170 of 179 people found the following review helpful
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. Like all corporations, it became the interests of the leaders to protect their peers. Sure, junior officers could be relieved with no issues, but once a general was in the club, it was easier to let them ride out a career - as Ricks writes, LTG Ricardo Sanchez thought about relieving Abu Ghraib's failed BG Janis Karpinski, but decided not to, since her rotation was almost up. That's a terrible reason to let a leader remain.
The book covers almost 75 years - comprehensive, but maybe a little too much time. Some sections, especially Iraq in 2003, seem a bit rushed (though his other books cover that ground, and should be read anyway). Other sections, especially a long and very detailed account of the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, seem to be a little too specific and maybe off the subject. It's a dramatic battle account, and it deals with massive failures by Gen. Edward Almond, but the tactical focus sometimes doesn't fit with the rest of the book. But, this very specific battlefield example allows Ricks to make a necessary good-bad comparison between Almond and the successful Marine Gen. O.P. Smith who was fighting on the reservoir's other side.
And, like the rest of the book, the Chosin narrative is very readable and always interesting.
There are a few surprises (depending on how well read you are) - Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and Gen. Colin Powell don't come across very well for their hesitant and insecure plans during the Gulf War (which was no surprise to me); George Patton, a successful battlefield commander, played his role very well - with Ricks giving a lot of credit to Eisenhower's calming influence.
This is a good introduction to this topic, though its scope makes it a little too broad for deep knowledge. If you followed up with Eisenhower in War and Peace,Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam, and The Commanders, among many others, I think you'd flesh out a lot of the specific stories that Ricks can only give so much info about in these pages.
Finally, Gen. Tommy Franks receives much of the harshest criticism - and it's all completely valid. He is held up as the kind of tactically-oriented general that Ricks has little use for - yes, he can manage a battlefield, but has no concept of the larger strategic goals that a general should be aware of. So forecasting any Iraqi insurgency simply wasn't his problem, and the Tora Bora hideout of Bin Laden was not a tactically important goal. Gen. David Petraeus, on the other hand, is complimented for seeing the big, strategic picture that will develop over many years.
An excellent book - not THE definitive resource, maybe, but with the history and personalities involved (I didn't even mention Westmoreland or MacArthur!) how can it be?
UPDATE: I'm just finishing The Liberator: One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau, in which Gen. Mark Clark comes across very badly. Clark's failures are mentioned here, certainly, but not in that much depth - so The Liberator would be another good additional resource.
Full disclosure: I read a complimentary review copy (and am briefly cited and indexed in The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 for my own Iraq reporting).
110 of 122 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified 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. Go back even further; Lincoln would seemingly fire Generals over breakfast, he had no compunction doing so because the fate of the Union far exceeded the careerism of the Officer Corps.
For me, that is the true lesson and one I wish Ricks hammered away at a little more. We should only expend blood and treasure when it is really worth it. The Generals almost never say no to a mission. When we are engaged in "elective" war, we should grade the General's performance as if the fate of the nation depended upon it. Lest we forget even when it doesn't, the fate of the people serving underneath him do.
82 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2012
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.
49 of 58 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Tom Ricks' book is a history of American generalship from George Marshall through today, and modern generals do not fare well in this unflinching military history. Where Marshall was willing to "speak truth to power", many generals today appear more interested in protecting their careers. The only post WWII generals who make it through Ricks' book unscathed are Matthew Ridgeway, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno.
Ricks also describes how modern civilian leadership, from John Kennedy forward, has been lacking. Too many political leaders prefer generals who will rubber stamp their plans over generals who are willing to speak plainly. The section where Ricks describes a 1965 meeting between a foul-mouth & abusive LBJ and his Joint Chiefs is amazing.
Central to Ricks' critique of our current military leaders is that while they are well trained in tactics, they have little strategic vision. They are not trained in critical thinking - they can win battles but not wars. Military leadership, in Ricks' view, has traded leadership skills for management expertise.
Ricks has written an honest, critical and comprehensive look at the history of military leadership over the past 70 years. Thoughtful and eminently readable, this is a book that should provoke a discussion about military leadership that our country needs to have.
23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
First, a short background. I am a retired Air National Guard general who dealt extensively with senior active duty Army leadership throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. After 9/11 as we prepared for conflict I was shocked to observe how shallow most Army leaders seemed to be. My impression of Army generals came from studying the likes of Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, etc. who all had a strategic sense. Many of the generals I worked with lacked intellectual depth and seemed locked into applying established processes without regard for if they would work effectively or not. I could never reconcile expectation against reality--until now, thanks to Tom Ricks.
He describes the transition of American military leadership in the Army from WWII to present perfectly. The basic theme is how the Army moved from a system where relieving a commander was common, and not necessarily career ending, to one where firing generals is seldom done. Along the way the advancement system has rewarded risk aversion and conformism. Generals are no longer fired; instead, they are moved to new positions (sometimes considered promotions), and sometimes allowed to finish out scheduled rotations. Failing operations continue causing unnecessary loss of lives continue until a new leader arrives.
Anyone who has worked on senior staffs around stars will readily recognize what Ricks describes so well. We can only hope that senior civilian leaders read his book and force the Army to pursue leadership model improvements.
75 of 93 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2013
In 2006, Thomas Ricks published his Fiasco about the Iraqi War. This eponymous book singled out General Ray Ordierno for special criticism. To Ricks' mind, Ordierno wasn't fit to wear the uniform of a soldier, let alone the stars of a general. Unfortunately for Mr. Ricks, his book came out just as the surge was beginning. And the hero of the surge was. . . Ray Ordierno!
Lacking the grace to admit a mistake, but, unlike most journalists, having enough intelligence to recognize a game changer, Mr. Ricks, instead of rewriting history chose to rewrite General Ordierno. As Mr. Ricks would have it, the good General somehow acquired a set of brass balls and 100 points of IQ solely because his son had become a casualty in Iraq.
More about what this says about Mr. Ricks below, but it also illustrates the central problem of Mr. Ricks' new book which argues that the Army needs to fire more generals in order to perform better. A book on this subject should ask a number of questions and make an attempt at answering them:
What makes a bad general? If it is an initial loss, then most of the great generals in history would have been consigned to the ash heap long before they proved themselves.
How long should his superiors allow a new general to find himself before he is booted?
What is the effect of firing on troop morale?
When is the appropriate time to fire him?
Mr. Ricks doesn't bother to ask these or dozens of other questions. Instead he fills his book with 550 pages of potted history, making this work a thick heavy dull bumper sticker saying "Fire Bad Generals!" The text is neither well written nor well thought out. If you have read one book on modern American military history, you will find nothing new here. And I daresay that if you have read two books on modern American military history, you could write a much better book.
Mr. Ricks' problem, I think, is that he is a journalist in the US and not in the UK. UK journalists are entitled to take a stand in their writing, but the trick is that the good media outlets require them to accurately portray the view of the other side and to provide counter arguments. This is ideal training for an historian or policy maker which is why British journalists are often the most successful historians and politicians.
By contrast, the model for American journalists is objectivity, an attempt to find the "Truth" behind opposing viewpoints. At least since the days of Montaigne, objectivity has been recognized as a perilous goal, easily corrupted into hiding ones bias behind a pseudo-judicial mien. It is all too easy to write a polemic and pretend that it is balanced. That is why quality journalism in the UK is thriving while it is all but dead here in the United States.
Any professor teaching historical writing could very successfully assign his class to apply David Hackett Fischer's Historical Fallacies to what passes as "history" in Mr. Ricks' book. The text is full of examples of the misleading uses of historical fact the Prof. Fischer documents so well. To mention just a few items of his flawed account:
It does not detract from General Marshall's accomplishments to point out his serious flaws. He is hardly the gold standard of personnel decisions as Mr. Ricks would have it. He did not choose "aggressive" generals, he tended to choose men he knew as good professors or good students at the Infantry school and was apparently oblivious to the fact that the skill set required for success in a classroom is hardly the skill set for success in a battlefield. Marshall men were honest, decent men, often dull and unable to adapt. For every Ridgeway (whom Marshall had slated for a staff position until Ridgeway raised a fuss), there were three or four generals like Clark or Hodges. And some of them, such as Stilwell, were absolute disasters. D. Clayton James' far superior A Time for Giants is a far better guide to the personnel choices of World War II than Mr. Ricks is.
And once you got to a senior command position, no amount of blundering would get Marshall to send you down to the minors. Lewis Brereton was in a command position for four of the most egregious failures of aerial operations during the war and after each blunder was just moved to another position of higher responsibility to commit a new disaster. Three times in the last year of the war, Marshall men allowed hundreds of thousands of Nazi troops to escape encirclement to fight another day. And Carlo d'Este's account of Bradley and Hodges at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge would send shivers down the back of any parent who had committed their son to their command.
Meanwhile, many potentially great soldiers were restricted to lower ranks by Marshall's whims. James Van Fleet, for instance, a truly great general, remained a lieutenant colonel for most of the war because Marshall constantly rejected the recommendations of Van Fleet's superiors to raise him to high command (when his success in actual combat in the summer of 1944 made it impossible for him to be ignored, he began his meteoric rise, ending the war as a corps commander, before really making a name for himself in the postwar army).
Most of the firings which Marshall made were part of the purge of the National Guard and Reserves to make the Army run by professionals, a major shift from earlier US history in which politics played an important role in choosing generals. Mr. Ricks alludes to this without recognizing its significance. It is one thing to oust a class of generals in order to change the make-up of the military and another to punish poor performance across the board.
Nor did Marshall speak truth to power as Mr. Ricks suggests. Joel Davidson's far superior "The Unsinkable Fleet" shows how an agressive Admiral King and a Navy-centric FDR ran circles around the polite gentleman George Catlett Marshall which resulted in a military force which had only half the troops Marshall himself thought optimal and a Navy several multiples larger than it ever needed to be. This resulted in a longer war and wasted resources. Time is a crucial element in warfare - never more so than in World War II when half of all the Holocaust victims lost their lives in the last twelve months of the war - and that was never something that Marshall seemed to recognize.
In what Mr. Ricks apparently believes is a ideal example of the Army's failures, he juxtaposes the destruction of an Army unit on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir with the heroic retreat of the Marines on the west side of the Reservoir, but by the eliding over inconvenient facts or ignoring them altogether, he just proves himself to be unreliable. The Marines had ten times as many troops as the Army did and at a crucial point in the battle, the Chinese redirected the main thrust of their forces against the Army forces, allowing the Marines to retreat. Finally, the Marine air support gave top priority to protecting the Marines instead of the Army. This last point was one of the main reasons that the Army fought for, and won, the right to its own internal air support role after the war. To this day, the Air Force is run by fighter jocks and bomber pilots and the tactical support mission assigned to it is consistently left behind. It is surprising that Mr. Ricks ignores this or, worse, is ignorant of it.
It is therefore not surprising that Mr. Ricks misses the importance of MacArthur's relief altogether. Lord knows that Harry Truman had plenty of reasons to fire him, beginning with his age, but by choosing to fire him because he honestly answered a question from an important congressman has had repercussions on the military to this day. Truman's firing of MacArthur was hardly the triumph of civilian leadership over military leadership as many would have it (though, to be fair, not Mr. Ricks), but rather the triumph of the executive over the legislative branches of government. As H.R. MacMaster's far superior study of Vietnam era military leadership, Dereliction of Duty, demonstrated, by sending the message to the military that they are answerable only to the President, the Joint Staff allowed their views to be misrepresented by the Johnson Administration, sowing the seeds for at least part of the failure of the modern military.
I could go on, but it would require another book to challenge The Generals. Mr. Ricks' heart is in the right place as he tries to decide why all American military action since World War II has been so unsatisfactory, but The Generals only inadvertently provides an answer. Mr. Ricks knows more about the military than anyone else at The Washigton Post, more, I would venture than anyone else in the Washington Press Corps and maybe even anyone in Washington DC outside of the Pentagon. But it is not enough.
There appear to be gaps in his basic knowledge. He argues that senior generals need to be replaced by even more senior generals or the politicians will do it instead, and he cites theater commanders from MacArthur to Westmoreland who should have been relieved. But Mr. Ricks seems ignorant of the fact that, for much of the period he covers, the Joint Staff had no power to fire such senior generals, that theater commanders were appointed by the President and could only be relieved by the President. There were no senior generals to fire them.
Mr. Ricks also seems to think that generals with advanced university degrees are somehow distrusted by their colleagues, but the military puts great emphasis on higher education and the officer corps has a greater percentage of advanced degrees than most professions, so where is the source of this distrust?
And Mr. Ricks argues that generals who have underperformed should be rotated elsewhere and given a second chance. But where? Congress has provided specific slots for each general it authorizes. If you give a general a second chance, do you fire a performing general to make room for the underperforming general? And if Mr. Ricks would instead suggest that Congress provide a sort of cold storage for generals, does he seriously think that with serious and crippling budget cuts in the wind, the Army will really want to cut more bone and muscle to authorize the expenditures that would be needed?
There is also in this book a lack of empathy, probably the greatest failure of the form of intelligence promulgated by America's educational system. The key ingredient of true intelligence is not a memory to regurgitate facts. It is not the ability to twist those facts to suit your own political agenda. Mr. Ricks has those aspects of intellectual firepower at his fingertips. But to have something truly valuable to add, he needed ability to place himself in someone else's shoes and examine the world from a different viewpoint. This wouldn't require him to change his views, necessarily, but it would have grounded this book to reality, not the world as he would like it to be. Mr. Ricks is utterly incapable of this.
As noted by superior thinkers like Christopher Lasch, the elites of America have moved away from mainstream America and the idea of military service has become an alien concept to those who have the power to put American boys and girls into harm's way. Mr. Ricks, who comes from the ruling elite in America, seems to study the American military like a scientist would study bacilli under a microscope. He is ignorant, for instance, that his "rewrite" of General Odierno that I mentioned above, is a deeper, more unforgivable slander of a military man than a mere allegation of incompetence. To a soldier, it is a gross and unforgivable insult to suggest that he favors his own flesh and blood to those entrusted to him by others. To Mr. Ricks, it seemed to be a legitmate way to excuse his own initial blunder of General Odierno's abilities.
And Mr. Ricks also always has had an irrational fixation on a potential coup by American military leaders. He wrote a (not very good) novel about it ten years ago and here and there in The Generals is a hint that he has not let the idea go. Considering the emphasis the military places on allegiance to the Constitution, one wonders where Mr. Ricks would get such a bug in his ear, outside of Hollywood and similar ignoramuses who run popular culture these days. Like Mr. Ricks, I have never had the honor of serving in the American military, but, as the brother of a career Army officer who graduated from West Point and Harvard University and as someone who spent a great deal of time working with the military during my one year tour of duty in Afghanistan with the State Department, I have met my share of military officers and I doubt very much that they would be less open with me than they would to a newspaper reporter. The most political statement that a senior officer ever made to me was a Marine Major General back in the '90s who told me that he was just as wary of pro-military jingoists as he was of anti-military pacifists. That is hardly a rallying cry for a coup d'etat.
Lord knows that we have to maintain a superior roster of military leaders - it is the only profession, licit or illicit, where the best and most successful can end their day responsible for the deaths of thousands of their subordinates and it is one of the few professions where the incompetence of one person at the top can result in the end of civilization. But the signal failure of those at the top of the foodchain of American culture to participate in military issues, and the inability of journalists and others to provide an adequate bridge between those who guard us while we sleep and those of us who, well, ARE asleep, is the true failure of American society today. And the sole contribution of The Generals is to prove this point.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2012
As a former army officer and now a management and strategy consultant, I was fascinated with this book. I couldn't put it down.
The book has two major values in my opinion. The first is Mr. Ricks' thesis. It is absolutely refreshing considering today's culture of entitlement. I do think that the lack of accountability originates from fundamental reasons not mentioned, such as culture, and its ultimate source, philosophy. SeeThe DIM Hypothesis: Why the Lights of the West Are Going Out Other than that, I concur with Mr. Ricks' explanation.
The second major value is the broad historical framework that traces the evolution of US generalship as well as the Army from WW2 to present days. This cause and effect approach, the logic of how the Army developed along with its doctrine, is clear and intriguing. As a former combat arms officer, I had no clue to why NTC was created, or the clash between those who promote the science and training of warfare versus those of the art and education.
Most importantly, this framework provides two archetypes of general officers, Marshall and Taylor, to guide an evaluation of other general officers. Understanding both men and their philosophy on accountability was a welcome insight. These models will be invaluable in my work for when evaluating senior officers and executives.
Lastly, I want to address two major criticisms of the book - criticisms that ironically reflect the age entitlement we live in. [Let me say that I am not defending Mr. Ricks personally: I do not know him or his politics, nor do I care to know. But I am defending the creative type of man that builds something from nothing and is ridiculously attacked for it.]
1) Unhappy with the price? Then don't buy it, and don't attack the author. To besmirch one's intellectual work for the business decisions of the publisher is shameful, and frankly childish.
2) Don't fire incompetence? What's the alternative? Apparently from posted feedback it is to not only tolerate it, but nourish and develop it. Should this occur even if it comes at the expense of the mission? Yes is the suggestion. It seems to me that this mindset doesn't grasp that firings, at least under the Marshall system, were not malicious but instead were necessary. Despite this, these "critics" project it as a personal attack rather than a sound decision based on the needs of the organization and the overall endeavor.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on November 4, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Thomas Ricks' latest work The Generals follows his previous works "Fiasco" and "The Gamble". Both prior publications set the stage for this current work. Ricks poses this central question - why do senior ranking Army officers never face relief for unsatisfactory performance? Ricks then starts a long and complex study of senior Army officers begining with the ascent of General George C. Marshall as Chief of Staff in 1939. Ricks is intimately familiar with today's military forces and possess a depth of institutional knowledge that very few current journalists possess. (Robert Kaplan is probably the sole exception.) Ricks, a journalist by training and not a professional historian, has superb writing and analytical skills. This 550+ page tome a fast read. I was able to blaze through all 550+ pages in three nights because of Ricks fast-paced and fluid writing style. Ricks is, without doubt, a proficient and interesting professional writer.
Ricks begins to answer his own rhetorical question by an in-depth study of the character and composition of the legendary George C. Marshall. The Generals then flows in a fast-paced manner from WWII to Korea where, he states, the seeds of the Army's near destruction in Vietnam were sown by an officer management system that modeled itself on 'corporate America.' Then Ricks turns to the mid-1950's 'Pentomic Division' and later to the 'flexible response' of the early Kennedy administration. From that point on, the institutional mis-management of the U.S. Army by the Johnson administration is fully exposed. (H.R. McMaster's "Dereliction of Duty" is frequently cited by Ricks as the best work on that subject, and I would tend to agree. However, after reading Sorley's biography of General Harold K. Johnson - "Honorable Warrior" - Johnson was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff 1964-1968 - it may be that McMaster's somewhat harsh criticism of General Johnson is misplaced. It might also be noted that McMaster wrote his well-known publication as a major; now he is a major general. His criticism of senior level staff officers in "Dereliction of Duty" may reflect the brash assessment of mid-grade officer not facing the stress and strain of senior command as was Harold Johnson in 1964-68.)
In Ricks assessment, no current or recent past general grade officer measures up to the person of George C. Marshall. That is frequent refrain throughout the book. Whether that assessment is accurate or not is debatable. I can speak with some small degree of authority as a product of the post-Vietnam Army that conformity and close-minded submission to the commander's higher intent was expected of all officers of that era. One "bad" officer efficiency report (being rated as "meets standards" was enough) was sufficient in itself to end one's career. Ricks is openly contemptuous of General Tommy Franks. Although I do not know General Franks, I expect that Franks was a product of the post-Vietnam era where conformity and leading the cheer for the current commander was the pathway to success.
Ricks is openly critical of the lack of honest, open thinking in mid to upper grade Army officers. The fact is that 'non-conformity' is generally a career killer. Let's posit that you are a mid-grade major approaching next year's promotion board. When in any promotion cycle only one out of three lieutenant colonels will be advanced to colonel and only one out of five colonels advance to brigadier general, then the mathematical chances of success - general officer rank - is only one in fifteen for the newly promoted lieutenant colonel. It makes one cautious about advocating a course of action that does not fit the current commander's scheme of operations. Ricks suggests toward the end of the book that a "probationary" work period be instituted for all command positions from platoon leader through four star level. If the commander proves unsatisfactory, then relieve that person for cause and find that individual a staff or installation position where his or her skills can be utilized. General George C. Marshall had the luxuary of doing just that because the training base requirements and the communications zone of WWII required a large number of non-combatant general grade officers; today's Army does not have that same TO&E. If anything, in the next go-around of force reductions, there will be fewer general rank positions open for any individual.
I found Thomas Ricks newest work The Generals to be a fascinating, well-written and well-researched book. It has a sort of cross-over effect between military history, operational art, institutional management, and geo-strategic analysis. A really excellent publication and a valuable addition to the library!
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
As an author, combat veteran, and as an historian, I have studied the events and the characters involved in the Second World War for the last forty years. I must say that I was highly impressed with Thomas Rick's book, "The Generals." This book is well written and extremely accurate in terms of how the U.S. Army has changed over the decades. It is definitely worth the read. His description of Generals Marshall and Eisenhower as the dominate figures of our military establishment during WWII was outstanding, along with his criticisms of Douglas MacArthur. However, I was surprised that Ricks didn't write a section about General Omar Bradley. Strangely enough, Bradley had relieved more field commanders than any other general, including General Patton, who actually relieved very few.
Moreover, I was somewhat surprised that Ricks did not mention Brigadier General Fox Conner, who was the mentor to both Marshall and Eisenhower. After predicting that another European war was going to rear its ugly head, Conner taught them in the 1930s that as a democratic society, "we should never fight unless we have to, we should never fight alone without having allies, and we should never fight for long," sound advice that has been ignored by all of our political and military leaders, ever since Eisenhower left the White House.
Ironically on page 257, Ricks writes about the Joint Chiefs of Staff confrontation with President Johnson concerning the president's military policy towards fighting in South Vietnam. Criticizing Johnson for calling them a bunch of dumb-asses and throwing them out of his office for recklessly wanting to escalate the war into WW III, along with criticizing the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not resigning on the spot, Ricks fails to make the historical connection between Johnson's and Truman's relationship with their top military commanders. Neither president wanted to expand the war, involving the other super-powers (China and the Soviet Union), over areas that had nothing to do with the safe-guarding of our national security. However, Truman did have the Joint Chief's support in limiting the war; whereas President Johnson didn't have it. And since President Johnson couldn't fire the Chiefs, due to the political fallout, he was forced to ignore their worthless advice. Knowingly or not, the Chiefs were attempting to circumvent their government's policies, much like MacArthur had attempted in the Korean War.
Unfortunately in terms of our foreign policy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their corporate profit-seeking buddies have come to dominate our governments' the decision-making process to the point where we are continuously and unnecessarily at war with somebody around globe, an important issue that Rick's chose to ignore.
Of course, the failings of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War have been well documented, long before Ricks began to write, "The Generals." I was very disappointed that Ricks failed to mention Col. David Hackworth and Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert, two of our most decorated soldiers for bravery, who were the first individual commanders to blow the whistle on the Army's corruption and incompetence. Promoted from the enlisted ranks and not being a part of the West Point Protective Association (WPPA), they had sacrificed their promising careers in the naïve hopes of reforming their beloved army. To this day, Hackworth's, 1990, "About Face," and Herbert's, 1973, "Soldier," are two of the best books ever written about the Vietnam War. They are straight forward testimonies to the disintegration of the U.S. Army's leadership and our fighting abilities.
What Ricks didn't stress more strongly was that the other armed services face the same command problems as the U.S. Army. And quite frankly, I don't see any chance of reforming their inbreed traditions of denial, careerism, (CYA) cover your ass, and bureaucratic mutual support, even in the face of defeat. Controlled by their respective service academies, their officer corps has become an elitist club, where there is little room for command criticisms, outside inference, initiative, whistle blowers, and self-doubt. Tragically, the much larger problem with possessing a huge professional military that has become self-preserving is that it will place its services' bureaucratic wellbeing above their nation's national security.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2012
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Someone once said that defining genius is how much one agrees with your point of view. If that is true, I would maintain that THE GENERALS is a work of near-genius. Thomas Ricks' coverage of Army flag officers from World War II to the contemporary period is fascinating reading. He does an excellent job of covering World War II through Desert Storm, and I found his criticisms of Powell and Schwarzkopf to be an eminently justifiable position.
Ricks maintains that the civilian leadership (SecDef Cheney) found the original ground plan to lack imagination (page 364), and required a reworking rather than a "hey diddle-diddle, straight up the middle." He does not give a date for the meeting, but it may well explain something I could never understand. I had deployed to Bahrain as a lieutenant colonel (USAR) on 11 Dec 90. On 02 Jan 91, I attended a Top Secret conference in Dhahran in which the "operations plan" was first revealed to us -- it was a standard amphibious assault at Al-Shauiba coupled with a Marine frontal assault against the Saddam line. Is this what was changed by the civilian leadership? The timeline still does not seem to fit but the TS meeting may well have been disinfoirmation passed down to the field grade staffs rather than the general officer concept of operations.
While I did agree with most of what the author wrote, I wonder if the Petraeus chapter would need to be rewritten somewhat. I am of the school that does grant him kudos for the surge in Iraq, but would also note that he was "lucky" in that the Sunni-Shiite internecine conflict materially aided his efforts, and that when a similar situation did not occur in Afghanistan, he quickly left without the same succes.
Ricks rightly criticizes the leadership of Mark Clark in Italy; what he does not answer is why Clark (a Marshall acolyte) was allowed to remain in command, while Clark himslf fired several subordinate general officers. Marshall may have been good, but this shows he was not perfect. The author's criticism of Maxwell Taylor is justifiable, but deserves more exposition than the caption which states that he was "the most destructive general in American history" (was he worse than Benedict Arnold? Gideon Pillow?)
What I most disagreed with was the author's support of Gen Starry's proposal to make ALL command positions (from platoon leader to four star general) a six-month probationary period. I do not see how a 180-day tour of walking on eggshells will materially aid in the selection and retention of combat leaders. The DePuy-Cushman controversy has not been resolved, and it will be interesting to see how history resolves the issue.
Based on my personal experience in the Gulf War, I felt that the conflict did not last long enough to weed out the incompetent. I was aware of a full colonel in Riyadh who refused to move forward. He was left in Riyadh to supervise the mail room of a unit, and since the war ended so quickly, he was able to resume his "career" without difficulty.
In twenty-eight years of military service, I encountered one general officer who I felt was a decent human being. Of course, human decency is not necessarily a trait that one values in a general officer.
Overall, I would highly recommend this book.