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Book Review: “The Generals” blunt critique of Army leadership

The idea that people who aren’t good at their jobs must be fired shouldn’t be a revolutionary concept in a place like the Army, where failure gets people killed.

Gen. George C. Marshall fired 16 army division commanders during WWII, notes veteran military reporter Thomas Ricks in his new book, “The Generals.”

None of them were fired for having an affair or because an aide badmouthed the president to a reporter. Some were fired for incompetence, but others simply weren’t the right fit and were given the chance to redeem themselves in new leadership roles.

Generals normally don’t get fired by each other anymore; it’s now up to the civilian hierarchy to complete that task, and rarely does anyone below the four-star level get removed.

Ricks’ book provides a detailed account of how Marshall’s performance standards were eroded as the military looked to fashion itself after corporate America in the 1950s, and how those mistakes laid the groundwork for costlier errors in Vietnam and Iraq.

Ricks likens attaining flag rank to “winning a tenured professorship, liable to be removed not for professional failure but for embarrassing one’s institution with moral lapses.”

A more familiar comparison to military readers might be the government’s general schedule civil service, where the incapable are nevertheless allowed to finish their tours before moving elsewhere. Others gain a leadership role – like Gen. Ricardo Sanchez at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, Ricks asserts – more because they happen to be there, than for being the right fit.

Ricks, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter who now runs The Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy, hits hard as he examines the Army’s perceived failures.

He rails against Gen. Maxwell Taylor for politicizing his own role, and reducing the military’s advisory role to the White House in the lead-up and prosecution of the Vietnam War into a chorus of yes-men. He portrays Gen. Tommy Franks as the culmination of the Army’s bent toward tactics at the expense of strategic thinking, which cost the U.S. dearly in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.

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Ricks largely casts his lot with the “50-pound brains,” as Franks referred to them, arguing that the Army only turns to against-the-grain thinkers like Gen. David Petraeus when all else fails.

Ricks’ ideal would likely display Petraeus’ intellectual bent, Patton’s battle tenacity, Eisenhower’s diplomatic skill and Marshall’s talent for putting people in the right jobs. Failing that measure of competence – as just about any officer would – he makes the case for strategically minded officers that take risks and occasionally fail.

Such officers aren’t likely to remain in today’s Army, according to some of the officers and reports Ricks quotes, because the Army isn’t doing enough to reward success any more than it is appropriately punishing failure.

There is a lot of detail in “The Generals” fit for history buffs; the Korean War chapter gets so deep into the battlefield maneuvers that when the next chapter doesn’t begin with 1953, it’s a somewhat abrupt return to Ricks’ thesis. That said, several of those detailed battlefield moments also paint portraits of men whose example are worth either emulating or avoiding.

Army leaders would do well to take notes when they embark on the service’s next great challenge: reviewing and renewing their service in a post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan military.

“The Generals” by Thomas Ricks is available in hardcover and e-book at most major book retailers.

slavine@pstripes.osd.mil

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