicly to prevent any misconceptions.

The Generals is a very enjoyable read and particularly useful for those officers and civilians from midcareer to senior levels. Even though the content is Army-centric, it may well be one of the best books, along with Cohen’s Supreme Command, for newly minted general officers to read before assuming their new rank and position.

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"The views expressed in this book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."