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

by Thomas E. Ricks
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (368 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 30, 2012 1594204047 978-1594204043 1

From the #1 bestselling author of Fiasco and The Gamble, an epic history of the decline of American military leadership from World War II to Iraq

History has been kind to the American generals of World War II—Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley—and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed. In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is. In part it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability. During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough. Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq War, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

In The Generals we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers. Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine General O. P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught into Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

But Korea also showed the first signs of an army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring. In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse until, finally, American military leadership bottomed out. The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, is the emblematic event of this dark chapter of our history. In the wake of Vietnam a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success. It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up. But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered from familiar problems, resulting in tactically savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly from the first Iraq War of 1990 through to the present.

Ricks has made a close study of America’s military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning: about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails.


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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

When George Marshall headed the U.S. Army in WWII, generals were frequently fired. They haven’t much been since, writes Ricks, a phenomenon he connects to the strategically unsatisfactory conclusions to subsequent wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Ricks was a military-affairs journalist, and his criticism of the Iraq invasion (Fiasco, 2006) echoes in this survey of the army’s top echelons since WWII. He diagnoses the top brass’ problem as being good at organizing combat operations but terrible at converting tactical victories into war-winning success. He points to several causes of the situation. One has been the slowness of generals trained in set-piece battles to adapt to insurgency warfare. Another has been, Ricks argues, the sidelining of nonconformist officers, outliers in personal habits or in their unorthodox positions in the army’s internal debates about strategic doctrine. Individual cases, such as those of Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland, stoke his negative appraisal of the army’s leadership, which he unifies by urging as a remedy a revival of Marshall’s methods of promoting and dismissing generals. Ricks’ prominence plus the publisher’s promotion should equal a high-profile title. --Gilbert Taylor

Review

A Washington Post 2012 Notable Work of Nonfiction

"Ricks shines, blending an impressive level of research with expert storytelling."
—The Weekly Standard

"[A] savvy study of leadership. Combining lucid historical analysis, acid-etched portraits of generals from 'troublesome blowhard' Douglas MacArthur to 'two-time loser' Tommy Franks, and shrewd postmortems of military failures and pointless slaughters such as My Lai, the author demonstrates how everything from strategic doctrine to personnel policies create a mediocre, rigid, morally derelict army leadership... Ricks presents an incisive, hard-hitting corrective to unthinking veneration of American military prowess."
Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)

"Informed readers, especially military buffs, will appreciate this provocative, blistering critique of a system where accountability appears to have gone missing - like the author's 2006 bestseller, Fiasco, this book is bound to cause heartburn in the Pentagon."
Kirkus

"Entertaining, provocative and important."
—The Wilson Quarterly


This is a brilliant book—deeply researched, very well-written and outspoken. Ricks pulls no punches in naming names as he cites serious failures of leadership, even as we were winning World War II, and failures that led to serious problems in later wars.  And he calls for rethinking the concept of generalship in the Army of the future.”
—William J. Perry, 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense

“Thomas E. Ricks has written a definitive and comprehensive story of American generalship from the battlefields of World War II to the recent war in Iraq. The Generals candidly reveals their triumphs and failures, and offers a prognosis of what can be done to ensure success by our future leaders in the volatile world of the twenty-first century.”
—Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War

“Tom Ricks has written another provocative and superbly researched book that addresses a critical issue, generalship. After each period of conflict in our history, the quality and performance of our senior military leaders comes under serious scrutiny. The Generals will be a definitive and controversial work that will spark the debate, once again, regarding how we make and choose our top military leaders.”
—Anthony C. Zinni, General USMC (Ret.)

The Generals is insightful, well written and thought-provoking. Using General George C. Marshall as the gold standard, it is replete with examples of good and bad generalship in the postwar years. Too often a bureaucratic culture in those years failed to connect performance with consequences. This gave rise to many mediocre and poor senior leaders. Seldom have any of them ever been held accountable for their failures. This book justifiably calls for a return to the strict, demanding and successful Marshall prescription for generalship. It is a reminder that the lives of soldiers are more important than the careers of officers—and that winning wars is more important than either.”
—Bernard E. Trainor, Lt. Gen. USMC (Ret.); author of The Generals’ War

The Generals rips up the definition of professionalism in which the US Army has clothed itself. Tom Ricks shows that it has lost the habit of sacking those who cannot meet the challenge of war, leaving it to Presidents to do so. His devastating analysis explains much that is wrong in US civil-military relations. America’s allies, who have looked to emulate too slavishly the world’s pre-eminent military power, should also take heed.”
—Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford
 

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 576 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; 1 edition (October 30, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594204047
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594204043
  • Product Dimensions: 2.6 x 3.7 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (368 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #27,214 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
156 of 165 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
As Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 showed, author Thomas Ricks has no problem offering harsh criticism of those in power - and here, he presents a variety of lacerating critiques, but also strong compliments, of a variety of military leaders.

The overall thesis for this book is, I think, an accurate one - that generals of today are often not relieved for their failures of leadership or actions, and instead allowed to finish their careers at the expense of the nation's objectives.

Granted, Afghanistan has seen several commanders relieved in mid-stream, so there has been a move toward quicker changes...but, those changes (McChrystal, McKeirnan, others) were driven by civilian leadership, and Ricks argues that top military leaders should be more willing to fire their own high-ranking subordinates.

Generals like George Marshall and Eisenhower receive the bulk of the praise, for managing personalities and strategic missions during World War II, and being willing to make changes when need be. Many division commanders were fired during WWII, but were later given a second chance at command. Unlike 2012, a 'firing' was not a career death sentence, but an admission that an officer was not right for a certain job at a specific time.

Now, a battlefield relief is the end of a career. Ricks mentions Col. Joe Dowdy, a Marine colonel relieved during the 2003 Iraq invasion. Basically thrown out of Iraq, Dowdy didn't exactly retire in disgrace, but he certainly was not offered a second chance to redeem himself.

Part of this is the corporate culture, born in the 1950s, of the military that Ricks describes.
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97 of 109 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An important work, low on breadth November 13, 2012
By Alex
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I anxiously awaited this book. Reading critical analysis of the performance of General Officers is an interest of mine. There simply isn't enough of it going on. There are far too few journalists out there doing this well and Tom Ricks is one of those.

That being said, I think this book merely has but one or two fully developed arguments: We should fire Generals that don't perform and that the Army only wants one type of leader and the promotion system suppresses the outliers. We don't fire enough because of bureacracy and careerism, and the system is favored towards cookie cutter officers also because that's what is best for bureaucracy and careerism. This book focuses on the Army. Other services have had critical failures since World War II, but the mission of the Army is to fight and win the nation's wars, so it's completely fair that the Army bears the brunt of the scrutiny and the criticism.

This book left me wondering several things. Is it the fault of the Generals that they are given missions that they are poorly suited to accomplish? Even with some inventive, outside the box thinking, it's difficult to see a path to victory if victory means a stable and viable Iraq and Afghanistan.

For me, this work didn't get at the root cause of the author's main criticism. The truth is that wars since World War II have been largely elective. Careerism in the Officer Corps is nothing new. In order for true performance to trump careerism, the right conditions have to be in place. In military affairs, those conditions most often are a war in which the nation's fate rests in the outcome. That would explain why the political and military leadership were so eager to fire non performers during World War II and elevate the performers at an accelerated rate.
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77 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scrupulous October 31, 2012
Format:Hardcover
Tom Ricks is a scrupulously honest, brutally candid assessor of the American military and its civilian bosses in war and between wars. He has been for decades, and at the highest professional levels. Fiasco, his courageously entitled coverage of the Iraq War leadership, has made him a hero to those who see the absolute requirement to recalibrate the system of America's war following a decade of that aimless adventure.

In The Generals, Ricks has cast a wider, deeper net that allows readers to follow the ebb and flow of high-level U.S. Army leaders through several system resets from World War II to our most recent examples. It's as if he had asked himself, after writing Fiasco: What tradition carried this bunch to the head of the class?

Beginning with George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower--the exemplars of U.S. Army top-level commanders in living memory--Ricks bends to the task in proven Ricksian style: straight from the shoulder, with deeply drawn examples, in blunt form and no-nonsense prose. In case after case--from the celebrated to the concealed--Ricks fires away with bouquets for the righteous and body blows for the malfeasant. His chapter on the My Lai cover-up and investigation, for example, will be a classic in telling it like it is--as, indeed, is the entire text.

Above all, The Generals understands the stakes in pointing out perpetual human flaws; it more than balances negative examples by showcasing one heroic truth-teller after another. At heart, it is a serious and deep study of all the things the army and its generations of rising stars have learned over seventy years, as well as what they forgot, what they relearned, what they forgot again, and what they must and will relearn.

This book is high art. It sizzles.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking
A great survey of 70 years of American generalship. Since I follow Doctrine Man, I assumed I would never find enthusiasm for trends in Army doctrine, but was pleasantly surprised... Read more
Published 15 days ago by David J. Navarre
5.0 out of 5 stars General history in a week
Enjoyed the read looking inside the lives of our Army Generals. Things I never knew the battle between civilian and military leaders. Now to watch The Longest Day
Published 15 days ago by Adam Bielawski
4.0 out of 5 stars solid history
Interesting and maybe a must read to understand today's decision making. The author makes a strong case for The difference between WWII and today - he argues we've gone from a... Read more
Published 16 days ago by Allen Hansen
2.0 out of 5 stars Broad topic
Mr Ricks selected a broad topic but his editor did not serve him well on this. Previous efforts by Rick's far superior. Too big a project for 450 pages
Published 18 days ago by Jackie Thibault
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent choice
Ricks gives an in-depth look at American generalship, both its successes and failures. Full of well-researched examples, as well as an Epilogue with his recommendations for reform... Read more
Published 22 days ago by Iron Horse
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional
If you are a student of military history, you must read this book. Starting with the tremendous influence of Marshall, you will gain a greater appreciation for our past leadership... Read more
Published 26 days ago by Alexander H Evans
5.0 out of 5 stars Intersting Insights
As a retired Army officer I found this book to be historically relevant and insightful as well as contemporarily relevant having lived and served during the era of the Viet Nam... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Marc A. King
5.0 out of 5 stars Perspective...
I enjoy reading the reviews as well as this excellently written book being reviewed. Having grown up in the 'Vietnam' era and being a student of military history I found "The... Read more
Published 1 month ago by RoamingDoc
4.0 out of 5 stars Settled Argument
Having had extended debates about the state of the U.S, military with a graduate of the Air Force Academy; I purchased this book as a gift. Read more
Published 1 month ago by DaveT
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book
Great book, Well researched and full of interesting facts and information concerning those who fought the 2nd World War. Read more
Published 1 month ago by C. L. Johnson
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Seventeen Dollar Kindle Edition
The cost of printing a book in bulk is 2-3 dollars supposedly; if so the price for an ebook should be about 5 dollars less than the hardcover
Nov 1, 2012 by Dana |  See all 4 posts
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