A review of The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks

The central claim of The Generals, military journalist Thomas Ricks's assault on post-World War II American military history, is that once upon a time the U.S. Army won because poor generals got fired. Since then, Army generals stopped getting fired so much, and now the Army does not win wars. Unfortunately, this thesis statement can be assembled only by consulting the dust jacket, introductory material, and excerpts. The Generals's chaotic exposition might be in the service of this argument, or some other, or none at all.

Ricks begins, reasonably, by professing his admiration of General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army in World War II. Marshall created something Ricks calls the "Marshall system," characterized by the firing of lots of generals and promotion of other, more conformist ones. The Ricks scorecard doesn't come close to establishing this thesis, however. Dwight Eisenhower's wartime rise, unrelated to firings, represented the system at work. Eisenhower proved to be a good Supreme Commander because he could compromise and handle British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, but Eisenhower was bland and unimaginative in fighting, which was bad. But he held the coalition together, so that was good. George Patton, on the other hand, should have been fired, but was not, because they needed him to fight, so that was good. Likewise, Mark Clark did not get fired, but should have been, and that was bad because that is how things work today. The actual fighting by Douglas MacArthur's command in World War II is not discussed, but he was bad because he wanted to be president and became political; however, the generals in the Marshall system did not like MacArthur and did not follow his example, and were much blander.

To sum up, in World War II the Marshall system fired lots of commanders and promoted bland conformists, although it followed those tenets so inconsistently as to not really be a system at all. Nevertheless, the alleged system proved effective because it was successful in winning the war, although it was not as successful in winning battles as it could have been because of key attributes in the system, such as firing the wrong commanders or not firing commanders who should have been fired or promoting boring unimaginative commanders.

Still, lots of generals were fired, so that was good because the United States won World War II, where victory was clear and things were simple. Later wars—Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan—proved much trickier. By Ricks's accounting, the Marshall system continued to be applied in Korea and Vietnam, but only the bad parts, so it was sometimes successful in winning battles, but it was not effective because it was not successful in winning the wars. Throughout, fewer commanders were fired, except the many commanders by Ricks's own account who were fired or rotated out of commands. But those don't count because they were not fired as often or as quickly as they should have been.

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Never mind that all of this followed pretty closely the story of firings in World War II, except for the fact that fewer theater-level commanders lost their commands then. In any event, at some point the Army stopped following the Marshall system and began following a system exemplified or created by General William DePuy, who was a World War II model commander and failure in Vietnam, but really good at triggering reforms after the war to make the Army better at fighting tactically, but bad at developing commanders who could think more broadly, except for the officers who went through the Army education and training programs created by the reforms DePuy helped start. Altogether, this story explains the persistent failures of the Army, as exemplified by Chosin, Tet, My Lai, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Ricks bases whole sections on heavily biased sources, ignores years of inconvenient historical debate, and compares and contrasts commanders in dramatically different situations and positions, never setting any clear standards for good generalship. Yet through all of this, he identifies the independent variable as firing despite offering scant evidence that firings in and of themselves led to greater effectiveness in battles and war. (The Generals presents some evidence that firings led to reduced effectiveness in battles and war.) Nor does he provide statistical data to indicate that commanders were fired in greater proportions in World War II than in later wars, let alone that the number or rate of firings somehow tipped over from correlation into causation when it came to overall success in either battles or wars.

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Even more troubling is Ricks's blithe assumption that it's all so easy—battles, campaigns, and even wars provide black and white choices. Thus, any commander who does not do right must be the foolish or morally bankrupt product of a system that does not care about accountability to the mission or the troops. The torturous dilemmas faced by those in positions of real responsibility never come to light in The Generals. Ricks holds his subjects in contempt, so he never tries to understand them. He finds neither knowledge nor wisdom along the way.

Despite these failings, The Generals is being read and discussed by the very audience it vilifies. Before he became a prominent commenter on military affairs, Thomas Ricks was a reporter on the defense beat for such publications as the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. When the war in Iraq was not going well Ricks used his connections in the military to produce a perfect book for the time. The unsubtly titled Fiasco came out in 2006, relying on a variety of named and unnamed sources in and out of the Defense Department to make the case that the war was a disaster in planning and execution, that there was no end in sight, and that just about everyone involved at the highest levels was to blame for the result. Much like The Generals, the critique and proposed remedies were contradictory and unclear, but a diatribe about the origins and conduct of the war matched the times. More importantly, because it fit the prevalent discontent so well, audiences, especially military ones, lapped it up. Ricks became a high priest in the military commentariat, with the full power and benefits of the station.

He learned his lesson well. Democratic nations fight wars with abundant dissent and self-critique, most vitally in the military itself. For all the talk of closed-minded professional company men, the truth is that even when things go well, the American military always believes it can do better. Problems of war have no perfect solutions, so striving for perfection always provides areas for improvement. Of course Iraq could have been fought better, and of course the assignment of generals can be improved. There was and is no perfect way to win in Iraq, just as there is no perfect way to produce generals.

Army officers cannot—will not—accept this truth. That is their greatest strength, but it can also be exploited. Legitimate self-critique, twisted to the point of hysteria, pays well. Already The Generals has made recommended reading lists throughout the military, and Ricks continues to receive invitations to peddle his argument to military audiences at home and abroad. At some point, however, healthy self-assessment becomes pathological. Over the past decade of fighting, the Army has sorted through its general officer corps. In peace it is never easy to figure out which officers will make the best generals, a task made even harder by the variety of types of jobs filled by those officers. A general who is good in command of a division in the field might struggle as a strategic staff officer, and vice versa.

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That said, war makes things clearer. Tactical failures in intense combat tend to be tragically clear—losing battles and slow costly advances, for example—and the subsequent reliefs or replacements happen faster. Weaknesses in leadership in strategic positions and in unconventional warfare are not as quantifiable, but still evident over time.

Commanders who do not quite get it done in those jobs tend not to get promoted, or they get rotated to positions that better match their talents. Officers who have had more success in combat commands tend to get promoted into higher-level vacancies. That process, though certainly uneven, is exactly what has happened through Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, just now, as Ricks hits the streets with his diatribe against the general officer corps, that corps is the strongest it has ever been for fighting the types of wars found in Iraq and Afghanistan. And all without The Generals to guide the way.

None of this is to say that the system is perfect or that it cannot continue to get better. But in recycling, unintelligibly, an idea the Army officer corps already debates and tries to improve, Thomas Ricks's The Generals distracts from legitimate issues and cheapens the debate. What is more, it wastes precious intellectual energy that Army officers could better spend learning their craft. The end result is that whatever the reader of this book might gain from occasionally stumbling upon a stray fact is more than offset by the clarity lost trying to make sense of the senseless.