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