Book Review: The Generals, by Thomas E. Ricks

By HistoryNet Staff
11/2/2012 • Dwight Eisenhower, Military History Book Reviews

The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks, Penguin, New York, 2012, $32.95

Tom Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and leading analyst of U.S. military affairs, has a reputation for pulling no punches. His latest book is an intellectual satchel charge resting on two basic points: The modern American way of war is based on management, and successful management depends on the accountability of its senior executives. According to Ricks’ analysis, the U.S. Army during World War II expected general officers to fail in combat. When that happened, superiors removed them. Those who rose to the top and remained there may have been organization men, but under Chief of Staff George C. Marshall and field commanders like Dwight Eisenhower the organization succeeded.

After 1945, however, relief and reassignment became less a normal aspect of command management than a sign that the system of preparing and appointing general officers had failed. The Army sought to compensate by closer supervision in contexts that encouraged caution and conformity. Such qualities were undesirable when responding to wars in which the definition of victory was obscure and its achievability questionable. In Korea and Vietnam the Army fought hard but not always well. Its generals performed by mutually sustaining rote. Refusal to recognize mistakes turned into self-deception. Trust gave way to micromanagement.

The word for that is bureaucratization, and The Generals pitilessly demonstrates the ephemeral nature of the Army’s post-Vietnam efforts to reinvigorate its senior commanders. Innovation focused on machines rather than mentalities. The consequences were manifested in the Gulf War and highlighted after 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leadership became waiting for one’s turn. Keeping generals from embarrassment became—and remains—more important than caring for soldiers or winning wars.

Ricks’ proposals for reforming leadership are less important than his demonstration that the problem’s roots lie in bureaucratization. Accountability is bureaucratization’s nemesis in any system. The challenge lies in implementing it.

—Dennis Showalter

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