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

By Bracknell, Robert | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2013 | Go to article overview

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


Bracknell, Robert, Joint Force Quarterly


By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press, 2012

576 pp. $32.95

ISBN: 978-1-59420-404-3

Tom Ricks is no stranger to criticizing the modern crop of generals. A fellow at the Center for New American Security, Ricks decisively established his national reputation with Making the Corps, followed by two successful analyses of the Iraq War, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. Along the way, Ricks became a cynic, relentlessly critiquing the decision to go to war in Iraq, the conduct of the conflict, particularly the generalships of Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, the utter dysfunction of the strategic decisionmaking and interagency processes required to make America's modern conflicts successful, and, most saliently, the failures of the conflict's most senior military leadership. Ricks weaves critiques of Army leadership, in particular, into a fluid, meticulously researched tapestry, but leaves room for debate about his ultimate conclusions. Ricks's focus on the technical and strategic prowess of generals causes him to gloss over the moral and ethical components of leadership that have eviscerated the legacies of a number of senior generals. Even so, failing to consider and evaluate the themes that Ricks identifies risks maturing a crop of generals for whom the professional end simply is wearing stars, not leading the military properly into the next century and candidly rendering their best military advice to our nation's civilian leaders.

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Ricks convincingly traces modern failures of generalship to their origins in the interwar period, through World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Operations Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom. He juxtaposes successful Army and Marine generals through their histories with the characteristics of history's failed generals. Ricks draws specific, substantiated conclusions about generalship, Army culture, civil-military relations, and the way the Army has elected to organize, train, and equip itself in ways that ultimately suboptimized Service performance. Specifically identifying the Army's modern-era reluctance to effect senior leader reliefs as a departure from the pattern of history, Ricks paints an image of the ultimate country club, self-righteously convinced of its own infallibility--an Army for the sake of The Army, rather than for the sake of the Nation. The result is an outline of what ails the modern Army, with lessons to be considered not only for that Service to correct itself, but also for all the Armed Forces and their civilian leaders. Convincingly, Ricks identifies history's A-list of generals--George C. Marshall, George S. Patton, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Matthew Ridgway, O.P. Smith, Creighton Abrams, William E. DuPuy, and David Petraeus, among others. Not surprisingly, on his B-list of general officer failures, Ricks singles out Douglas MacArthur, William Westmoreland, Norman Schwarzkopf, Franks, and Sanchez, suggesting strongly that their failures in generalship have amounted not only to massive strategic failures, but also to unnecessary loss of American lives, from Korea through Afghanistan.

Ricks works to identify tangible, quantifiable historical trends and specific strategic, operational, personnel, and program decisions that yielded undesirable shortand long-term effects. He bemoans the Army's gravitation away from the concept of meaningful relief (performance-based firing, as opposed to mere conduct-based) as a leadership-shaping mechanism. Once upon a time, senior leaders fired generals because they believed line Soldiers deserved to be well led and not to have their lives squandered. Now, suggests Ricks, the needs of the institution and concerns over the senior leader's career compete for consideration in the decision space. In an effort to demonstrate an example of "doing it right" in the modern era, Ricks reaches deep below the senior-leader level to examine the relief of Colonel Joe Dowdy, USMC, the commander of First Marine Regiment in the march to Baghdad. …

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