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The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today | [Thomas E. Ricks]

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

A widening gulf between performance and accountability has caused history to be kinder to the American generals of World War II than to those of later wars. In The Generals we meet leaders from World War II to the present who rose to the occasion - and those who failed.
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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2012 Thomas E. Ricks (P)2012 Blackstone Audio, Inc

What the Critics Say

"[A] savvy study of leadership in the US Army…Ricks presents an incisive, hard-hitting corrective to unthinking veneration of American military prowess." (Publishers Weekly)
"Thomas E. Ricks has written a definitive and comprehensive story of American generalship from the battlefields of World War II to the recent war in Iraq. The Generals candidly reveals their triumphs and failures, and offers a prognosis of what can be done to ensure success by our future leaders in the volatile world of the twenty-first century." (Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War)
"This is a brilliant book—deeply researched, very well-written, and outspoken. Ricks pulls no punches in naming names as he cites serious failures of leadership, even as we were winning World War II, and failures that led to serious problems in later wars. And he calls for rethinking the concept of generalship in the Army of the future." (William J. Perry, 19th US Secretary of Defense)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Christopher Kane 05-06-15
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    "Engaging story. Great primer for a wide audience."

    Great book. An interesting look at history, personnel management and the state of the modern military. Focused on the Army, this book has a slightly romanticized view of the WWII general staff and their imprint on history, but does a good job supporting the thesis. This author clearly has a command of the history and many of the under the radar movements that shaped military discourse. With luck a book that looks into the tradition of personnel management in the Navy will be written by this author.

    The books flows well and is easy to understand. As it is an audiobook, names can be challenging to remember and place. The points and story vignettes are well written and stay very close to the written accounts and steer clear of hyperbole and revisionist history that is often found in books that examine impactful events like Korea and Vietnam. Deep historical knowledge or passion in this or adjacent subjects isn't necessary to enjoy the book; I suggest the book to any journeyman interested in history or business/management.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Patrick 04-10-15
    Patrick 04-10-15 Member Since 2014

    Making my way through all the US President a biography at a time.

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    "Expertly written, powerful look at Generals"

    An impressive analysis of WWII Generals as put in place under George Marshall and the failures of them & the system since then (as well as the occasional successes of the individual with slow systemic improvements).

    The main thesis is accountability and the role of relieving Generals when they fail - which doesn't happen. But the author touches on more complex and useful aspects of leadership and organisational change.

    The story of WWII Generals is well told but brief too much so in the case of Patton. Korea, Vietnam and Iraq are very insightful and shed excellent light on the political issues that Generals sought to avoid considering or the death of civilian / military discourse.

    It's packed with nuggets of insight. Many bookmarks in this one.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Anne MURFREESBORO, TN, United States 04-06-15
    Anne MURFREESBORO, TN, United States 04-06-15 Member Since 2014

    AnneRob

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    "Very Insightful"

    I am not a military person, nor do I come from a military family. Keeping in mind that background, this book by Thomas Ricks, still has the ring of truth about it's conclusions. In detailing individual general's and the system's, successes and failures, strengths and shortcomings, The author makes a case for strategic as well as tactical training of officers. Today we have an army that is tactically trained, but sorely lacking in strategic, creative thinking. Generals who know how to win a war but have no idea what to do after they have won.
    The author also takes on the thorny issue of how and why officers are currently promoted.
    This book is very well written and easy to read for the non-military person. Most of the conclusions seem like common sense.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eric 03-20-15
    Eric 03-20-15 Member Since 2012
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    "Fascinating, disturbing lookat military leadership"
    Any additional comments?

    Most analyses of war focus on equipment, troop counts, tactics, and other tangibles that make up a battle. This book looks at a crucial missing dimension - the organizational and leadership cultures of the Army.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Bill NOVA 07-07-13
    Bill NOVA 07-07-13 Member Since 2009

    Bill

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    "Ricks nails it"

    I often judge a book like this by what is written about people I know. By that index, Ricks has done an outstanding job of looking at what got us to where we are with senior leadership in today's military. He is right, we need to find a way to get back to Marshall's approach to managing senior leaders, Generals and SES (senior career civilians). Accountability for your actions should be the rule and we should not be affrais to put someone new in to get the job done. Not every General is a great leader and those that fall short, should be moved to a position more in keeping with their abilities. This is a must read for students of US history and military leadership.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rory 06-09-13
    Rory 06-09-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Interesting theory, great listen"

    I first read Clay Blair's Forgotten War while in high school and two points stuck with me since I read it--1. the tragedy of Task Force smith and the actions of Louis Johnson and Truman that led to it, and 2. The stunning pace of changeover in command at all levels of the US Army.

    Thomas Ricks covers this turnover in command from WWII to the present, his thesis being that as we progressed from WWII, when generals were likely to be removed without stigma (and subsequently rehabilitated) over the years top generals became more ensconced and less likely to be removed other than for non-military reasons, despite obvious military failures. Coincidentally I was listening to this book right when the Petraeus scandal broke.

    While I believe book over-simplistic, clearly biased against certain modern generals, and filled with lost opportunities to expound, the book is a still a very fun read for those into military history and issues of command.
    The narrator is never boring.
    I would love to see more in-depth coverage of Rick's thesis as it raises very valid concerns for the future of how we grade command, and these questions and lessons carry over into the business world. In Breakthrough Imperative, it was said the modern CEO has at most 18 months to make positive impact. Ron Johnson is clear case in point--when should the JCP board have pulled the plug on him--were they not patient enough or did they wait too long and the harm he caused irreparable? Ricks argues this case with several generals. What is missed is that often the generals are replacing those deemed at best as "mediocre" before them--just as when Ron Johnson replaced Ullman there was a grass is greener mentality that made matters worse.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    MoMo Washington, DC 06-06-13
    MoMo Washington, DC 06-06-13 Listener Since 2005
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    "Semi-interesting book for a niche audience"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    The book details U.S. generalship from WWII to the present. The basic idea was that the army, in World War II, under Gen. Marshall, quickly relieved poor performing generals and that style of management has slowly gone out of favor. Poor performing officers are either rotated to other positions or even promoted.

    Even as a history and foreign affairs buff (and someone who works in foreign policy), I thought this book was too much of an niche for me. It got into the weeds of the behavior and policies of certain generals I had never heard off. Also, the author seems to be gratuitous in his Monday-morning quarterbacking of Generals’ actions.

    I would not recommend this anyone outside currently serving Army officers.


    If this book were a movie would you go see it?

    No!


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Khoi Duy Ta Lancaster, CA 02-12-13
    Khoi Duy Ta Lancaster, CA 02-12-13 Member Since 2015

    Khoi Ta, 1LT (USAF), ex-Cpl (USMCR)

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    "A little simplified, but many points I agree with."
    Would you listen to The Generals again? Why?

    For research yes.


    Would you be willing to try another book from Thomas E. Ricks? Why or why not?

    Very much so.


    Which character – as performed by William Hughes – was your favorite?

    None, a non-fiction book.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    Not really


    Any additional comments?

    I thought Tom Rick's conclusions were over simplistic. The military's promotion system is very rigid and assignments aren't always well thought out. Yet, almost all Generals I have seen or met were extremely bright and gifted people. However, the basis of his conclusions are correct. Generals are a product that shined in the system they were raise in. There are many inefficiencies in that system. Generals (and higher grade officers and enlisted) are not held into account nearly as much as they used to be. The current system of rotating Generals and the COs below result in much turnover, overlap, rework (reinventing the wheel). Perhaps its not that I disagree with his conclusion on modern Generalship, it's rather he should extend those conclusions to the modern promotion and assignment system as a whole... Another book?

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    JC USA 02-10-13
    JC USA 02-10-13
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    "Every Commissioned Officer Should Read or Listen"

    In "The Generals," Thomas Ricks relates a history of generalship (and officership) in the U.S. Army (WWII to present), but also provides his interpretation on how future officers and generals should act with regards to civil-military relationships and how the Army institution should conduct officer development. Whether a commissioned officer agrees with the opinions stated in this book, the history lessons on officer development alone are worth reading/listening too. The book strongly favors the history and concerns of the U.S. Army with barely a mention of the other four Armed Forces. Perhaps follow-up volumes regarding the other services are needed to fully address officer development in the United States military.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    James BLAIRSVILLE, GA, United States 02-04-13
    James BLAIRSVILLE, GA, United States 02-04-13 Member Since 2012
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    "An eye-opener."

    The role of Generals as mentors is shown to be critical, showing both stellar and disastrous results.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful

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