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)
I could have listened to this in one sitting. You watch on TV the wars the US has going on and don't know what to make of all the problems they have concluding them. Was it inevitable? Is it incompetence? This book insightfully connects all the dots since WWII and talks about individual generals and and how they can excel or screw up based on who is running the army. A major point he makes is that in WWII commanders were replaced quickly if deemed incompetent. Nowadays no one is fired. Another point is commanders are taught to think tactically but not strategically. I'll probably reread this one.
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.
Haven't read the book. Just listened.
The whole book is memorable and sadly points out what else has gone to hell with the USA since WW2.
It's not meant to be filmed. Should be read and discussed.
A must read to explain the current failure of the once great American military that in the 40s destroyed Hitler and Tojo's minions in about 5 years compared to the sorry incompetents who lead America's military today. The book correctly points out that the fault is NOT with the enlisted serviceman we all rightly honor and respect [well most of them] but the sorry excuses for generals leading them since the Korean War. Reward failure and you get what we have now, ten years of incompetence and an Afghanistan that is in worse shape than it was six months after 9/11 when at least the Taliban was momentarily beaten. The book should be read by every American who gives a damn about the USA. Next book by this author should be "The teachers" another sad story of incompetence thanks this time mostly to the teacher's union. Incompetent teachers are even harder to fire than incompetent generals. The administrators of our failed education system should be fired en masse.
I served 20 years in the military before I retired. I served in Vietnam and worked in joint commands so am quite familiar with the Army, Navy and Marines. I would like to think this makes my comments of more value than someone less familiar with the military.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, I have recommended this book to my friends and students. I teach a military education course to Air Force officers, and I think this is a fantastic book to spur some critical thought about how we develop and promote the personnel we have.
While this book focuses on Army generals, I think it is applicable to any of the services, and it potentially shows us why the Army should not be the lead service in our modern conflicts.
If you would like a preview of this book, you can look up Rick's article in the Atlantic called "General Failure." If you find it interesting in the least, then you will enjoy this book.
The author started with a great thesis- namely the decline of the Army Leadership by the Generals who have led the US both during and since World War II. He then did an excellent job supporting his position by offering great insight into all of the wars in which the army has been deployed- from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan. Portraits of all of the American Generals who commanded the US Army in these- Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, McArthur, Ridgeway, Taylor, Westmoreland, Abrams, Schwartzkopf, Powell, Franks, Petraeus, Sanchez, McCrystal are laid out here for the listener, as well as how each contribted to the success or failure of the army high command during these wars.
George Catlett Marshall- whom quite frankly not many people know enough about and appreciate today. Ricks portrays him as the father of what was great in the army during World War II- namely the ability to select men of high intelligence, energy and affability to lead the US forces- and to remove from command those generals who did not win battles. I became so fascinated by Ricks' portrait of Marshall that after listening to this recording I actually purchased and am reading a biography of Marshall from Amazon (Ed Cray's book entitled "General Of The Army"- which happens to be a great read so far) . Not many people actually realize it but Marshall wanted to command the Allied Invasion at Normandy in 1944- and it was at Franklin Roosevelt's request that he did not agree to become the commander and instead appointed Eisenhower- who as we all know won enough accolade and fame to eventually be elected President of the US.
All were decently portrayed
While I did not have an extreme reaction to the book, I must admit that I came away with the feeling that the current US Army command leadership structure needs to be reformed and new blood infused into that institution if the army is to be a relevant force in protecting the interests of our country. I believe that the author's recommendations on how to bring about and implement this change are well laid out in the epilogue to the book
I am glad that I purchased and listened to the book. While another reviewer has aptly pointed out that there is only theme to this book and that the author constantly reiterates it- I believe that book is well written and well narrated and worth the listen.
Khoi Ta, 1LT (USAF), ex-Cpl (USMCR)
For research yes.
Very much so.
None, a non-fiction book.
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?
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.
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