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.
About Thomas E. Ricks
Thomas E. Ricks is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the prize-winning blog The Best Defense. Ricks covered the U.S. military for The Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for seventeen years. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, he covered U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He is the author of several books, includingThe Gamble and the #1 New York Times bestseller Fiasco, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
During World War II, Gen. George Marshall designed a template for identifying leaders and selecting generals, rapidly promoting those who met the standard and readily relieving underperformers. For Marshall, firing a general was part of the natural order, a necessary tool of personnel management in the notoriously difficult business of battlefield success. How is it, asks the author, that we’ve fallen away from this strict standard over the past 75 years? After acknowledging the occasional flaw in the Marshall system and identifying the grand exception, Douglas MacArthur, Ricks turns to the Korean War, where only O.P. Smith and Matthew Ridgeway met the Marshall standard and prevented disaster. Post-Korea, senior officers acted “less like stewards of their profession, answerable to the public, and more like keepers of a closed guild, answerable mainly to each other.” In Vietnam, the system collapsed entirely, with rotation, ticket-punching and micromanagement the norms. Relieving a general came to be seen as a system failure. From this low point—Ricks recites the manifold sins of Maxwell Taylor, Paul Harkins and William Westmoreland—the Army retooled, improving training, doctrine and weaponry, but leaving its concept of generalship untouched. As the author turns to our recent wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, none of Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, or George Casey will much appreciate what Ricks has to say about continuing deficiencies in military leadership. Only David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno emerge unscathed. – Kirkus Reviews
“The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today” by Thomas E. Ricks
The Washington Post Book Review – October 27, 2012 (Excerpt)
Troubles between a president and his generals are hardly new in the history of American civil-military relations. Abraham Lincoln had to work his way through a succession of generals before he was able to find the man, Ulysses S. Grant, who could defeat the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee. Woodrow Wilson was more fortunate in World War I. He had the decisive and capable John J. Pershing. Franklin Roosevelt was even more fortunate in World War II. He had the incomparable George C. Marshall.
After that, things began to change, as we learn in this important and timely book by Thomas E. Ricks about the decline of senior leadership in the United States Army. Ricks’s touchstone is the standard established by Marshall, the creator of the modern American Army. The “Marshall system,” as Ricks calls it, consisted of Marshall determining the requirements of a position, appointing the best man he could find to it and then giving the man freedom to exercise his judgment and initiative in fulfilling the task. The most famous example was Marshall’s elevation of Dwight Eisenhower from one-star brigadier to commander in chief of Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa in 1942 that constituted the first Allied counteroffensive. [Read the full article...]
Should ‘The Generals’ Get Fired More Often?
NPR Book Review – October 29, 2012 (Excerpt)
One issue that has received little attention in this year’s presidential race is the war in Afghanistan. But according to Thomas E. Ricks, we should be paying attention — specifically to those in charge of the military there, because they can make the difference between long, expensive wars and decisive victories. That’s the lesson Ricks explores in his latest book, The Generals.
The book starts with George Marshall — a leader perhaps best known for his diplomatic role after World War II, but whose management style during the war was notable in part for his willingness to fire people. “In World War II, it was quite common to fire generals,” Ricks tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
Ricks says he was shocked to discover that Terry Allen, the general in charge of the 1st Infantry Division during the Sicily campaign, had been fired despite his success in the field. [Read the full article...]
Ricks: Firing ‘The Generals’ To Fight Better Wars?
NPR Book Review – November 1, 2012 (Excerpt)
When Thomas Ricks first learned that Terry Allen, the successful general in charge of the 1st Infantry Division during World War II’s Sicily campaign, had been fired, he says, his jaw dropped.
“I was thinking, ‘My God, I’m coming out of Iraq where we have mediocre generals all over the place, where they’re flailing around, where they don’t understand the war they’re fighting, and nobody gets fired,’” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “How could we go from an Army that in World War II would dismiss a successful general to an Army in Iraq in which mediocrity is acceptable, nobody wants to stick their head out, and nobody gets fired for anything except for embarrassing the institution?”
Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He covered the military for The Washington Postand The Wall Street Journal for many years, and was part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes for military coverage. His new book, The Generals, is about what he sees as a decline of American military leadership; it offers an argument about why the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been so long and so frustrating. [Read the full article...]
Army leaders are reviewed in ‘The Generals’
The Los Angeles Times Book Review – November 9, 2012 (Excerpt)
Deep in his impressive, disturbing study of U.S. Army leadership, “The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today,” Thomas E. Ricks offers his explanation of why the Iraq war seemed to spiral out of control even after Saddam Hussein was toppled and his army defeated.
The fault was not with the U.S. Army’s rank and file, Ricks concludes.
“It was a well-trained, professional, competent force,” he writes. “But the soldiers were often better at their tasks than the generals who were leading them were at theirs. In Iraq, the U.S. Army would illustrate the danger of viewing war too narrowly.”
Bureaucrats in Uniform - ‘The Generals,’ by Thomas E. Ricks
The New York Times Book Review – December 7, 2012 (Excerpt)
Gen. George C. Marshall, the United States Army’s steely chief of staff during World War II, was ruthless in relieving subordinates who didn’t measure up to his exacting standards. Between the time he assumed office in September 1939 and America’s entry into the war on Dec. 8, 1941, he cashiered at least 600 officers — and he wasn’t done yet. Numerous others, including generals, would lose their jobs when they didn’t perform well enough in the caldron of combat. As the veteran military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks notes in his new book, “The Generals,” “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 relieved for cause.”
In the place of the duds that he cleared out, Marshall promoted promising young men like Dwight Eisenhower, a colonel until September 1941, who the following year would be named a three-star general and commander in chief of Allied forces in North Africa. [Read the full article...]
Painted Wings and Giants’ Rings
A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
The loss of innocence, when “painted wings and giants’ rings made ways for other toys” is the central theme of this festival of children’s dream world adventures against the harsh reality of adult life.
In his newest novel, Wilfried F. Voss delivers a unique and insightful view into a child’s world and how it relates to the harsh reality of adult life, in this case the life of Roger Wilkinson, a businessman who is haunted by childhood memories and the ultimate fear of mistreating his own children. Wilkinson is in a coma after a car accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike, and he does not respond to physical stimulation. The doctor, assuming psychological issues, describes his condition as dwelling in a dark place. Consequently, Roger’s children, Patrick and Siobhan, decide to rescue their father from the dark place and bring him to Never-Neverland, because, in their view, nobody dies in Never-Neverland.
Painted wings, childhood’s great defender, And giants’ rings are such great splendor. Keep these treasures, don’t grow old In a world of tears and full of cold. - The Faery’s Silly Song
We are the only country that makes guns, including military-style assault weapons, available to anyone who wants to buy them. This is not freedom. It is a tyranny of death and destruction — a tyranny of which the National Rifle Association is proud. The Washington Post
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