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
"[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)
Thomas Ricks in this book is making the case that after WWII the army stopped relieving generals from command positions which made them less accountable. He is attributing all the failures in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq to this issue.
The book starts with the assertion that General George Marshal in WWII created a template for winning generals and that he relieved generals that didn't live to that expectation.The book moves to show that this stopped after WWII and caused a lot of the setbacks the army faced in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. The book concludes by urging army leaders to return back to that policy.
I agree with some of the points the book made especially that generals should be held accountable and relieved from command when they fail to achieve the objectives. The problem I think is that the presidents failed to make a clear case and determine the objective for each of the Korea, Vietnam and Iraq wars. The book mentions some of that when it covers the political games Johnson did to get around the chiefs of staff.
Another issue with the book is that the author is making the case for a successful general template developed by Marshal but in reality there were a number of successful WWII generals who didn't fit that template such as Patton and Terry Allen and there were generals who fit it but were proved not to be stellar leaders such as Omar Bradley and Maxwell Taylor.
The author also attacked General MacArthur mainly because he had political ambitions not because of military issues during WWII. He then used MacArthur's failure to predict the Chinese intervention in Korea to further attack him although he mentioned that the CIA didn't believe the Chinese were going to intervene either.
I think that the book provides a good history but I think that there were much deeper problems that caused the struggle in the mentioned 3 wars than just the failure of generals.
This is a phenomenal case study for high level executives and leaders looking to build accountability into the framework of their organizations. be prepared for harsh criticisms army leadership throughout major American conflicts. however the lessons can be harsh, the author does not pull any punches when it comes to criticizing generals who have had a positive place in history which may have not been so justified.
Husband, father of 2, and a software developer moving slowly and unsteadily into management. I love reading, especially fiction & history
This is the first military history book one ever read and has simultaneously deepened my understanding of the last 60 years of our nation's history while at the same time helping me to understand some of the 'whys' as well as the 'whats'.
Start from the premise that George Marshall and Eisenhower got it right in terms of how to build and run an army and then examine each major American conflict in terms of divergence from that gold standard. Well researched and heavily reliant on authoritative documentation, the book is a good mine.
Great job with the narration as well.
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.
Making my way through all the US President a biography at a time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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