October 17, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Generals’

By Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin, $32.95, 558 pages, illustrated

In a recent Washington Post story about the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan with an attack on Camp Bastion in Helmand province, defense analyst Joshua Foust commented that the Taliban are fighting politically while the American generals are fighting tactically. That is one of the main points made by Thomas Ricks in his new book, “The Generals,” a scathing critique of modern general officer leadership.

Mr. Ricks says the high-water mark of general officer competence was during World War II under the leadership of Gen. George C. MarshallMarshall hand-picked U.S. Army senior combat leaders throughout the war. Mr. Ricks argues that Marshall looked for officers who showed a combination of vigor, competence and the ability to be team players. Legend has it that he kept a little black book throughout his career that noted the officers who he thought would make outstanding combat commanders in the war that he knew was coming.

As the war clouds gathered, Marshall began systematically weeding out tired, old Army generals and replacing them with the young tigers from his list. Among those plucked from relatively junior ranks were names such as EisenhowerBradley, Gavin and Hodges. Marshall kept around a number of promising old war horses as well. Most notable was George PattonMarshall was canny enough to see beyond the bombast and bravado and identify Patton as having a real genius for combat. Marshall and Eisenhower protected Patton from himself and a liberal press corps that often called for his head. When they finally turned Patton loose at the head of an Army of his own, he paid back their confidence in spades.

The Marshall system was intolerant of failure. If the wrong man got placed inadvertently in a position where he did not excel, he was ruthlessly relieved. However, relief was not an automatic professional kiss of death. Some general officers in the wrong spot were relieved early and rehabilitated. Terry Allen and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. were relieved as the leadership team of the 1st Infantry Division, the fabled Big Red One, not because of combat incompetence but because the division’s soldiers were notoriously rowdy when they were not in combat. Both were later reinstated with other divisions and served well; Roosevelt died of a heart attack leading troops at Normandy.

Mr. Ricks contends that things began to go downhill after Marshall left the scene to become secretary of state. In his opinion, becoming a general officer became an end in itself, and the ranks of people wearing stars became sacrosanct. Indeed, instead of generals firing other generals when specific individuals proved inadequate for the job, that task since the Korean War has fallen by default to senior civilians. President Truman had to relieve Gen. Douglas MacArthur when his megalomania became insubordination. The secretary of defense relieved the Air Force chief of staff in the Persian Gulf War for revealing classified information publicly. President Obama has fired two of the senior commanders in AfghanistanMr. Ricks states that relief has become an automatic career ender rather than a means of putting the right person in the right job.

The author also says that the military manpower system values a generalist approach too much and tends to place people in positions just because they are available. He uses the example of Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was picked to replace the equally inept Gen. Tommy Franks in Iraq simply because Gen. Sanchez happened to be the next ranking officer in the country. He was dismally unsuited to run a counterinsurgency campaign.

It is not clear that even Omar Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower would have been more adept at handling Iraq or Afghanistan than our current crop of generals. Of the World War II generals, Patton might have done best in the counterinsurgency environment. People who remember only the bombast tend to overlook his enlightened stints as military governor of Morocco and in Germany, but we will never know.

Mr. Ricks acknowledges that some extremely talented general officers have been produced since World War II, Gen. David H. Petraeus among them, but obviously feels that they somehow have slipped through a flawed system. I know of few retired officers and enlisted men who don’t feel that the military manpower system is badly broken. I’ll leave it for the informed reader to agree or disagree with Mr. Ricks‘ prescriptions for fixing it. However, senior defense officials should read this thoughtful and provocative book.