In 2006, Thomas Ricks published his Fiasco about the Iraqi War. This eponymous book singled out General Ray Ordierno for special criticism. To Ricks' mind, Ordierno wasn't fit to wear the uniform of a soldier, let alone the stars of a general. Unfortunately for Mr. Ricks, his book came out just as the surge was beginning. And the hero of the surge was. . . Ray Ordierno!
Lacking the grace to admit a mistake, but, unlike most journalists, having enough intelligence to recognize a game changer, Mr. Ricks, instead of rewriting history chose to rewrite General Ordierno. As Mr. Ricks would have it, the good General somehow acquired a set of brass balls and 100 points of IQ solely because his son had become a casualty in Iraq.
More about what this says about Mr. Ricks below, but it also illustrates the central problem of Mr. Ricks' new book which argues that the Army needs to fire more generals in order to perform better. A book on this subject should ask a number of questions and make an attempt at answering them:
What makes a bad general? If it is an initial loss, then most of the great generals in history would have been consigned to the ash heap long before they proved themselves.
How long should his superiors allow a new general to find himself before he is booted?
What is the effect of firing on troop morale?
When is the appropriate time to fire him?
Mr. Ricks doesn't bother to ask these or dozens of other questions. Instead he fills his book with 550 pages of potted history, making this work a thick heavy dull bumper sticker saying "Fire Bad Generals!" The text is neither well written nor well thought out. If you have read one book on modern American military history, you will find nothing new here. And I daresay that if you have read two books on modern American military history, you could write a much better book.
Mr. Ricks' problem, I think, is that he is a journalist in the US and not in the UK. UK journalists are entitled to take a stand in their writing, but the trick is that the good media outlets require them to accurately portray the view of the other side and to provide counter arguments. This is ideal training for an historian or policy maker which is why British journalists are often the most successful historians and politicians.
By contrast, the model for American journalists is objectivity, an attempt to find the "Truth" behind opposing viewpoints. At least since the days of Montaigne, objectivity has been recognized as a perilous goal, easily corrupted into hiding ones bias behind a pseudo-judicial mien. It is all too easy to write a polemic and pretend that it is balanced. That is why quality journalism in the UK is thriving while it is all but dead here in the United States.
Any professor teaching historical writing could very successfully assign his class to apply David Hackett Fischer's Historical Fallacies to what passes as "history" in Mr. Ricks' book. The text is full of examples of the misleading uses of historical fact the Prof. Fischer documents so well. To mention just a few items of his flawed account:
It does not detract from General Marshall's accomplishments to point out his serious flaws. He is hardly the gold standard of personnel decisions as Mr. Ricks would have it. He did not choose "aggressive" generals, he tended to choose men he knew as good professors or good students at the Infantry school and was apparently oblivious to the fact that the skill set required for success in a classroom is hardly the skill set for success in a battlefield. Marshall men were honest, decent men, often dull and unable to adapt. For every Ridgeway (whom Marshall had slated for a staff position until Ridgeway raised a fuss), there were three or four generals like Clark or Hodges. And some of them, such as Stilwell, were absolute disasters. D. Clayton James' far superior A Time for Giants is a far better guide to the personnel choices of World War II than Mr. Ricks is.
And once you got to a senior command position, no amount of blundering would get Marshall to send you down to the minors. Lewis Brereton was in a command position for four of the most egregious failures of aerial operations during the war and after each blunder was just moved to another position of higher responsibility to commit a new disaster. Three times in the last year of the war, Marshall men allowed hundreds of thousands of Nazi troops to escape encirclement to fight another day. And Carlo d'Este's account of Bradley and Hodges at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge would send shivers down the back of any parent who had committed their son to their command.
Meanwhile, many potentially great soldiers were restricted to lower ranks by Marshall's whims. James Van Fleet, for instance, a truly great general, remained a lieutenant colonel for most of the war because Marshall constantly rejected the recommendations of Van Fleet's superiors to raise him to high command (when his success in actual combat in the summer of 1944 made it impossible for him to be ignored, he began his meteoric rise, ending the war as a corps commander, before really making a name for himself in the postwar army).
Most of the firings which Marshall made were part of the purge of the National Guard and Reserves to make the Army run by professionals, a major shift from earlier US history in which politics played an important role in choosing generals. Mr. Ricks alludes to this without recognizing its significance. It is one thing to oust a class of generals in order to change the make-up of the military and another to punish poor performance across the board.
Nor did Marshall speak truth to power as Mr. Ricks suggests. Joel Davidson's far superior "The Unsinkable Fleet" shows how an agressive Admiral King and a Navy-centric FDR ran circles around the polite gentleman George Catlett Marshall which resulted in a military force which had only half the troops Marshall himself thought optimal and a Navy several multiples larger than it ever needed to be. This resulted in a longer war and wasted resources. Time is a crucial element in warfare - never more so than in World War II when half of all the Holocaust victims lost their lives in the last twelve months of the war - and that was never something that Marshall seemed to recognize.
In what Mr. Ricks apparently believes is a ideal example of the Army's failures, he juxtaposes the destruction of an Army unit on the east side of the Chosin Reservoir with the heroic retreat of the Marines on the west side of the Reservoir, but by the eliding over inconvenient facts or ignoring them altogether, he just proves himself to be unreliable. The Marines had ten times as many troops as the Army did and at a crucial point in the battle, the Chinese redirected the main thrust of their forces against the Army forces, allowing the Marines to retreat. Finally, the Marine air support gave top priority to protecting the Marines instead of the Army. This last point was one of the main reasons that the Army fought for, and won, the right to its own internal air support role after the war. To this day, the Air Force is run by fighter jocks and bomber pilots and the tactical support mission assigned to it is consistently left behind. It is surprising that Mr. Ricks ignores this or, worse, is ignorant of it.
It is therefore not surprising that Mr. Ricks misses the importance of MacArthur's relief altogether. Lord knows that Harry Truman had plenty of reasons to fire him, beginning with his age, but by choosing to fire him because he honestly answered a question from an important congressman has had repercussions on the military to this day. Truman's firing of MacArthur was hardly the triumph of civilian leadership over military leadership as many would have it (though, to be fair, not Mr. Ricks), but rather the triumph of the executive over the legislative branches of government. As H.R. MacMaster's far superior study of Vietnam era military leadership, Dereliction of Duty, demonstrated, by sending the message to the military that they are answerable only to the President, the Joint Staff allowed their views to be misrepresented by the Johnson Administration, sowing the seeds for at least part of the failure of the modern military.
I could go on, but it would require another book to challenge The Generals. Mr. Ricks' heart is in the right place as he tries to decide why all American military action since World War II has been so unsatisfactory, but The Generals only inadvertently provides an answer. Mr. Ricks knows more about the military than anyone else at The Washigton Post, more, I would venture than anyone else in the Washington Press Corps and maybe even anyone in Washington DC outside of the Pentagon. But it is not enough.
There appear to be gaps in his basic knowledge. He argues that senior generals need to be replaced by even more senior generals or the politicians will do it instead, and he cites theater commanders from MacArthur to Westmoreland who should have been relieved. But Mr. Ricks seems ignorant of the fact that, for much of the period he covers, the Joint Staff had no power to fire such senior generals, that theater commanders were appointed by the President and could only be relieved by the President. There were no senior generals to fire them.
Mr. Ricks also seems to think that generals with advanced university degrees are somehow distrusted by their colleagues, but the military puts great emphasis on higher education and the officer corps has a greater percentage of advanced degrees than most professions, so where is the source of this distrust?
And Mr. Ricks argues that generals who have underperformed should be rotated elsewhere and given a second chance. But where? Congress has provided specific slots for each general it authorizes. If you give a general a second chance, do you fire a performing general to make room for the underperforming general? And if Mr. Ricks would instead suggest that Congress provide a sort of cold storage for generals, does he seriously think that with serious and crippling budget cuts in the wind, the Army will really want to cut more bone and muscle to authorize the expenditures that would be needed?
There is also in this book a lack of empathy, probably the greatest failure of the form of intelligence promulgated by America's educational system. The key ingredient of true intelligence is not a memory to regurgitate facts. It is not the ability to twist those facts to suit your own political agenda. Mr. Ricks has those aspects of intellectual firepower at his fingertips. But to have something truly valuable to add, he needed ability to place himself in someone else's shoes and examine the world from a different viewpoint. This wouldn't require him to change his views, necessarily, but it would have grounded this book to reality, not the world as he would like it to be. Mr. Ricks is utterly incapable of this.
As noted by superior thinkers like Christopher Lasch, the elites of America have moved away from mainstream America and the idea of military service has become an alien concept to those who have the power to put American boys and girls into harm's way. Mr. Ricks, who comes from the ruling elite in America, seems to study the American military like a scientist would study bacilli under a microscope. He is ignorant, for instance, that his "rewrite" of General Odierno that I mentioned above, is a deeper, more unforgivable slander of a military man than a mere allegation of incompetence. To a soldier, it is a gross and unforgivable insult to suggest that he favors his own flesh and blood to those entrusted to him by others. To Mr. Ricks, it seemed to be a legitmate way to excuse his own initial blunder of General Odierno's abilities.
And Mr. Ricks also always has had an irrational fixation on a potential coup by American military leaders. He wrote a (not very good) novel about it ten years ago and here and there in The Generals is a hint that he has not let the idea go. Considering the emphasis the military places on allegiance to the Constitution, one wonders where Mr. Ricks would get such a bug in his ear, outside of Hollywood and similar ignoramuses who run popular culture these days. Like Mr. Ricks, I have never had the honor of serving in the American military, but, as the brother of a career Army officer who graduated from West Point and Harvard University and as someone who spent a great deal of time working with the military during my one year tour of duty in Afghanistan with the State Department, I have met my share of military officers and I doubt very much that they would be less open with me than they would to a newspaper reporter. The most political statement that a senior officer ever made to me was a Marine Major General back in the '90s who told me that he was just as wary of pro-military jingoists as he was of anti-military pacifists. That is hardly a rallying cry for a coup d'etat.
Lord knows that we have to maintain a superior roster of military leaders - it is the only profession, licit or illicit, where the best and most successful can end their day responsible for the deaths of thousands of their subordinates and it is one of the few professions where the incompetence of one person at the top can result in the end of civilization. But the signal failure of those at the top of the foodchain of American culture to participate in military issues, and the inability of journalists and others to provide an adequate bridge between those who guard us while we sleep and those of us who, well, ARE asleep, is the true failure of American society today. And the sole contribution of The Generals is to prove this point.