The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

By Linn, Brian Mcallister | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today


Linn, Brian Mcallister, The Wilson Quarterly


THE GENERALS: AMERICAN MILITARY COMMAND FROM WORLD WAR II TO TODAY

By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press

576 pp. $32.95

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IN A DEVASTATING REVIEW OF GENERAL Tommy Frank's 2004 autobiography, Andrew J. Bacevich observed that as the United States has become increasingly reliant on its armed forces to maintain its global position, "the quality of senior American military leadership has seldom risen above the mediocre. The troops are ever willing, the technology remarkable, but first-rate generalship has been hard to come by." This critique from Bacevich, a prominent professor of international relations at Boston University and a former Army officer, caused a firestorm in the U.S. Army--staffers at the Pentagon allegedly handed out copies with the fervor of Soviet dissidents distributing samizdat.

Within a few years relations between field officers and the brass had gotten to a point where open confrontations were occurring at many of the military schools. Whether true or not, a story circulated that students at one war college, most with some two decades of service, were required to submit their questions for screening so that no visiting general might be offended. Treated like adolescents, the students responded by asking variations of "Sir, how did you become such a brilliant and handsome man, and how can I be more like you?"

In a 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal, Army officer Paul Yingling added fuel to the fire, declaring that the "intellectual and moral failures" evident in Iraq "constitute a crisis in American generalship." Yingling argued that, in contrast to the traditional ideal of military accountability and command responsibility, in today's Army "a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war." With the exception of a few senior commanders--David Petraeus, Martin Dempsey, Ray Odierno--and some of the recently promoted junior officers, the 11-year global war on terror has not been kind to the reputation of U.S. Army generals.

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In Tom Ricks's provocative study of the origins and consequences of this decline, he asks the fundamental questions American policymakers, citizens, and military personnel have largely chosen to ignore: Why has the U.S. Army, which in World War II produced a galaxy of superior general officers--George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Matthew B. Ridgway, James Gavin, George S. Patton, Lucian Truscott--subsequently gone to war under commanders such as William C. Westmoreland, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Tommy Franks? Why have fellow officers held so few senior military leaders accountable for their strategic failures? Why has the practice of superior officers relieving from command those who don't measure up--standard operating procedure during World War II--virtually disappeared from the U.S. armed forces? And, as a corollary, why, since the Korean War, is relief from command more likely to be a consequence of moral rather than military mistakes, and more often than not the decision of political rather than military leaders? Why has the U.S. Army consistently produced dedicated, intelligent, articulate, innovative, and adaptive field-grade officers, and equally consistently failed to promote them to its highest ranks?

Ricks is well qualified to take on the task of deconstructing the complexities of American military command. He has established his credentials as one of the nation's foremost military analysts in a long career as a journalist and defense commentator for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. His 2006 book Fiasco delivered a devastating critique of the George W. Bush administration's misguided military adventurism and the U.S. military leaders who executed it. It was, and remains, probably the most influential work on the early years of the Iraq war, shaping the narrative for all subsequent coverage of that conflict. …

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