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

by Thomas E. Ricks; Penguin Press; Hardcover; 576 pages

In his study of American generals from World War II on, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Thomas E. Ricks delves into what he sees as a dramatic change. In the past, he tells us, America’s top brass policed their own, firing subordinates who performed poorly. Today, Ricks argues, our military is less effective because the top brass are loathe to replace incompetent officers and, so, must wait for the nation’s civilian leaders to do the deed.

During World War II, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough although, in a twist that wouldn’t happen today, some were given second chances. Today, according to Ricks, we have an Army culture that neither punishes mediocrity nor rewards risk-taking. In today’s Army, Ricks writes, no one was willing to hand the sack to Gen. Tommy R. Franks, our first commander in Afghanistan, or to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, a senior commander in Iraq, both of whom are widely perceived as performing with singular mediocrity.


Too Much of a Thesis?

Some sort of thesis seems to be de rigueur as a “hook” in any book about modern events – see, for example, Ike’s Bluff, by Evan Thomas, a perfectly fine account of Cold War events that needlessly attributes to President Dwight D. Eisenhower a “secret battle to save the world” – but Ricks seems to have chosen an obscure thesis for a book that is so good it didn’t need one.

The Generals Cover

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks; Penguin Press Hardcover; 576 pages.

Sure, the question of when, whether and how a general might be relieved of duty for questionable performance is worthy of scrutiny. Ricks scrutinizes well. He takes us into the lives of military leaders we’ve rarely heard of. Quick: can you name the officer who was expected to command U.S. forces in Europe but who was quickly replaced when Eisenhower came along?

Much of the credit for firing bad generals and rewarding good ones goes to a tradition established by the steely Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff during World War II and one of America’s great unsung heroes. Marshall handed walking papers to about 600 generals, including 16 Army division commanders who were relieved for cause out of 155 who commanded divisions during the war. A few were granted second chances and performed well.

Ricks tells us a lot about Marshall, a man we can’t study enough. Another general who receives extensive treatment from Ricks is O. P. Smith, the commander of Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea in 1950. This book’s account of the fighting at Chosin – like much in this volume, only loosely related to its strained thesis – is the best and most illuminating look this reviewer has ever seen into one of the classic battles in American history. Smith himself was never as obscure as Ricks suggests, but is deserving of all the praise Ricks provides. When Marines fought their way south after being overwhelmed by Chinese forces thanks largely to failings by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, their commander is supposed to have uttered: “Retreat, hell! We’re just attacking in another direction!” “Retreat, Hell!” was a forgettable 1952 movie with Frank Lovejoy and Richard Carlson, but the stiff, straitlaced Smith, a Christian scientist, never uttered the word “hell” in his life.

It is MacArthur who sets the precedent Ricks rightfully urges us to worry about. In his case, despite his battlefield mistakes (his failure to predict China’s entry into the Korean War was inexcusable), the Pentagon brass wouldn’t fire MacArthur. Even when he engaged in public insubordination and open politicking on an unprecedented scale, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were too intimidated by MacArthur to hand him a pink slip.

A civilian leader, President Harry S. Truman, had to do the deed. In the years since, Ricks tells us, the uniformed bosses who should do so haven’t fired any general – Vietnam’s hapless Gen. Paul Harkins and Gen. William Westmoreland are examples – instead forcing their civilian bosses to do it or not having it done at all. “As matters stand now,” Paul Yingling, then a lieutenant colonel, wrote in a celebrated 2007 article quoted by Ricks, “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

Too Much and Too Little

This reviewer recommends The Generals as essential reading for any student of the U.S. military; it is the work of an industrious and brilliant mind that gives us perceptions we won’t find elsewhere. Ricks has a distinguished body of work to his credit, but both The Generals and his other work would have greater credibility had he not written one book too many, The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-08, published on Feb. 10, 2009 by The Penguin Press.

Thomas E. Ricks

Author Thomas E. Ricks. Center for a New American Security photo

In releasing a hagiography of Petraeus, Ricks joined a company of authors – Thomas L. Day and Rick Atkinson, to say nothing of Paula Broadwell – but no serious writer seems to have looked at this American general with a critical eye. Always perceptive at knowing what his bosses wanted, Petraeus picked on the infatuation for counterinsurgency held by Robert Gates, who was Defense Secretary from 2006 to 2011 and implemented it uncritically at a time when it had already been thoroughly discredited. The result was a series of brief, temporary victories in a conflict with no likely favorable outcome, a situation with parallels to the one that was too much for Westmoreland. Petraeus, of course, is the model of the perfect general in The Generals, an opinion apparently held by more journalists than military men.

For all the insight it gives us, The Generals never mentions tectonic changes that have taken place since Marshall was chief of staff. In Marshall’s day, a flag officer would have considered it beneath contempt to accept employment with a company that manufactured ships, tanks and planes for his troops. There were other good jobs available – Eisenhower presided over Columbia University and Gen. Lucius D. Clay became CEO of Continental Can – but nearly all stayed away from what is today called the defense industry. According to one study, 70 percent of all flag officers who retired in the past decade now work in defense; some troops perceive that their generals view military duty as a temporary way station en route to that lucrative executive position in industry. This is a big change and Ricks never mentions it.

Nor does Ricks tell us how generalship has been changed by the American shift to an all-volunteer force in 1973. The nation recently lost Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the old-school brass hat who led our all-volunteer force at the peak of its prowess and Schwarzkopf rightly receives plentiful and favorable attention in The Generals. The significance of the nation’s shift from draftees to volunteers, from the citizen-soldier to the warrior ethos, does not. And given its title and topic, The Generals obviously tells us little about the Navy, where uniformed leaders have never stopped firing subordinates when necessary.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...