Brass Backwards

Thomas Ricks explains the declining competence of America’s senior military commanders.

Tom Ricks, the former Washington Post military correspondent who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, and currently edits the blog “The Best Defense” at ForeignPolicy.com, has become the go-to guy for understanding how the American military works. In 2006, Ricks published Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005, a blistering (and definitive) indictment of George W. Bush’s Pentagon and its mishandling of the war in Iraq. Next, he wrote The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, a probing history of the surge. And now he has written a book that tries to explain what makes a great American general— that is, a general whom soldiers can follow, and not just to their deaths.


The Generals:
American Military Commanders
from World War II to Today

by Thomas E. Ricks
Simon and Schuster, 528 pp.

The genesis for this most recent book was atop a Sicilian ridge, where, on leave from covering Iraq, Ricks heard the story of Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, a hugely successful World War II general who was relieved of leadership of the 1st Infantry Division (for lax discipline of his troops) soon after helping to win the Sicily campaign in July 1943. It wasn’t good enough just to be successful; the success had to come in the right way—otherwise, as the military leadership knew, disaster could loom later on. “I was stunned,” writes Ricks. “How could this be? [My] mind was still focused on [the Iraq] war, where even the most abject failure did not get a general fired.”

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is the history of this “remarkable group of men, the Army general officers of the past three-quarters of a century, and the wars they fought.” For Ricks, the World II generation really was the greatest; his heroes are George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, two men who displayed both sound judgment and a strategic vision, qualities their successors did not always possess in abundance.

As Army chief of staff on the eve of World War II, Marshall—who would later become secretary of defense, secretary of state, and the architect of the Marshall Plan—inherited a force that was, by his own account, that of a “third-rate military power.” It consisted of fewer than 200,000 soldiers, many relying on World War I arms and munitions.

A scant five years later, under Marshall’s command, the Army had grown to almost eight million troops, with forty divisions in Europe and the Mediterranean and twenty-one in the Pacific—a force that brought down the Third Reich and forced Imperial Japan to surrender. Marshall was the first general to attain the five-star rank.

He pulled this force together in two ways. First, he confronted President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the urgent need for a capable fighting force in Europe and the Pacific. Second, he ruthlessly pruned the dead wood from the military ranks, forcing out at least 600 officers even before the United States entered the fighting. “I was accused right away by the service papers of getting rid of all the brains of the army,” he said. “I couldn’t reply that I was eliminating considerable arteriosclerosis.” But Marshall also believed in giving worthy officers a second chance. At least five Army generals from World War II were removed from combat command but later assigned another division to lead. Nor were senior officers to be micromanaged. They were given enough rope to prove their mettle—or to hang themselves with.

Another key to Marshall’s success, Ricks suggests, is that he adhered rigidly to a classic model of civil-military relations, and studiously avoided any personal or social relationship with his boss. (Indeed, the first time Marshall ever visited Roosevelt’s home at Hyde Park, Ricks says, was for the president’s funeral.) In addition, a durable fire-wall always stood between Marshall’s public service and his political life—Marshall didn’t vote while he served.

Roosevelt and Marshall were possibly the best wartime civil-military team the nation has ever experienced. FDR used to joke that he thought Marshall deserved to command the D-day landings, but that Roosevelt wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink without him in Washington. Ricks writes that “there also is evidence that Marshall’s presence was required in Washington because he was the sole Army officer capable of reining in MacArthur—and even then, just barely.” Ricks sees Douglas MacArthur as perhaps the worst general of his era. Unlike Marshall, MacArthur routinely smudged the line between his military and political aspirations, seeing himself as an American Caesar, possessed of infallible judgment and iron will, to which presidents should bend.

And then there was George S. Patton, who way overstepped the bounds of military protocol—denouncing Russia, for example, in a speech in England as preparations for D-day were taking place. But Eisenhower understood that the brilliant, relentless commander was indispensable in chasing the Germans out of France. “If today’s Army remains wary of the daring, dramatic, outsize personality, the record of MacArthur (and, to a lesser degree, of Patton) is a big part of the cause,” comments Ricks. “The new model for American generalship would be a quite different, and blander, figure.” (Patton would also be especially admired by later President Richard Nixon, who regularly watched Patton during the Vietnam War.)

Ricks has high praise for Eisenhower, whom Marshall had steadily promoted and who was, in many ways, the template for what Marshall saw as a successful general. Like Marshall, Eisenhower emphasized teamwork and unity, making sure his subordinates got credit when credit was due.

This ethos began to change in the early 1960s. In particular, Ricks fingers General Maxwell Taylor, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Kennedy administration, as a prime culprit for this syndrome in Vietnam. Taylor, Ricks writes, was the un-Marshall. He buttered up his superiors and consistently soft-pedaled the dangers of increasing America’s commitment to the war, partly by convincing President Kennedy that the Vietcong was not a serious military force—surely one of the greatest blunders in American military history. Generals who disagreed with Taylor were generally silenced; instead of getting them to work together, he exploited their mutual animosity by playing them off against each other. This was not how Eisenhower, who stressed cooperation, had behaved. Under the new system, Taylor figured out what he thought would maximize the military’s role—Vietnam looked like an opportunity to justify big budgets—and assured his civilian superiors that North Vietnam was easy pickings. Ricks’s indictment of Taylor is sweeping: “He made a habit of saying not what he knew to be true but instead thought should be said.” Ricks accuses Taylor’s disciple, William Westmoreland, of providing “false evidence” to Congress that his strategy of attrition was working successfully vis-a-vis the North Vietnamese. “Westmoreland,” Ricks observes, “would become the most prominent example of the Army’s shift from leadership to management.” (This shouldn’t have come as a surprise; Westmoreland was, after all, a graduate of the Harvard Business School, which he attended while on active duty.) By “management” Ricks seems to mean that the generals had become careerists rather than bold innovators who would figure out how to take on the kind of counterinsurgency warfare that would have been required in Vietnam. The biggest problem, in other words, was that Westmoreland lacked a fundamental grasp of the kind of war he was fighting, which meant that he was unable to lead the country to victory—a task that may have been insuperable from the outset. A war, however, is not supposed to be a proving ground for doctrines; it should be fought quickly and effectively—a lesson the U.S. had to learn all over again in Iraq.

The Army had no choice but to change its doctrines after Vietnam, particularly with the abolition of the draft. It did not change, however, its conception of generalship. Ricks singles out Colin Powell of the exemplar of the political general, someone who was “a master implementer lacking a real strategy to implement.” Ricks sees a lack of intellectual thought about the relationship between military and political ends as at the core of America’s difficulties in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Of Tommy Franks, he observes that “in a bizarre mutation of military thought, Franks seemed to believe—and to have been taught by the Army—that thinking was something others did for generals. In his autobiography he referred to his military planners, with a whiff of good ol’ boy contempt, as ‘the fifty-pound brains.'” One such general was Eric Shinseki, George W. Bush’s Army chief of staff, who had the temerity to tell Congress the truth about the Iraq invasion: that several hundred thousand more troops would be necessary than were being requested by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. As a result of that testimony, Shinseki saw his career at the Pentagon come to an end.

It was only in 2006, after the drubbing the GOP received in the midterm elections, that Bush began to reassess the military leadership. Ricks stresses that the selection of David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to lead the effort in Iraq marked a decisive shift in the military’s culture—the two men insisted on “taking more risks, moving more aggressively, and despite [italics mine] suffering an increase in casualties, radically improving the morale of American troops.” Their example prompts Ricks to call for reforms of the military, including unconventional career moves such as sending leaders to live overseas in Third World countries for a “sabbatical,” reinstating a policy of quickly relieving incompetent officers, and making all command positions probationary for six months.

Is Ricks too hard on the American military? Most armies seem to blunder their way to victory, or squander the fruits of it in the aftermath. Maybe Ricks is indulging in nostalgia—it is almost impossible to favorably compare later generals to Marshall and his generation of commanders given the immense victory that was World War II.

Still, Ricks’s call for reform is persuasive. His own heroes are the outliers—leaders like Petraeus, who began the job of shaking up the military out of its complacency in Iraq and Afghanistan (though he was more successful in the former country than the latter). In the past, the lessons provided by someone like Petraeus might have been shunted aside, with the Army reverting to its former habits. But that’s unlikely to happen this time. The military is preparing for more unconventional warfare and knows that the days of limitless budgets are coming to an end, no matter what Mitt Romney and GOP lawmakers might promise. But as the military continues to reassess its performance, Ricks’s thunderous blast is likely to leave its own tremors behind. His book is not simply an acute account of the military’s difficulties; it is also a devastating one. One has only to read his dedication: “To those who died following poor leaders.”

Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.