It's sometimes hard to say what makes a good non-fiction audiobook, but in my view, this book has that je ne sais quais. I found myself coming back to it, and putting aside other tasks I needed to get done so I could sit and listen to a book. It's a fascinating story that's pretty well summarized in the publisher's summary: in World War II, generals were relieved easily when it was felt this would aid the mission, and this was not a career ending event if the general had not screwed up egregiously. Today, generals are very rarely removed, and when they are, it's such an aberration that their careers are basically over. In today's military, failure is not punished, and as a corollary, success is not rewarded.
A high point of the book is the telling of the personnel story of the World War II army, an incredibly important story that I knew almost nothing about. George Marshall turns out to be one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century whose name you know, but not much else about him. He had tremendous influence over the military's leadership culture in ways large and small, and since most American men of that generation served in the military, he had great influence over how America was run for decades thereafter. The relationship between Marshall and Eisenhower is an interesting one that I knew little about. The figure who really comes off poorly here is Douglas MacArthur. Apparently the American Caeser was something of a buffoon, who unfortunately was a little too powerful for Marshall to dismiss the way he did most of the bungling pre-WWII military leadership.
How and why Marshall's recipe for military leadership ended up being discarded is the meat of the book, but a question that's never quite answered succinctly. Was Marshall's tragic flaw relying too much on his own moderating leadership at the top? Or did he engender too much respect for team players, a good short-run policy for winning a war but a bad long-term policy for maintaining an innovative culture. Ricks doesn't give us one simple answer. Another high point of the book though is Ricks' telling of the Vietnam story, and especially the difference between the army and the marines' outlook on counter-insurgency strategy (spoiler: the marines got it right, but the army was the far larger force).
It's not the most original part of the book, but Ricks makes a very forceful case that the post-Vietnam reforms were ultimately destructive to military competence, as the military focused purely on technical competency, afraid to tackle deeper questions of strategy and doctrine. It's a pretty damning indictment, and I'd be curious to hear a response from military leadership. One of Ricks' sharpest critiques is that the military hides its own failures by blaming civilian leaders, and declaring parts of its core responsibilities to be someone else's job. So the failure in Vietnam was one of civilians not letting the military win, and the Iraq War debacle was all the Bush administration's refusal to commit enough troops. During World War II, Ricks points out, George Marshall told the president what he needed to win, and if he hadn't gotten it, he was ready to resign. If civilian leaders have bungled our recent wars, including Desert Storm by failing to have any sort of plan for the endgame, they were aided and abetted by military leaders who saw their job as being entirely technical in nature, with overarching strategy questions always left to someone else.
If I would fault the book on anything it's that the thesis is actually pretty straightforward, and while the detail and case studies in the book are interesting, I'm not sure they're necessary to make Ricks' point. The argument might have more influence in a shorter magazine article, say. But I don't regret listening to the whole story in the least. I'd very much like to see Ricks take his insights to other large organizations: civilian agencies at all levels of government, large corporations, and nonprofit and civic organizations including unions and churches, to see whether some of the same principles are at play. I was particularly struck by one of Ricks' statements in the final section, the one about policy proposals. He says that it's probably too much to ask that intellectuals and those with differing viewpoints be favored for promotion during peacetime, but that efforts should be made to at least keep such men in the (military) organization during good times, because their insights are invaluable in wartime and when paradigms shift. It's a striking statement, and a troubling one. I'd be really interested to see more on this topic.
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