On Political Books

November/ December 2012 Brass Backwards

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

By Jacob Heilbrunn

This ethos began to change in the early 1960s. In particular, Ricks fingers General Maxwell Taylor, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Kennedy administration, as a prime culprit for this syndrome in Vietnam. Taylor, Ricks writes, was the un-Marshall. He buttered up his superiors and consistently soft-pedaled the dangers of increasing America’s commitment to the war, partly by convincing President Kennedy that the Vietcong was not a serious military force—surely one of the greatest blunders in American military history. Generals who disagreed with Taylor were generally silenced; instead of getting them to work together, he exploited their mutual animosity by playing them off against each other. This was not how Eisenhower, who stressed cooperation, had behaved. Under the new system, Taylor figured out what he thought would maximize the military’s role—Vietnam looked like an opportunity to justify big budgets—and assured his civilian superiors that North Vietnam was easy pickings. Ricks’s indictment of Taylor is sweeping: “He made a habit of saying not what he knew to be true but instead thought should be said.” Ricks accuses Taylor’s disciple, William Westmoreland, of providing “false evidence” to Congress that his strategy of attrition was working successfully vis-a-vis the North Vietnamese. “Westmoreland,” Ricks observes, “would become the most prominent example of the Army’s shift from leadership to management.” (This shouldn’t have come as a surprise; Westmoreland was, after all, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, which he attended while on active duty.) By “management” Ricks seems to mean that the generals had become careerists rather than bold innovators who would figure out how to take on the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that would have been required in Vietnam. The biggest problem, in other words, was that Westmoreland lacked a fundamental grasp of the kind of war he was fighting, which meant that he was unable to lead the country to victory—a task that may have been insuperable from the outset. A war, however, is not supposed to be a proving ground for doctrines; it should be fought quickly and effectively—a lesson the U.S. had to learn all over again in Iraq.

The Army had no choice but to change its doctrines after Vietnam, particularly with the abolition of the draft. It did not change, however, its conception of generalship. Ricks singles out Colin Powell of the exemplar of the political general, someone who was “a master implementer lacking a real strategy to implement.” Ricks sees a lack of intellectual thought about the relationship between military and political ends as at the core of America’s difficulties in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Of Tommy Franks, he observes that “in a bizarre mutation of military thought, Franks seemed to believe—and to have been taught by the Army—that thinking was something others did for generals. In his autobiography he referred to his military planners, with a whiff of good ol’ boy contempt, as ‘the fifty-pound brains.’” One such general was Eric Shinseki, George W. Bush’s Army chief of staff, who had the temerity to tell Congress the truth about the Iraq invasion: that several hundred thousand more troops would be necessary than were being requested by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. As a result of that testimony, Shinseki saw his career at the Pentagon come to an end.

It was only in 2006, after the drubbing the GOP received in the midterm elections, that Bush began to reassess the military leadership. Ricks stresses that the selection of David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to lead the effort in Iraq marked a decisive shift in the military’s culture—the two men insisted on “taking more risks, moving more aggressively, and despite [italics mine] suffering an increase in casualties, radically improving the morale of American troops.” Their example prompts Ricks to call for reforms of the military, including unconventional career moves such as sending leaders to live overseas in Third World countries for a “sabbatical,” reinstating a policy of quickly relieving incompetent officers, and making all command positions probationary for six months.

Is Ricks too hard on the American military? Most armies seem to blunder their way to victory, or squander the fruits of it in the aftermath. Maybe Ricks is indulging in nostalgia—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.

Still, Ricks’s call for reform is persuasive. His own heroes are the outliers—leaders like Petraeus, who began the job of shaking up the military out of its complacency in Iraq and Afghanistan (though he was more successful in the former country than the latter). In the past, the lessons provided by someone like Petraeus might have been shunted aside, with the Army reverting to its former habits. But that’s unlikely to happen this time. The military is preparing for more unconventional warfare and knows that the days of limitless budgets are coming to an end, no matter what Mitt Romney and GOP lawmakers might promise. But as the military continues to reassess its performance, Ricks’s thunderous blast is likely to leave its own tremors behind. His book is not simply an acute account of the military’s difficulties; it is also a devastating one. One has only to read his dedication: “To those who died following poor leaders.”

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...