Troubles between a president and his generals are hardly new in the history of American civil-military relations. Abraham Lincoln had to work his way through a succession of generals before he was able to find the man, Ulysses S. Grant, who could defeat the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee. Woodrow Wilson was more fortunate in World War I. He had the decisive and capable John J. Pershing. Franklin Roosevelt was even more fortunate in World War II. He had the incomparable George C. Marshall.
After that, things began to change, as we learn in this important and timely book by Thomas E. Ricks about the decline of senior leadership in the United States Army. Ricks’s touchstone is the standard established by Marshall, the creator of the modern American Army. The “Marshall system,” as Ricks calls it, consisted of Marshall determining the requirements of a position, appointing the best man he could find to it and then giving the man freedom to exercise his judgment and initiative in fulfilling the task. The most famous example was Marshall’s elevation of Dwight Eisenhower from one-star brigadier to commander in chief of Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa in 1942 that constituted the first Allied counteroffensive.
Under the Marshall system, if the officer proved incompetent or grew tired and stale in the job, he was relieved, and reliefs of senior officers were common, particularly of major generals commanding divisions. Eisenhower, too, came close to being relieved after the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, routed the American troops in their initial confrontation at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Because of its rigorous demands and willingness to act swiftly against failure, the Marshall system, Ricks points out, brought excellent leadership to the Army’s upper ranks.
The system first began to break down in Korea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were too intimidated by Douglas MacArthur to relieve him in 1950 after he ignored their instructions to limit his advance, disregarded warnings of Chinese intervention and sent his troops into the snow-covered mountains below the Yalu River. The Chinese fell upon his army and precipitated a retreat in disarray 155 miles back down the Korean Peninsula, the longest withdrawal in American military annals, and then another 55 miles of withdrawal with the loss of the South Korean capital of Seoul a second time when the Chinese advanced and struck again. It took President Harry Truman to personally fire MacArthur in April 1951 after the general openly agitated with right-wingers in Congress to start a full-scale war, using atomic weapons, with China.
Then, in South Vietnam under William Westmoreland, came another nadir in American generalship. Westmoreland was convinced that the way to win was through a strategy of attrition that would kill off the Viet Cong guerrillas and the regular North Vietnamese army faster than they could replace their losses. He even had a term for the moment when his objective would be reached — the “cross-over point.” The strategy entailed massive “search and destroy” operations that caused bloody havoc among the peasantry in the Vietnamese countryside and relentless meat-grinder conflict along the onetime Demilitarized Zone that served as a boundary in the country’s north. Equally important, the strategy also led to high American casualties. Worst of all was the senselessness. Intelligence was so bad that in about 85 percent of the actions, it was the Vietnamese communists who initiated combat. In other words, Westmoreland could never inflict decisive attrition on his opponents because they controlled the pace of combat and thus their rate of attrition — and his.
Strangely, Ricks does not mention the forceful opposition to the strategy by the senior Marine in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak, who was so vociferous that, although probably the brightest and most creative Marine officer of his generation, he was later denied command of the Corps. His son, Charles Krulak, twice wounded in the fighting along the DMZ, subsequently rose to the position his father sacrificed. Ricks does, however, quote Gen. William DePuy, the intellectual advocate of the strategy as Westmoreland’s operations officer, admitting its futility years later: “We . . . didn’t know about the redoubtable nature of the North Vietnamese regime. We didn’t know what steadfast, stubborn, dedicated people they were. Their willingness to absorb losses compared with ours wasn’t even in the same ballpark.”
And it again took the president to relieve the general, in what Ricks points out was becoming a pattern. After the surprise countrywide communist offensive of Tet (the Vietnamese lunar new year holiday) in 1968 revealed the bankruptcy of Westmoreland’s strategy, Lyndon Johnson waited several months before calling his general home. In an astonishing move, instead of retiring Westmoreland, the president named him chief of staff of the Army, the first time a defeated general had been given that post.
The Vietnam section is the best part of the book because of its drama. Much of what Ricks mentions can be found elsewhere, but his skill at pulling it all together and his fresh insights give the narrative power. He is not an elegant writer, but the trenchant, straightforward quality of his prose makes up for this.
His quarrel with the Army is that it trains its senior officers in tactics but not in strategic thinking, by which he seems to mean the capacity to bring imagination and innovation to bear when faced with unorthodox challenges. In his account of generalship during the Iraq war, Ricks gives high marks only to David Petraeus and his associate Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, for taking a conciliatory attitude toward former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and bringing the insurgent Sunni clans over to their side by putting them on the U.S. payroll. Both moves helped to create the fragile status quo between the rival Iraqi factions that enabled the United States to withdraw from the country.
In his epilogue, Ricks proposes a wide range of measures to reform the Army. Among them are steps to enforce the accountability of senior officers and the instilling of proper attitudes toward leadership. “Leadership should not be seen as a matter of officers taking turns or waiting in line,” he writes. “Leading soldiers is a privilege, not a right. Just as getting that position is earned, so should keeping it be.”
The rub is that the Army of the present is vastly different from the small and archaic Army that Marshall inherited in 1939. Its senior officer corps was a collection of superannuated generals out of touch with the mechanized revolution in warfare, and the nation confronted an imminent threat that lent impetus to Marshall’s aims. Once he had swept these antiquities aside, he could start afresh. The Army of today is an entrenched bureaucracy, comfortable with itself and funded and protected by its friends in Congress. Whether there are innovators within it who have the wit to listen to Ricks’s sermon and the courage and shrewdness to take on and overcome the status quo is a question yet to be answered.