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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

Critic Reviews

"[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

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
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  • Story

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.

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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.

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  • Bill
  • NOVA
  • 07-07-13

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.

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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.

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  • MoMo
  • Washington, DC
  • 06-06-13

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!

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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?

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  • JC
  • USA
  • 02-10-13

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.

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  • James
  • BLAIRSVILLE, GA, United States
  • 02-04-13

An eye-opener.

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

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  • Brian
  • Brooklyn Park, MD, United States
  • 01-21-13

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.

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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.