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Book Review 294: The Generals

September 19, 2013 - Harry Eagar
THE GENERALS: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks. 558 pages, illustrated. Penguin, $32.95

The late infantry officer David Hackworth quit the Army in disgust over what he called its “no-fault” leadership. It was obvious something was wrong because America, despite all its resources, kept losing wars.

In “The Generals,” Thomas Ricks takes a very narrow approach to explaining defeat, and is persuasive, so far as he goes. Like Hackworth, he finds that failure is not only tolerated but rewarded. And he finds an origin story to explain why: Since 1945, the Army’s high commanders have stopped relieving non-performing combat officers.

While Hackworth called for drastic reforms such as restoring conscription, Ricks limits himself to structural changes, like better training and, of course, a return to the habit of saying, “I relieve you” when a crisis arises.

The Navy, he notes, still does this, removing commanders frequently. But relief almost always results in the end of a naval officer’s career, even if the crisis (like having your anchored ship beached by a tsunami) was beyond the commander’s control. (Although there was a famous exception: Chester Nimitz grounded a destroyer, usually the end, but was not run out; luckily for the Navy.)

The Army, up to ’45, sometimes gave relieved combat commanders another chance; and some of the most valuable parts of “The Generals” explains how that came about. Ricks calls for a relief ethos that recognizes that some commanders who don’t fit in one slot can do well in another: his favorite example is Maj. Gen. “Terrible” Terry Allen. What he never addresses, though, is what so often has happened: A commander fails for lack of resources, is fired, then a new commander is given the right tools and succeeds.

Perhaps this is justified. Although he covers each of his examples briefly, there are so many that the book is long. And besides, there are no recent instances of American Army commanders who failed for lack of resources, except in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the failures were their own fault for not understanding that they needed a lot more infantry than they had.

It is hard to understand why Ricks gives no attention (just one sentence) to the warning by Eric Shinseki, the only competent chief of staff since the early ‘50s, that the 2003 Iraq war could not be concluded successfully without infantry.

Incurious George fired Shinseki, so that would have been a marvelous opening to explore the failures of civilian high command. It isn’t only our generals who do not know what they are doing.

Most of “The Generals” is analysis of facts more or less known, but I did learn one important piece of information I had not seen before. In the earlier Gulf War, apparently Colin Powell was also concerned about lack of infantry, although not enough to lose his job over it.

It is noteworthy that Ricks, a newspaperman, uses almost no journalistic sources, instead mining a huge trove of military studies, plus some interviews done for this book.

This should make his conclusions more appealing to Pentagon power brokers, who have a long history of disdaining newspaper reporters who, it so often turns out, were right after all. But I have seen no evidence that Ricks’ book has had any effect. His book “Fiasco” about how we lost the second Iraq and Afghanistan wars was devastating about the failures of Ray Odierno (which were almost exactly the failures of William Westmoreland in Vietnam), but Odierno is now chief of staff. (He comes off better in this book than in “Fiasco,” for reasons not evident to me.)

I admire Ricks for his intense focus but do not think either his analysis nor his proposed remedies are anywhere near the whole story. He does not, for example, spend any time at all on corruption, which was rampant when I was an officer trainee 50 years ago and, as your daily newspaper will tell you, still is.

On the other hand, Ricks really knows his Army. He is the first historian or analyst I have encountered who understands that the Army ran out of platoon leaders during Tet, something that was obvious to us trainees at the time. (He places the beginning of that failure too late, but at least he recognizes failure when he sees it.) He throws that observation in casually, as if it were something everyone understands. It isn’t; it is something that deserves a book in itself.

Ah, well, that is part of the disappointment of reading a really good book. It is always too short.


Article Comments



Sep-23-13 7:03 PM

As one who has read numerous books on America's never ending wars from 1776 to the present I find your conclusions of winning and losing mystifying. I believe war is a dirty business of survival and the winning and losing aspect almost childish. Reading U.S. war history is filled with incompetence and the winning done by accident. For our Independence Washington ran like*****until the British gave up due to other responsibilities in their empire. More of the same in 1812. The carnage of our Civil War, while the North fought with little conviction the South was still defeated. WW1 was the meat grinder of American bodies that turned the tide for the Allies. WW2 we were so unprepared if it wasn't for the Russian push on the Germans we would have been pushed into the ocean in Northern Africa back in 1942.Vietnam was lost from the beginning and we should have headed the French advise. Ask my Marine Uncle that served that war we didn't lose anything. Iraq we took out the dictator.....


Sep-21-13 9:23 PM

The parallel I draw between Tet and now is that Tet was a huge defeat for America, though the rightwingers still deny it; and Iraq was a huge defeat for the US, and the rightwingers still don't know it.


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