“The Generals” American Military Command from World War II to the Present by Thomas E. Ricks


Troubles between a president and his generals are not new in the history of American civil-military relations. Abraham Lincoln had to fight his way through a succession of generals before he could find the man, Ulysses S. Grant, who could defeat Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy. Woodrow Wilson had better luck during the First World War. He had the decisive and capable John J. Pershing. Franklin Roosevelt had even better luck during World War II. He had the incomparable George C. Marshall.

After that, things began to change, as we learn in this important and timely book by Thomas E. Ricks about the decline of senior leadership in the US military. Ricks touchstone is the standard set by Marshall, the creator of the modern US military. The “Marshall system,” as Ricks calls it, consisted of Marshall determining the requirements of a position, appointing the best man he could find, and then allowing him the freedom to exercise his judgment and initiative in the job. accomplishment of the task. The most famous example was Marshall’s elevation of Dwight Eisenhower from Brigadier One Star to Commander-in-Chief of Operation Torch, the 1942 landings in North Africa that constituted the first Allied counter-offensive.

In the Marshall system, if the officer proved incompetent or fatigued and fatigued in his work, he was relieved, and reliefs of senior officers were common, especially of major generals commanding divisions. Eisenhower, too, was nearly relieved after the brilliant Desert Fox Field Marshal Erwin Rommel routed American troops in their initial clash at Tunisia’s Kasserine Pass. Because of its rigorous demands and willingness to act quickly against failure, the Marshall system, Ricks points out, brought excellent leadership to the upper ranks of the military.

The system began to break down in Korea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were too intimidated by Douglas MacArthur to relieve him in 1950 after he ignored their instructions to limit his advance, ignored warnings of Chinese intervention, and sent his troops into the snow-capped mountains below the Yalu River. The Chinese fell on his army and precipitated a distraught 155-mile retreat down the Korean Peninsula, the longest withdrawal in American military annals, then another 55-mile withdrawal with the loss of the southern capital. -Korean Korea a second time when the Chinese advanced and struck again. It took President Harry Truman to personally fire MacArthur in April 1951 after the general openly agitated the right in Congress to start a full-scale war, using atomic weapons, with China.

Then, in South Vietnam under William Westmoreland, came another nadir in the American general. Westmoreland was convinced that the way to win was through an attrition strategy that would kill the Vietcong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese regular army faster than they could replace their losses. He even had a term for when his goal would be achieved – the “crossing point”. The strategy involved massive “search and destroy” operations that wreaked bloody havoc among the Vietnamese countryside peasantry and an unrelenting conflict between meat grinders along the former demilitarized zone that served as the border in the north of the country. . Equally important, the strategy also resulted in many American losses. Worst of all was the absurdity. The intelligence was so bad that in about 85% of the actions, it was the Vietnamese communists who started the fight. In other words, Westmoreland could never inflict decisive attrition on his opponents because they controlled the tempo of combat and therefore their attrition rate – and his own.

‘The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today’ by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin)

Strangely, Ricks does not mention the forceful opposition to the strategy of the Navy’s top Pacific official, Lieutenant General Victor Krulak, who was so vocal that, although probably the most brilliant and creative of his generation, he was later denied command of the Corps. His son, Charles Krulak, twice wounded in the fighting along the DMZ, then rose to the position his father sacrificed. Ricks, however, quotes General William DePuy, the intellectual advocate of strategy as Westmoreland’s operations officer, admitting his futility years later: “We…. . . did not know the fearsome nature of the North Vietnamese regime. We had no idea what unwavering, stubborn and dedicated people they were. Their willingness to absorb losses compared to ours was not even of the same order of magnitude.

And it still took the president to relieve the general, in what Ricks points out was becoming a pattern. After the nationwide communist surprise offensive of Tet (the Vietnamese lunar new year holiday) in 1968 exposed the bankruptcy of Westmoreland’s strategy, Lyndon Johnson waited several months before calling his general home. In a stunning move, instead of removing Westmoreland, the President appointed him Chief of the Army Staff, the first time a defeated general had been given the position.

The Vietnam section is the best part of the book due to its drama. Much of what Ricks mentions can be found elsewhere, but his skill at putting it all together and his fresh ideas give the narrative power. He’s not an elegant writer, but the cutting and direct quality of his prose makes up for that.

His feud with the military is that it trains its senior officers in tactics but not strategic thinking, by which he seems to mean the ability to be imaginative and innovative in the face of unorthodox challenges. In his account of the generalization during the Iraq War, Ricks only gives high marks to David Petraeus and his associate, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, for adopting a conciliatory attitude towards former members of Saddam’s Baath Party. Hussein and brought insurgent Sunni clans to their side by putting them on the US payroll. These two moves helped create the fragile status quo between rival Iraqi factions that allowed the United States to withdraw from the country.

In his epilogue, Ricks offers a wide range of measures to reform the military. Among them are measures to enforce the accountability of senior officers and to inculcate appropriate attitudes towards leadership. “Leadership should not be seen as a matter of officers taking turns or lining up,” he writes. “Leading soldiers is a privilege, not a right. Just as getting that job is earned, so should keeping it.

The catch is that today’s army is very different from the small, archaic army that Marshall inherited in 1939. Its senior officer corps was a collection of retired generals out of touch with the mechanized revolution of war, and the nation faced an imminent threat. threat that gave impetus to Marshall’s goals. Once he had swept away those antiquities, he could start over. Today’s military is an entrenched bureaucracy, comfortable with itself and funded and protected by its friends in Congress. Whether there are any innovators within it who have the spirit to listen to Ricks’ sermon and the courage and insight to confront and overcome the status quo is an unanswered question.


Neil Sheehan who spent three years in Vietnam as a war correspondent, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam” and “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon.”


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