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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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  •  
    Brian Brooklyn Park, MD, United States 01-21-13
    Brian Brooklyn Park, MD, United States 01-21-13 Member Since 2008
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    "A fascinating look into some pretty weighty issues"
    What made the experience of listening to The Generals the most enjoyable?

    Mr Rick's work sheds some light on some weight issues. There are various aspects of this book which should really be studied more closely. The first part of the book covering WW2 is quite interesting but it seems like he is very brief with the command problems of the corps and above echelons. He does cover division level problems well though. The most interesting part of the book is at the end where he covers the generals of today and I wish this part were twice as long so he could go into greater details, especially covering the later stages of Afghanistan.


    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Doug United States 01-11-13
    Doug United States 01-11-13 Member Since 2010
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    "Excellent but disturbing critique of US military"
    Would you listen to The Generals again? Why?

    Yes. There is a great deal of condensed military history that is easy to forget but deserving remembering.


    What did you like best about this story?

    An inside look at a culture most of us never consider even existing: The US military.


    Which scene was your favorite?

    There are no scenes.Once the author passes World War 2 he reveals a lot of history and politics that are rarely thought of or discussed.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    Not applicable.


    Any additional comments?

    Concise, prepared and backed with as much evidence as you are likely to find. The author seriously critiques the strengths and weaknesses of military culture while taking us along its development for the last 60 years. He supplements solid fact with anecdote and information that we know about human sociology in general to form a compelling tapestry explaining political and military struggles from the 60's onward.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Amazon Customer Murfreesboro, TN, United States 01-03-13
    Amazon Customer Murfreesboro, TN, United States 01-03-13 Member Since 2006
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    "Good overview but pushes one pont of view too much"

    The Generals does a good job of summing key army generals of the past 75 years. Thee sections pre Gulf War seem well researched. Where I begin to question the book is during the 1991 Gulf War and after. The sources used are a bit too close to the issues under discussion to be objective. Add to that the idea of armchair generalship when people like Spyder Marks and Barry Mcafree are quoted who seem to revel in critiquing wars on major networks; this section must be taken a large grain of salt. That being said the book seems to be a good starting point for further investigation

    The Author pushes the idea of command relief throughout the book. While, a worthy idea it is unrealistic to expect it to be put in place any time soon. The evidence presented does cry out for greater accountability among the general staff.

    The Narration is perfectly ordinary but I recommend taking the book in small sections, otherwise one person quickly bleeds into the next

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    D. Martin Rockville, MD USA 12-02-12
    D. Martin Rockville, MD USA 12-02-12 Member Since 2007
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    "Fascinating stuff. Highly recommended."

    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.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
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