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

By McConnell, Richard A. | Military Review, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

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


McConnell, Richard A., Military Review


THE GENERALS: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Thomas E. Ricks. Penguin Press, New York. 2012, 462 pages, $32.95

At any moment, it is possible that a necessity might arise for my relief and consequent demotion. If so, you are not to worry about it ... If it becomes expedient to reduce me, I would be the first to recommend it.--General Dwight D. Eisenhower, letter to his son, 1942

THE GENERALS IS a controversial but nonetheless important read for military professionals seeking to understand the management of Army generals over the last 70 years. General Eisenhower's letter to his son indicates that even Eisenhower thought he could be relieved at any time. Clearly, there have been changes in the management of generals in the Army. Readers may be tempted to dismiss Tom Ricks' book as one written by a prejudiced outsider, a journalist who has never served as a soldier. This would be a mistake. The Generals contains considerable research, much from first-hand sources of soldiers, officers, and general officers. Those sources frame Ricks' discussion. Ricks also draws material from letters, journals, and duty logs. The reader gets the feeling of looking over the shoulder of people engaged in one of the most dangerous and vital endeavors in which military professionals engage: fighting and winning the wars.

The Generals centers on accountability, using General George C. Marshall as the gold standard. Ricks claims that the current general officer management approach removes generals for moral lapses that embarrass the institution, not for a lack of competence. Marshall fired several generals after Pearl Harbor and instituted a "hire and fire" approach to general officer management. Ricks claims the relief of a general officer under Marshall was not an indication of something broken within the institution; rather, it was viewed as the system working properly. He cites instances where relief of a general did not necessarily end that general's career, with some doing well in later commands.

Ricks claims the Army suffered devolution from the Marshall "hire and fire" approach to one where generals only rarely depart their jobs owing to their incompetence. Ricks' negative examples include Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, both of whom he views as overly tactically focused. Both lacked a vision of the strategic aims of the wars they prosecuted. Ricks suggests they epitomized generals who understood how to start a war but not how to end one. Ricks quotes Colonel Paul Yingling who famously claimed, "As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war." Ricks' suggests a solution to this imbalance is to return to the Marshall approach.

Ricks also holds Marshall up as the standard to meet in military to civilian relations. …

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