Book Review | The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks

If there’s one book that I find myself recommending more than most lately, it’s Thomas Ricks’ survey and analysis of US generals from World War II to the present. With an eye to examining why history has been so kind to the men who led the US Army during that war, but less so to those who followed, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is as much a book about leadership and organizational behavior as it is about the commanders of the US military during war time. Ricks sets out to examine the gap between performance and accountability among the upper echelons of the US Army, and answer the question about why it has grown in the seven decades since World War II.

The Generals is divided into five sections examining World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Interwar Era, and the recent wars in the Middle East (Gulf I and II and Afghanistan). Within each, Ricks further organizes around the generals of the era, starting with General George Marshall, the unsung father of the modern US Army (and something of the Platonic ideal general, to hear Ricks conception of the man). Marshall is both willing to relieve generals who are flawed, underperform, or just straight-up can’t cut it, but is something of a savvy manager of these generals, moving them to other posts out of the way of the action rather than drumming them out of the service.

To demonstrate this, Ricks’ runs through a series of the biggest names in US military history, using them to demonstrate his point. Here you find MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton, as well as less popular names like Mark Clark and Terry de la Mesa Allen. The effect is that The Generals reads a bit like an overview , and with as many events and personalities as Ricks is covering, I suppose that’s the most that can expected. At times, his evidence comes off more conclusive than evidentiary, and the level of detail increases the closer Ricks’ narrative comes to the present with the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan War. As such, the book is probably better as an examination of leadership, especially for the lay reader, than as an in-depth contribution to the academic examination of history (though Ricks certainly takes time to recognize, mention, and even argue with others in the field that have intersected with his work).

For me, one of those lay readers more in the ‘history buff’ category than the academic, it’s a fun and thought provoking read. It challenges our concepts about what drives change and success, with lessons for organizations beyond the scope of Ricks’ subjects. Ricks grasps the nuances of his subject, if not always the depth of knowledge that a master of the field might display, and knows how to highlight points that matter without becoming distracted by minutia or allowing his argument to become weighed down by the mass of history he is examining.

In spite of its length, The Generals is a fast read, which is a tribute to Ricks’ ability to tell the story and it’s worth the time to read for anyone interested in the period, the US military, or American history.

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today Book Cover The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
Thomas E. Ricks
American History
Penguin Books
October 29, 2013

History has been kind to the American generals of World War II—Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley—and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed. In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is. In part it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability. During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough. Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq War, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”In The Generals we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers. Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine General O. P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught into Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

But Korea also showed the first signs of an army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring. In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse until, finally, American military leadership bottomed out. The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, is the emblematic event of this dark chapter of our history. In the wake of Vietnam a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success. It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up. But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered from familiar problems, resulting in tactically savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly from the first Iraq War of 1990 through to the present.

Ricks has made a close study of America’s military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning: about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.