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The Generals - Thomas E. Ricks

General Tommy Franks, whom Ricks' dubs a "two-time loser" for his leadership of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq

3.5/5 stars

By Nick-D

The Generals is a history, and analysis, of the evolution of US Army leadership since World War II. It was written by the journalist Thomas E. Ricks, who is the author of two books on the Iraq War and several other works on American military history.

This is a very ambitious book. Ricks' goal is to explain how, in his view, the quality of leadership in the US Army deteriorated after World War II, reached a nadir in the Korean War and Vietnam War, and then made a deeply flawed recovery that contributed to the Army's mixed performances in Iraq and Afghanistan. To do this, he provides case studies of the key leaders in each war, as well as an overview of the main trends in how the Army selected and educated its senior officers. While this sounds dry, the book is very well written, and I found it to be an enjoyable and informative read.

According to Ricks, the US Army's leadership reached its peak in World War II as a result of General George Marshall's ability to set high standards for senior officers, and the strong culture of relieving combat commanders who were not up to their job. Ricks' illustrates this point through sketches of the careers and leadership styles of Marshall's protegees (most notably Dwight D. Eisenhower) as well as accounts of how under-performing generals were treated (in short, those who proved incompetent were sacked outright or transferred to a non-combat role and many of those who were competent but unlucky were given a second chance). Throughout the remainder of the book Ricks uses Marshall as a benchmark, and argues that he would never have accepted the system that gradually evolved through which generals and other senior officers ceased to be relieved for poor battlefield performance. Ricks also argues that the emphasis on tactical excellence that developed after the Vietnam War is fundamentally flawed, as it has produced officers who are prepared only to fight conventional battles and are unable to think creatively or deal with complex strategic situations.

While these arguments are thought provoking, I wasn't all that convinced by them. The main flaw with The Generals is that by focusing tightly on the US Army's internal processes, Ricks doesn't really take the broader environment the Army was operating in into account; the rarity of senior officers being relieved during this era is likely to reflect the intensely political nature of the unpopular wars the Army was involved in (where such sackings would have caused further public concern about the war), and the low emphasis given to fostering strategic thinking is likely to be the result of the political and civilian leadership choosing to take over this role from the military (that they often haven't done a good job of it is another story). This isn't to excuse the Army's failings, but it needs to be taken into account. Moreover, by only looking at the US Army, Ricks doesn't discuss whether the armies of comparable countries have experienced similar trends, and whether they could provide a model for reforming the US Army's leadership. As a result of this focus, the later chapters of the book feel rather straightjacketed, and Ricks' proposals for reform are not hugely convincing.

Overall, this is a book well worth reading, and Wikipedia editors will find much of use in the profiles of the various generals and Army institutions. However, I wish that Ricks had taken a broader analytic approach.

Publishing details: Ricks, Thomas E. (2012). The Generals : American Military Command from World War II to Today. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594204043. 

Recent external reviews

Boot, Max (2013). Invisible Armies : An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York City: Liveright. ISBN 0871404249. 

Dalrymple, William (2013). Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 1408818302. 

Stone, Norman (2013). World War Two : A Short History. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 1846141397. 

Hoffenaar, Jan and Krüger, Dieter, ed. (2012). Blueprints for Battle: Planning for War in Central Europe, 1948-1968. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813136512. 

Leitenberg, Milton; Zilinskas, Raymond A. (2012). The Soviet Biological Weapons Program : A History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674047702. 

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