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.
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. I’ve assigned Fiasco to my military history classes, and by far the strongest support for its analysis comes from veterans. One Marine Corps drill sergeant confessed to throwing her copy across the room every three pages and called it “fucking professionally embarrassing, sir.” But she insisted I assign it to every subsequent class. Another veteran responded to a fellow student’s criticism that someone should “tell the Army’s version” with the comment, “Dude, Fiasco IS the Army’s version. Who do you think provided him all his sources?”
In The Generals, Ricks provides a historical overview of U.S. Army command since World War II by studying some two dozen Army generals, from Marshall to Petraeus. This approach has been taken before, but almost inevitably in treatments only slightly less hagiographic than the generals’ own memoirs. Ricks provides a refreshingly candid assessment both of American generals and of the Army that gave them command.
Taking George C. Marshall as the general who made it all work, Ricks identifies the personal characteristics Marshall viewed as essential for leadership: common sense, professional knowledge, physical fitness and stamina, loyalty, determination, optimism, and the ability to work within a group. Marshall was ruthless in removing officers he believed incapable of meeting his high standards; as Army chief of staff he fired some 600 before World War II began. Of the 42 senior officers who in 1941 commanded units at the division level or higher in the Louisiana Maneuvers, the testing ground for the Army’s upper-level leadership, only 11 went on to command in wartime. Ricks makes the convincing argument that the relief-from-command system in World War II cleared away the incompetents and allowed those who excelled to rise quickly.
First and foremost among these beneficiaries was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who not only embodied all of Marshall’s criteria for a general’s character but also profited from Marshall’s purge of older, less competent superiors. In his treatment of Eisenhower and several other generals, Ricks makes a strong case that Marshall’s system of identifying good officers and removing bad ones was largely institutionalized within the Army during World War II. When Matthew B. Ridgway took over the dispirited Eighth Army in Korea in 1951, he followed Marshall’s example, ruthlessly purging officers whom he believed had failed to provide leadership.
What has happened since then? At the institutional level, the very size of the post–World War II service, its increasing bureaucratization, and the need to protect Army interests against those of the other services made relief for cause institutionally unacceptable. In Vietnam, Ricks notes, superiors cautioned generals such as William DePuy who did relieve officers that they were damaging both their own careers and the Army. Whereas in World War II relief was taken as proof the system worked, after the Korean War relief was increasingly interpreted as a failure of the Army, and thus unacceptable.
Unwilling, or unable, to remove mediocre officers, superiors have resorted to micromanaging. This has created a culture in which top officers control rather than command, and in which subordinates are promoted for their compliance, not their initiative. Compounding the problem is the fact that the Army personnel system provides only a very short time for officers to command tactical forces. They are under enormous pressure to perform well — another indirect result of micromanagement — and often respond by ignoring requirements they view as nonessential (such as educating junior officers for command duties) and focusing on those that enhance their careers. Above all, both senior and junior officers have learned to avoid risk, since mediocre performance will probably not hurt one’s career, but making a mistake may destroy it.
When this “zero defects” Army has gone to war, these micromanaging leaders have proven unable to adjust to chaos and complexity, and their subordinates have been either unable or not permitted to take action. The perils of command by micromanagement became apparent during the Vietnam War, when company commanders engaged in active combat with the enemy received a torrent of often-conflicting advice from successive layers of helicoptering senior leadership. And despite the Army’s post-Vietnam sloganeering about its commitment to commander’s intent, mission-type orders (telling a subordinate what needs to be done, but not how to do it), and practicing leadership, Ricks finds evidence of the same micromanagement, and the same aversion to risk, in both the Persian Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Enraging and informative as it is, The Generals raises several important unresolved questions that are sure to spawn further debate among historians and military intellectuals. First, are the U.S. Army’s post–World War II leadership problems essentially individual or systemic? Has the Army in the last half-century simply had a run of bad luck in the pool of senior officers available to lead its forces, or has its personnel system consistently proved incapable of generating superior wartime commanders? The book’s organization—each chapter devoted to an individual general — tends to reinforce the thesis that failure is the result of having the wrong man in the wrong job, but much of the weight of Ricks’s analysis, as well as his recommendations for change, points to systemic problems. It is not clear if he believes Army wartime command could be improved by addressing the systemic problem of failing to identify — and require for promotion — those innate qualities Marshall esteemed, or if it should be improved by fostering more opportunities to practice genuine leadership free from micromanagement.
The tension in Ricks’s analysis between systemic and individual failure is nowhere more apparent than in his treatment of William C. Westmoreland, the general who commanded U.S. ground forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. Ricks cites historian Stanley Karnow, who describes Westmoreland as a quintessential 1950s “organization man” adrift in the complexities of the Vietnam War. But is Ricks defining an organization man as someone who compromises his individuality and integrity for the institution? Under that definition, a far better example would be the Army chief of staff during the Vietnam War, General Harold K. Johnson, who is alleged to have considered resigning over the conduct of the war, but went along with Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson because he thought that to disagree might hurt the Army.
A second question concerns the nature of modern generalship itself. Marshall did not have to rely on his fellow officers for much of the expertise needed to mobilize, train, and deploy the military resources of the United States. A host of civilians (the dollar-a-year men) applied their corporate expertise to solving the Army’s problems. In contrast, the modern Army general usually comes from the operational career path, with extensive experience in the management of troops and their equipment. But as a general, within the space of two years he or she may be expected to write the service’s new combat concept, serve as president of a school, oversee the training of Afghan forces, or direct the design and testing of a new tank. For several decades, Army generals have been in a perpetual cycle of learning and then leaving an assignment, seldom staying long enough to see any operation through to completion. Small wonder that many of the most intelligent and innovative become frustrated and opt out of higher command, leaving the uppermost ranks to those adept at climbing over the burned-out remains of their staffs, avoiding risk, and cultivating allies.
A third question is whether excellence in wartime generalship is actually a priority for the U.S. armed forces or the nation. Ricks makes a convincing argument for restricting most of his analysis to the U.S. Army’s generalship, but many of his criticisms — careerism, conformity, risk aversion, strategic mediocrity — could be applied to the senior leadership throughout the armed forces. Despite perpetual campaigns to make every servicemember from privates to generals an exemplar of the “warrior spirit,” the nation’s high command seems more focused on budgets, technology, and prestige than on winning wars.
An outsider reading the Army vision statements of the last decade might well conclude that the service was more concerned with developing the Future Combat Systems (an estimated $160 billion “system-of-systems” that included a Future Force Warrior infantry combat system, a fleet of high-tech vehicles, and an “intelligent munitions system”) than with resolving the operational problems in Iraq and Afghanistan. The congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, an analysis of the nation’s strategic goals and possible threats that is reputed to require the personnel equivalent of an infantry division to complete, is just one of the outside demands placed on the armed forces. Indeed, at least since the Korean War, Congress has seemed more willing to tolerate military mediocrity — even to the point of losing a war — than to risk military mobilization, increased taxation, equitable national service, or a reduction of the bloated military-industrial complex.
In short, perhaps Americans, both civilian and uniformed, are getting the military leadership they want. This notion is far beyond Ricks’s stated purview in The Generals, but after reading his entertaining, provocative, and important book, it is hard not to ask such questions.
Brian McAllister Linn is a professor of history and Ralph R. Thomas Professor in Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University and the author of several works of military history, including The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (2007) and The Philippine War, 1899–1902 (2000). He was a Wilson Center fellow in 2004–2005.
Reviewed: The Generals, by Thomas E. Ricks. Penguin Press, 576 pp.
Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army.