The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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History has been kinder to the American generals of World War II—Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley—than to the generals of the wars that followed. Is this merely nostalgia? Here, Thomas E. Ricks answers the question definitively: No, it is not, in no small part because of a widening gulf between performance and accountability.
During World War II, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough.
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, but no single figure is more inspiring than Marine General O. P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught into Korea in 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation. But Smith’s courage and genius in the face of one of the grimmest scenarios the marines have ever faced only cast the shortcomings of the people who put him there in sharper relief.
If Korea showed the first signs of a culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring, the Vietnam War saw American military leadership bottom out. In the wake of Vietnam, a battle for the soul of the US 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.
Ricks has made a close study of America’s military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning: the transmission of values, strategic thinking, the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails. Military history of the highest quality, The Generals is also essential reading for anyone with an interest in the difference between good leaders and bad ones.
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|Listening Length||15 hours and 46 minutes|
|Author||Thomas E. Ricks|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||October 30, 2012|
|Publisher||Blackstone Audio, Inc.|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #34,602 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#32 in Military Science
#232 in Military & War Biographies (Audible Books & Originals)
#268 in Military Strategy History (Books)
Top reviews from the United States
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When I started this book, I couldn't put it down. I'd grown sick and tired of the Patton love, and was elated that someone was appreciating the subtle leadership and political maturity of a man like George Marshall. Yep, Thomas Ricks gets it. It's right there on the page.
The book continued into a fascinating exploration of the Korean War. Here, Mr. Ricks' thesis is strong. He is able to provide all manner of examples where exemplary generalship, unnoticed today, was the difference between life and death for thousands of soldiers. Then we go off the rails.
You know when you were in college and you got assigned a 10-page paper? You didn't know what it would be about, so you threw down a thesis in the first paragraph and wound up twisting all kinds of facts to make it fit by the end? And you were making sentences needlessly wordy so you could hit the 10 page mark? That's this book.
From Vietnam on forth, Mr. Ricks completely loses his sense. Criticism of generals becomes the point, nuance is lost, and any fair reader will get the sense that Ricks is cherry-picking the careers of one or two generals to make a point that no longer holds. Best example: Mr. Ricks finds Norman Schwarzkopf directly responsible for the American failure to invade Iraq in the winter of 1991. Not, you know, the President of the United States. Or the United Nations. Or even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Nope, Mr. Ricks is here to hold the CENTCOM commander to account for his failure to unilaterally invade a sovereign nation.
It goes on like that. Like some other recent books (Edward Jean Smith's George W. Bush biography being the best example), this is another author who does great work in analyzing the distant past and gets lost in his own vendetta while writing about recent events.
Before going into my own review I should tell the potential reader that The Generals is a very easy book to read for the layman. Thomas Ricks, who has won the Pulitzer Prize, is a veteran reporter, and a student of the US military. He is that rare bird who can express his thoughts in easy to read prose devoid of the kind of techno-jargon or Inside-the-Beltway arcana that one often finds in most books of this genre. Any reader with just cursory knowledge of our military history circa 1939 to the present can read The Generals without constantly referring to their Encyclopedia or Wikipedia. Additionally, Mr. Ricks isn’t shy about arguing his points. His prose is in the active voice and it can be quite convincing. He isn’t afraid to be an iconoclast; and, Mr. Ricks’ assessment isn’t confined to officers who have long disappeared from the scene. Several living officers (such as Generals Franks and Sanchez) find themselves scorched by his pen.
The theme of The Generals is simple. Our modern military, which began with the reign of our nation’s first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), General George Marshall, has devolved from the military excellence of the Second World War. General George Marshall, in Rick’s estimation, was not only the finest General who served in the CJCS post, but his methodology of command and leadership was the pinnacle for all later officers to emulate. Ricks provides the reader with insights into Marshall’s command style; General Marshall was a ruthless leader who demanded that his own generals be just as ruthless in dealing with subordinates as he was. Sixteen out of 155 division commanders and 5 corps commanders were relieved with cause during the Second World War. Ricks gives the account of the 90th Infantry Division during the Normandy assault. In just 2 weeks the 90th suffered 100% casualties (more if you include replacements). During this period, General Bradley relieved 2 division commanders 2 assistant division commanders and a number of regimental and battalion commanders until he found the right mix of officers to pick up the pieces. The 90th would go on to be one of the Army’s finest performing divisions. But, Marshall’s methodology didn’t just focus on incompetence. Two of the Army’s finest combat officers, Generals George Patton and Terry Allen would be relieved of their respective commands at the height of their powers. Patton’s crime the abuse of enlisted men and the PR nightmare that ensued. Allen’s was not being a team player. But, Marshall and his subordinate, General Eisenhower, would rehabilitate both of these fine combat commanders. Patton would go on to fame as commander of 3rd Army, and Allen would do likewise as commander of the 104th Infantry Division. Marshall was ruthless with subordinates, but he was also flexible. Officers who failed once or even twice would not necessarily see their careers throttled if they possessed some type of redeeming military quality. Ricks points out that Marshall had a few fast rules for his commanders. First and foremost they must be team players. Additionally they must possess calm, ruthless leadership that demanded results of their subordinates. Marshall and his protégé, Eisenhower, didn’t expect his generals to be future Napoleons; but he did expect them to follow orders, execute those orders and deliver results. If his two and three star subordinates could not live up to these expectations they were gone. The end result was a command system in Europe that featured Eisenhower and his winning team of commanders, Generals Clark, Bradley, Simpson, Gerow, Patton, and Hodges. Eisenhower, who spent most of his career in administrative and training positions, earned the title of Supreme Allied Commander by virtue of keeping the Anglo-American alliance together through some very difficult times. Eisenhower performed his duties (mainly diplomatic, political, and administrative) with quiet yet ruthless efficiency. In just 2 years, by virtue of his tireless efforts, the US military in Europe quickly established ascendency over its British allies. By retiring or reassigning older and incompetent officers, Eisenhower allowed younger, more vigorous and efficient officers to rise to command positions. Officers like Westmoreland, Ridgeway, Depuy, Taylor, and Abrams got their start in the brutal battlefields of Europe. Ricks stresses accountability as the main virtue of the Marshall years. Officers who failed to live up to his standards were relieved of their commands.
Another theme of Rick’s book is that of broadmindedness. General Marshall, Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley, were not outstanding tacticians; but, they were superb strategists and team players. As a matter of fact, Bradley’s track record from a tactical point of view was quite poor. His 12th Army Group failed to close the Falaise Pocket in August of 1944 until half or more of the trapped Germans escaped. Bradley also was responsible for the bloody offensive operations of in the Hurtgen Forest. And neither Eisenhower nor Bradley saw the German Ardennes offensive coming. Yet, their performances should be seen in light of the Allied victory. They won the war. These high level commanders rightly put their concerns to strategic and not tactical matters. Winning the war, even winning it ugly was preferable to not winning at all. Ricks assessment of Generals Marshall and Eisenhower reinforces Moltke’s and Clausewitz’s dictum that wars are won through the application of superior strategy. Patton was a superior tactician; but, it would have been a disaster if he and not Eisenhower commanded the Ally war effort.
One other important area of the Marshal doctrine was politics. Or better put, Marshal strongly discouraged his officers from participating in them. General Patton almost lost his commission for forgetting this when he gave a wartime speech in the UK. FDR never had to worry about General Marshal or his subordinates using their position as means of promoting themselves or their agendas form a political point of view. The great exception was General Douglas McArthur. McArthur was the antithesis of Marshall. He openly supported Wendell Willkie in 1936, and some wondered if McArthur himself wasn’t eyeing the Oval Office. Ricks himself wonders if FDR and Marshall kept McArthur in Asia and awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor (despite abandoning his forces in Corregidor) just keep him away from Washington DC. Truman himself later would allow one of America’s most decorated Generals to continue to serve after war just to keep the meddlesome general out of his hair. If this was in fact true, Rick argues the nation paid for these decisions for the next 25 years. For McArthur displayed exactly the wrong traits a General should possess. McArthur built himself a political and personal financial empire in Asia after the war that is unique in our history. And God help any President who attempted to relieve him. The Korean War was not just a foreign policy and military disaster. It was also, Ricks argues, a political disaster. The firing of General McArthur in the aftermath of the CHICOMs entry into the war created the kind of nightmares Presidents fear. The war cost Truman his presidency. It also set back civilian-military relations 3 decades. Ricks argues, for instance, that LBJ never trusted the Army, as he feared that every general was a potential McArthur. The united political-military relations that highlighted the FDR-Marshall team would be sorely lacking in coming decades. And this deficiency became disastrous in the 1960s. Marshall himself made it a point to keep his engagements with FDR to an absolute minimum. And when they did occur they were only to discuss high level military policy.
Beginning with Maxwell Taylor and continuing to this day the Marshall rule has been constantly broken. But, it was Maxwell Taylor whose temptation to engage in politics that set the stages for the Vietnam Conflict. Ricks puts the blame for Vietnam on many people. But, he reserves his most bitter critiques for Taylor. This section of the narrative takes up a large portion of Rick’s story. And I will leave it to the reader to make his own judgments. Ricks rightfully mentions the institutional rot that set inside the Army after Korean War. After Korea the Army was managed and not led. Officers who failed to lead were simply reassigned. During Vietnam Westmoreland was “kicked upstairs” for his failures instead of being forced to retire in shame. Marshall’s system of relieving incompetent officers was discarded in favor of reassignment. More importantly, General Officers tended to focus on purely tactical doctrine and relegated the more abstract problems of strategy to the civilians. Ticket-punching became the norm, and a dry-rot set in which caused many bright and imaginative officers to leave the service. Mediocrity was not only allowed, it was encouraged. Ricks argues that this devolution set-in before Vietnam, and made a bad situation worse. It prevented the Army from realizing that the Vietnam conflict should have been approached from a counter-insurgency point of view and not a set piece campaign where firepower and operational maneuver were paramount. Add-in the almost criminal policy of the 12 month troop rotations, the rising civilian disgust of the war, not to mention the rising American casualty rates, it doesn’t take much for Ricks to convince the reader that the Army leadership hadn’t a clue to what it was doing. What the Army lacked, Ricks argues, was competent Generals who understood the finer points of counter-insurgencies, politics, and geo-strategy. From Westmoreland to Abrams the generals were truly clueless. The nadir for the Army came in 1970 with the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up, which Ricks covers in some detail.
But Thomas Ricks wasn’t finished with his critique. The Post-War rebuilding of the US Army was only partially successful he argues. Yes, the All-Volunteer Army recovered its tactical competencies; it recruited and trained outstanding combined arm mechanized formations, special operation forces, and developed and deployed some of the finest weapons systems in history (The M1-A1 Abrams, the Patriot Missile System, and The Bradley Fighting Vehicle). However, it was at the higher levels of officer development where problems continued. However, during the period 1975-1990, there was a smaller clique of officers who attempted to set up schools for advanced education that covered the kind of skills that separate a Colonel commanding a regiment and a General commanding CENTCOM. Men like Colonel Wass de Czege wanted to establish a school for promotable officers that emphasized things like domestic security concerns, peacekeeping, advanced planning that took into account political and social issues as well as military concerns. Thus began the School of Advanced Military Studies. Those who advocated this kind of advanced military education ran up against those in the bureaucracy that stressed purely tactical excellence for Army commanders. Ricks stated that this dichotomy between a tactical perspective and a more intellectual or strategic one lay dormant for a number of years. But, it came into full public view during the period 2001- to the present. General Franks and Sanchez represented the tactical school of leadership, while Generals Patraeus and McMaster represented the more intellectual or strategic school. Both Patraeus and McMaster hold PhDs and are known whom Ricks dubs outlier officers. Franks and Sanchez, Ricks rightfully critiques for their failures in devising the correct strategy. As a matter of fact, Ricks says that Franks in particular commanded as if he was a company commander and not a four star general.
And that is the underlying gist of Ricks’ book. He spends the remainder of his pages giving his advice as to how the Army can reform the education of its general corps. He combines the simple yet ruthless leadership principals of General Marshall with the ideas of Colonel Wass de Czege. Accountability, intellectual vigor, combined with broad mindedness are what Rick thinks will improve the quality of our generals, not to mention the performance of our military in the field. After-all, the US has not won a major combat operation in almost 70 years.
I tend to disagree with those who say that Ricks sees the past through rose colored glasses. General Marshall brilliantly executed a global strategy that won the war. However, it should be stressed that in comparison, General Marshall was very fortunate. The political situation in 1939 was much simpler than in 1968 or 2004. FDR and the Democrats dominated Washington. And a pliant media showed a rather curious lack of curiosity when it came to FDR’s failings. Marshall had far less pressure from the media and the intellectual class than later generations of officers. Additionally, after 7 December 1941, the nation was completely united. Corporations deferred profits, workers deferred wage increases; and the citizens rationed about everything imaginable to win the war. The treasury opened its coffers up and money was never a problem. All Marshall had to do was win the war and bring the boys home. Not even in the dark year of 1942 did Marshall experience the kind of pressures that Abrams and Patraeus would suffer in coming years. This is not to say that Marshall had it easy. But at times I think that Ricks compares apples and oranges.
Additionally, Ricks at times conflates terms like tactics, strategy and operations. The term military operation is an old Prussian term. The Germans during the period of 1850-1945 didn’t think of tactics and strategy; but, they saw combat in terms of military operations. The German General Staff looked at the “whole” of combat (political, logistics and industry, morale, firepower, and maneuver). Because of their unique geographical and political position within Europe they tended to see things differently. For one diplomatic misstep they could be facing 2 or more enemies. In this sense, Thomas Ricks, whether he realizes it or not, takes a very Prussian perspective on Generalship. That is, Ricks believes that modern generalship depends primarily upon the intellectual development of the officer’s faculties and not the martial ones. Yet, it is just this type of intellectual navel gazing that took the Germans down the destructive road they traveled. Yes, the Prussians developed cultured and broadminded military leaders of the highest caliber (Moltke the Elder, von Manstein, and von Hammerstein). But Germany also produced officers that were disastrous (von Bloomberg, Halder, and Ludendorff). As Prussia illustrated, one can take military intellectualism too far. And once it is established it is difficult to change course. Would Ricks be in favor of the US Army establishing a corps elite in the mold of what Prussian developed in the 19th Century?
Finally, just as too many historians put too much blame on the political civilian leaders of this nation, Ricks does the same with the military. For, ultimately it is the civilian leadership that sets policy. The US was very fortunate from 1938-45 to have two men from each area (the political and military) who acted as one. General Marshall and FDR was a match made in heaven. And if history teaches us one thing, it is to not expect miracles to occur too often. The relationships of Lincoln and McClellan, or LBJ and Westmoreland seem to be the rule and not the exception. Yes, it is possible to pattern an officer corps as close to General Marshall’s ideas as possible. But there is no guarantee that the elected civilian leaders will measure up. Yes, a CJCS can resign. Heck, the entire JCS can resign en mass if they don’t agree with the President. But, that can also have a deleterious effect on morale on both the troops and the voters. Where that happy median resides in a democracy such as ours is anyone’s guess.
Finally, I think Thomas Ricks misses another much deeper point. Our military, despite the impression he paints, is already overly educated. Retired General Wesley Clark was a Rhoades Scholar; most officers if they wish to attain high rank attend any number of advanced schools. Many are selected to attend Ivy League universities, not to mention the military colleges at Fort Leavenworth. And after reading the books that have come out in recent years it is not difficult to realize that most of our successful officers fall into what Charles Murray calls the Cognitive Class. Murray points out that members of the Cognitive Class are similar in social, political, and secular outlooks. They are all overachievers; they all possess advanced degrees, and they are all ambitious. Most of all, they are hold similar Progressive views. In recent years, the Pentagon has shown a proclivity to engage in the kind of political correct policies that plague civil society in general. Feminism, homosexual rights, and Multiculturalism are now firmly cemented into military policy. Ambitious Pentagon officers have happily implemented most of these policies with few reservations. The end result we find out is a kind of rapid moral decay from the bottom and the top of the military that we have witnessed during the last year. A general cannot instill a set of military ethics while he is engaging in adultery (see General Sinclair et als), or sinks into babbling multicultural nonsense after a military atrocity (see General Casey).
Over-all, I strongly advise any reader interested in our military to read this book. Thomas Ricks brings up some very important points that need to be hashed out and debated. Ricks assessment of our military over-all is even handed. The years spent in the field and overseas give him a unique perspective amongst civilian writers. The reader will not be disappointed.
Generals at Anzio failed their soldiers, they were revealed of command. The replacements that followed learned form the mistakes and had the honor and humility to accept that soldiers died because of those mistakes. Nowadays generals just get replaced and they write fanciful memoirs that omit the failures of their commands, or cover up, as MacArthur tried to blame the Marines for Chosin, when it was the Marines that saved his derriere. That is what this book is about, how generalship, good and bad shaped our world, and how we have frittered much of that power away.
[FYI: 22 years Army and then USAF (ret.).]