The Generals – Book Review
Mention the name Tom Ricks in Army circles and you are sure to produce some quick responses. Many of these will be of the one-word variety and will likely be on the unflattering side. However, there will be others who will be more positive on their feelings regarding Ricks’ thoughts, analysis, and opinions. His latest volume The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is sure to generate debate within both groups and the civilian populace as well.
The premise of The Generals is a provocative one. In essence, Ricks is passionate that the military (principally the Army) has shirked its duty in policing its own ranks at the general officer level since the end of World War II. He is firm in his conviction that when a general officer needed to be relived it was done by civilian leaders and not by senior Army leadership. Consequently, he contends that many Army general officers since the end of World War II through the present have been allowed to serve in wartime despite substandard performances.
Perhaps the first question readers will ask is, why does Ricks select World War II as his start point? As readers will discover quickly, the Army of World War II had it about right in policing its ranks—in particular those Army forces in the European Theater. Ricks gives full credit for this to General George C. Marshall. Ricks believes Marshall understood how to groom general officers and set the conditions for their success. Just as importantly, Marshall understood that if a general officer was not performing in combat, that officer must be relieved. He also felt that some of these officers should be afforded another chance (and he offered “another chance” several times).
Utilizing Marshall as his starting point and standard, Ricks focuses his volume on answering three questions. First, how and why did we lose the longstanding practice of relieving generals for failure? Second, why has accountability declined? Finally, is the decline in accountability connected to the decline in the operational competence of American generals? I believe readers will agree that Ricks has indeed answered each of the questions in detail. It is another matter if they concur with the answers Ricks provides.
In answering his key questions and defending his premise, Ricks does not beat around the bush. Those who have read any of his previous books (The Gamble and Fiasco), articles or blogs know he is highly opinionated. If he believes praise is justified; he will heap praise. Conversely, if he feels criticism is warranted; he can be blunt and brutal. Within The Generals, he doles out both, but as one would surmise, is far more on the critical side.
The list of generals who reside on that “critical-side list” is long. It includes those whom he believes were substandard in combat and those who condoned their performance. Conversely, there are a handful of officers who fare much better in Rick’s estimation. Some of the names will surprise you; others will not. Again, Ricks does not sugar coat anything. He provides his rationale bluntly and as a common theme of this review; some will agree with his reasoning and others will not. Consider these two paragraphs from the epilogue:
The American ground force today is a long way from being George Marshall’s army, but it is not clear whose Army it has become. The post-Vietnam Army was created in large part by Creighton Abrams, William DePuy, Donn Starry, Maxwell Thurman, and Paul Gorman, but even their far-reaching influence is fading.
It did not become of the Army of David Petraeus—nor is it, thankfully, the Army of Tommy R. Franks. Today’s Army is deeply strained, having fought for more than ten years since 9/11, with soldiers serving multiple combat tours while 99 percent of the American population has been asked to sacrifice nothing except its time and privacy when going through security checkpoints. Now the Army and the other services are facing a decade or more of budget cuts. The Army will be shaped by young officers, likely veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who in the coming years will rise to command the force.
For those who have read Ricks before, his basic strengths are on full display within The Generals. First, his writing style is clear and simply flows well for the reader. Second, he utilizes an excellent group of researchers to provide the historical context thais is obviously critical to this book. Third, the organization of the book enables readers to follow his premise. He chronologically lays out his argument and breaks up the volume into small chapters focusing on specific general officers. These, and of course the subject matter, make The Generals a highly readable volume.
Many of you have read books in which the author lists a litany of problems. However, in many cases, the problems are never followed up with any potential solutions. For those who are familiar with Tom Ricks, you know he inevitably presents possible solutions to the problems he deems exist. Within The Generals, he focuses his epilogue (entitled “Restoring American military leadership”) to providing those answers.
The approach Ricks interestingly utilizes is to discuss what steps Marshall would take to fix the problems the volume highlights. Ricks, presenting what he believes Marshall would do, elaborates on many actions that are thought-provoking and will obviously ruffle some feathers. This includes teaching general officers how to interact with civilian leadership, selecting general officers who possess different traits and perhaps a different mindset than in the past, and implementing policies that relieve commanders early in wars, with the option of forgiveness.
Will readers agree with everything within The Generals? Absolutely not! In fact, there will be many who will not agree with anything in Ricks’ volume. In either case, I believe that is a good thing. The beauty of The Generals is it has stimulated debate throughout the Army, the military, and various civilian circles. Agree or disagree!
Rick Baillergeon is a retired U.S. Army Infantry officer. Since his retirement, he has served as a faculty member at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also co-author of the popular Armchair General web series “Tactics 101.”