THE GENERALS: American Military Command from World War II to Today

Over the last decade, Thomas Ricks has established himself as an insightful analyst of U.S. military operations. In his last two books, Fiasco (Penguin Press, 2006) and The Gamble (Penguin Press, 2009), he applied journalistic skills honed over decades at The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to critically assess how U.S. military leaders planned and adapted during the initial invasion of Iraq and the subsequent insurgency that was abetted, if not generated, by poor planning at the Pentagon and White House.

The Gamble also covered Washington debates about the “surge” and changes in U.S. military doctrine designed and implemented by GEN David Petraeus. The Gamble ended ominously with the conclusion that “events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”

Now that American forces have withdrawn from Iraq and are poised to be pulled from Afghanistan no later than 2014, Ricks has turned his sights on the quality of American commanders and generalship. The Generals is chocked with intrepid, if not scathing, commentary about the quality of U.S. planning for Iraq. Ricks believes that “American generalship in Iraq in 2003, and the following years, is too often a tale of ineptitude exacerbated by a wholesale failure of accountability.” This sense of strategic failure is one event for which the Iraq war will be remembered that has happened.

As a foundation, the author goes back to World War II and examines American generals and their performances in their chosen professions. As an analytical framework, he extols the ethic and example of GEN George Catlett Marshall, Jr., who avoided being ensnared in President Roosevelt’s social circle, but never flinched from giving unvarnished advice or from exacting standards. Furthermore, as Ricks brings out time and time again, GEN Marshall had no compunction over firing generals who were not meeting his performance expectations for combat leadership or senior staff positions. While ruthless in coming to cold decisions on accountability, relieved officers were generally reassigned to other training or staff duties. Ricks shows that several of them even regained stature and promotion in subsequent positions. This model is the author’s ideal, and much of The Generals is framed around the question, “What would Marshall do?” In 30 concisely written chapters, he examines 19 U.S. Army generals and a single U.S. Marine combat commander from World War II to the present.

Readers familiar with Ricks’ incisive reporting on the Iraq War will not be the least surprised at his critical comments about U.S. Army leaders. GEN Tommy Franks is the target of the strongest critique for planning failures in two conflicts. Responsible for bungling 2 wars in 3 years, GEN Franks is described as the “apotheosis of the hubristic post-Gulf War force.” LTG Ricardo Sanchez is quickly dismissed as “over his head,” clueless as to the character of the war he faced and what to do about it. His successor, GEN George Casey, was not over his head in the pool, but only tread water, having tried hard to adapt U.S. military culture and operations.

The chapter devoted to GEN Petraeus is the thinnest and most disappointing. He is presented as the Matthew Ridgway of the Iraq War, “arriving and soberly reassessing the situation, and then through clear thinking and impressive willpower, as well as taking advantage of changes on the ground, putting a new face on it.” Very little of the General’s deep intellectual preparation and the rough and tumble of his interactions with the Administration, Congress, and press are considered, neither do we get any sense of Petraeus’ strategic acumen and operational virtuosity, despite his three tours in different roles in Iraq.

Marine readers will be disappointed with the few references to the Corps and the nature of those references. Only one chapter is devoted to a Marine leader, the under-appreciated MajGen O.P. Smith, to whom Ricks gives high marks based on his superlative combat leadership in Korea. Marine doctrinal developments and innovative concepts are given short shrift, including a gratuitous swipe at operational maneuver from the sea (equated to technologically focused concepts like effects-based operations and rapid decisive operations). The relief of one Marine regimental commander during the opening days of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM is covered in some detail with fresh insights, but not the correct operational context.

There is much to admire in the Marshall Method and his keen appreciation of proper civil-military relations and statecraft. However, there are historical and contextual discontinuities between Marshall’s era and the present that make accountability more of a necessity, while constraining the ability to allow relief to be simply a bump in the road of an officer’s career. Marshall led a massive force in the midst of an industrial war conducted at a global level as part of a massive alliance against an existential threat. In Marshall’s day, the U.S. military establishment was huge, and rapid expansion made many job openings in both combat and support staffs. But we are now in a smaller military force within a larger society that is not well connected to its military, but is highly connected to events via social media. There are many talented leaders waiting in line behind every selected general or flag officer who might stumble, and their relief and transfers will be all too transparent and hard to explain to the taxpayer. Ricks is surely correct that accountability is a precious commodity that civilian policymakers and the military high command must take into account when leading a fractious democracy in protracted struggles where success is elusive.

Rather than focus on creating conditions to make it more palatable to sack commanders, this reviewer wishes that the author had devoted more attention to the attributes of good generals so that our personnel system could help us identify, nurture, and educate the most qualified contenders for future positions of responsibility. Ricks’ all-too-brief epilogue offers numerous recommendations for more critical thinking skills, civilian and cultural educational experiences, and rigorous professional writing. While a bit thin on details, The Generals and its cry for more adaptive and more accountable commanders, is completely in line with key elements of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s latest white letter on joint professional military education.

While it’s a critical assessment that occasionally borders on harsh, Ricks has penned an important book. The Generals raises the most profound questions about the intellectual foundation of the Nation’s senior military leadership and its ability to participate in the policy discourse that is the essence of strategy development and effective civil-military relations. This book has been published at a timely point in our country’s history where we have begun to take stock of the most important lessons from a decade at war. Aside from Ricks, no one has yet had the courage to step back and assess the big lessons from conflicts that have seen the United States sustain great burdens and spend no small amount of treasure for little strategic gain. Ricks has generated a valuable opportunity to debate American military culture and challenge our full grasp of the profession of arms.

The Generals does not lay the blame for leadership shortfalls entirely at the feet of the uniformed military but does argue that we should shoulder our share and regenerate a mastery of strategic leadership and operational art worthy of our soldiers and Marines. For this fact alone, The Generals is strongly recommended reading for all students of the art of war.

THE GENERALS: American Military Command from World War II to Today.
By Thomas E. Ricks.
Penguin Press, New York, 2012
ISBN 9781594204043, 558 pp.
$35.00 (Member $31.50)

Accountability in Command