Feature

Book of the week: The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks

In a “scathing” critique, Thomas Ricks blames the Army's top commanders and internal culture for a long series of failures.

(Penguin, $33)

If it’s job security you crave, you might consider a career as a U.S. Army general, said Spencer Ackerman in Wired.com. In a “scathing” critique that’s “sure to spark teeth-gnashing” at the Pentagon, former Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks blames a long series of Army failures since World War II on unimaginative senior commanders and an internal culture that makes them nearly untouchable. Today’s Army rarely fires top commanders, even if they’re Tommy Franks, who Ricks says was so “strategically illiterate” that, as commander in Afghanistan, he decided it would be a good idea to push Osama bin Laden into Pakistan. Things weren’t always this way. During World War II, Army chief of staff George C. Marshall insisted on effective leadership and routinely removed those who didn’t measure up.

Very few generals escape Ricks’s “caustic assault,” said Andrew Roberts in The Wall Street Journal. Dwight Eisenhower and David Petraeus win the author’s praise, but in between them stretches a long, “highly entertaining” list of disappointing senior commanders, from William Westmoreland to Colin Powell (“a master implementer without a strategy to implement,” Ricks calls him). But while no one would dispute the author’s claim that “the Marshall system” produced a cadre of superior leaders, “his faith in the power of sacking generals en masse is unconvincing.” Maybe Marshall “just started out with fewer good generals in 1941 and thus had greater reason” to remove about 10 percent of them.

But Ricks isn’t saying that quicker sackings are the cure-all, said Neil Sheehan in The Washington Post. He proposes “a wide range” of reforms, from steps that would enforce accountability to reviving the notion that leading soldiers is a privilege, not a right. And his larger quarrel with the Army is that it trains its officers in tactics but fails to educate them in any way that would help them think strategically—that is, to assess big-picture challenges and respond to them creatively. Today’s Army is harder to remake than it was in 1941: It’s far bigger and has far stronger ties to congressional allies who resist upheaval. But the Army needs change. “Whether there are innovators within it who have the wit to listen to Ricks’s sermon, and the courage and shrewdness to take on and overcome the status quo, is a question yet to be answered.”

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