On Political Books

November/ December 2012 Brass Backwards

Thomas Ricks explains the declining competence of America's senior military commanders.

By Jacob Heilbrunn

The Generals: American Military Commanders from World War II to Today
by Thomas E. Ricks
Simon and Schuster, 528 pp.

Tom Ricks, the former Washington Post military correspondent who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, and currently edits the blog “The Best Defense” at ForeignPolicy.com, has become the go-to guy for understanding how the American military works. In 2006, Ricks published Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005, a blistering (and definitive) indictment of George W. Bush’s Pentagon and its mishandling of the war in Iraq. Next, he wrote The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, a probing history of the surge. And now he has written a book that tries to explain what makes a great American general— that is, a general whom soldiers can follow, and not just to their deaths.

The genesis for this most recent book was atop a Sicilian ridge, where, on leave from covering Iraq, Ricks heard the story of Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, a hugely successful World War II general who was relieved of leadership of the 1st Infantry Division (for lax discipline of his troops) soon after helping to win the Sicily campaign in July 1943. It wasn’t good enough just to be successful; the success had to come in the right way—otherwise, as the military leadership knew, disaster could loom later on. “I was stunned,” writes Ricks. “How could this be? [My] mind was still focused on [the Iraq] war, where even the most abject failure did not get a general fired.”

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is the history of this “remarkable group of men, the Army general officers of the past three-quarters of a century, and the wars they fought.” For Ricks, the World II generation really was the greatest; his heroes are George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, two men who displayed both sound judgment and a strategic vision, qualities their successors did not always possess in abundance.

As Army chief of staff on the eve of World War II, Marshall—who would later become secretary of defense, secretary of state, and the architect of the Marshall Plan—inherited a force that was, by his own account, that of a “third-rate military power.” It consisted of fewer than 200,000 soldiers, many relying on World War I arms and munitions.

A scant five years later, under Marshall’s command, the Army had grown to almost eight million troops, with forty divisions in Europe and the Mediterranean and twenty-one in the Pacific—a force that brought down the Third Reich and forced Imperial Japan to surrender. Marshall was the first general to attain the five-star rank.

He pulled this force together in two ways. First, he confronted President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the urgent need for a capable fighting force in Europe and the Pacific. Second, he ruthlessly pruned the dead wood from the military ranks, forcing out at least 600 officers even before the United States entered the fighting. “I was accused right away by the service papers of getting rid of all the brains of the army,” he said. “I couldn’t reply that I was eliminating considerable arteriosclerosis.” But Marshall also believed in giving worthy officers a second chance. At least five Army generals from World War II were removed from combat command but later assigned another division to lead. Nor were senior officers to be micromanaged. They were given enough rope to prove their mettle—or to hang themselves with.

Another key to Marshall’s success, Ricks suggests, is that he adhered rigidly to a classic model of civil-military relations, and studiously avoided any personal or social relationship with his boss. (Indeed, the first time Marshall ever visited Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, Ricks says, was for the president’s funeral.) In addition, a durable fire-wall always stood between Marshall’s public service and his political life—Marshall didn’t vote while he served.

Roosevelt and Marshall were possibly the best wartime civil-military team the nation has ever experienced. FDR used to joke that he thought Marshall deserved to command the D-day landings, but that Roosevelt wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink without him in Washington. Ricks writes that “there also is evidence that Marshall’s presence was required in Washington because he was the sole Army officer capable of reining in MacArthur—and even then, just barely.” Ricks sees Douglas MacArthur as perhaps the worst general of his era. Unlike Marshall, MacArthur routinely smudged the line between his military and political aspirations, seeing himself as an American Caesar, possessed of infallible judgment and iron will, to which presidents should bend.

And then there was George S. Patton, who way overstepped the bounds of military protocol—denouncing Russia, for example, in a speech in England as preparations for D-day were taking place. But Eisenhower understood that the brilliant, relentless commander was indispensable in chasing the Germans out of France. “If today’s Army remains wary of the daring, dramatic, outsize personality, the record of MacArthur (and, to a lesser degree, of Patton) is a big part of the cause,” comments Ricks. “The new model for American generalship would be a quite different, and blander, figure.” (Patton would also be especially admired by later President Richard Nixon, who regularly watched Patton during the Vietnam War.)

Ricks has high praise for Eisenhower, whom Marshall had steadily promoted and who was, in many ways, the template for what Marshall saw as a successful general. Like Marshall, Eisenhower emphasized teamwork and unity, making sure his subordinates got credit when credit was due.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.


  • Doug on November 21, 2012 4:39 PM:

    "...it is almost impossible to favorably compare later generals to Marshall and his generation of commanders given the immense victory that was World War II." Jacob Heilbrunn

    That inability to "favorbly compare later general" is, I think, less because of the "immense victory that was WWII" and more because generals since WWII simply haven't maintained the standards set by Marshall, Eisenhower and their contemporaries and which Marshall and the rest applied to their own actions.
    WWII didn't "make" Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur or even Patton; it did allow them to prove their worth. What our more recent generals lack is not a wider scope for their actions, but that dedication to the country before THEMSLVES AND THEIR CAREERS, which exemplified Marshall and those he chose and supported during WWII.

  • toowearyforoutrage on November 21, 2012 10:37 PM:

    "Is Ricks too hard on the American military?"

    He's hard on generals.
    Allowing mediocre leadeship is hard on teh military.

    Electing incompetent civolian leadship has been downright abusive.

    Democrats have been accused of hating the military becauuse we are slow to declare war and don't see weapons programs as an unadulterated good.

    Perhaps we need to look at generals the way we'd like to look at teachers. If students are failing tests, we need to consider getting them out of the business. How much more so when the young men under command can lose their lives? Higher than average casualties with lower than average goal achievement should similarly be grounds for demotion. Not as punishment, but a necessary distribution of authority producing a meritocricty in a place where its importance is obvious.

  • hornblower on November 22, 2012 11:18 AM:

    The US Army is a little like the Catholic Church. The way you get promoted it to attach yourself to a high standing official. When he gets to name bishops you get the call. God forbid that you rock the boat and put the needs of the congregation ahead of the needs of the institution. This insures that no one with a creative idea will ever get to the higher ranks. Unfortunately, in the Army politics not talent gets you promoted.
    I was in the army and never saw a general. Today I often see them at the Tampa Airport.

  • John Andrechak on November 23, 2012 9:06 AM:

    Lack of reading US WWII history can be one's ppnly excuse for understanding Eisenhower, Patton or any Army leader as worthwhile! Patton was guilty of gross negliegence in the Sicily campaign, allowing paratreoopers to jump on top of his units, leading to a friendly fire slaughter; Eisenhower, as Supreme Commander bears responsibility for Market Garden, Monty's airborne diaster in Holland. MacAurthur went to bed on news of Pearl Harbor, instead of dispersing his air and naval forces, squandering a day as the Japanese couldn't attack due to fog (in Korea he folowed his success at Incon with a total diaster going north, splitting his forces around a mtn range and allowing the Chinese to push them back) My God all of these men were guilty of mass murder of their own troops!

  • Doug on November 23, 2012 6:58 PM:

    John, your phrase "bears responsibility" is what this is all about. Eisenhower never tried to lay the responsibility for any mishaps that occurred on someone else. Nor did Marshall. They were in charge and took the blame or praise. The same cannot be said of MacArthur. I'm not familiar with the exact circumstances of the Patton affair you reference and cannot comment on it.
    If you read the original article you might have noticed that one major difference between Marshall, Eisenhower and Patton and more recent military leaders is the latter AREN'T held responsible in the same way and THAT is what I was trying to point out.
    However, in response to what YOU posted I can state that the idea that ANY war can be fought error-free by anyone is simplistic and childish. The questions are: what caused the "errors" that led to the death of troops under someone's command? Were the "errors" those of judgement or lack of information? Or both? Were the perpetrators of those "errors" held accountable for their mistakes?
    If your post is an attempt to "de-mythologize" those I named, it really wasn't necessary and if your post wasn't THAT, I have no idea what you meant.

  • john on November 24, 2012 12:13 PM:

    Doug, thanks for the reply; the episode with Patton can be found in "Day of Battle"; a airbourne op scheuled in advance was set to take place after conditions on the ground had changed; Patton had the chance to either call it off, have the transports actually land on captured airfields, or take adequate measures to avoid friendly fire, as the drop zone was right over US forces; he did none of the above; a reading of Patton will find a general focused on his career, via PR, and his physical comfort. I would challenge any historian to find one high ranking general in WWII on the Allied side who actually earned their position, or in turn should not have been sacked; Monty, Eisenhower, Brooke, Clarke,MacaAurthur, etal they all allowed failed plans ans strategies to continue, and for the US leaders, failed to pay any worthy effort to the well-being of front line troops

  • Speed on November 26, 2012 6:13 PM:

    I was brought to this article (dated 11/22, oddly enough) because I saw a little photo of Lyman Lemnitzer, father of Operation Northwoods, who was booted out of the Joint Chiefs by JFK.

  • Steve Naidamast on December 25, 2012 9:53 AM:

    Ricks makes some assumptions about WWII generals that are not completely true. American military strategy in general was considered fairly sub-standard for most of the general leadership at the time. However, many military historians believe that Montgomery was the best of them with his careful but tenacious removal of the Wermacht in North Africa.

    Montgomery, though having his own outsized ego, was also subordinated to the dictates of Churchill who was nothing more than a racist war-monger.

    That being said, Aside from Marshall, the generals underneath him were all mostly lacking in strategic leadership. The classic example is the Pacific Campaign, which was fought on the basis of a Japanese attack on the West Coast, which any intelligent person could have seen was physically impossible since the Japanese had neither the means or the capacity to maintain any legitimate supply-line for such a distance. As a result, some military historians have called the Pacific Campaign one of the dumbest military strategies in recent history whereby the US won only by the even greater stupidity of the Japanese.

    European strategy was not all that much better, with the Normandy invasion only succeeding on the mistakes of German strategic thinking. Had the Germans listened to Rommel, the results would have been quite different.

    On a final note, the United States did NOT win World War II, Russia did. In fact, the United States, compared to
    Russian activities was more of a parenthesis than anything else in terms of military might. That being said, US industrial capabilities did enable the Allies to force out the Germans from France and back to Berlin but only because the war in the east had taken such a toll on the German Wermacht...