The Quality of Command

The Wrong Way and the Right Way to Make Better Generals

The argument of Thomas Ricks’ new book, The Generals, is simple: since the end of World War II, the combat performance of the U.S. Army has been subpar, primarily because the highest-ranking generals have been reluctant to fire underperforming generals lower in the chain of command. The fear of being relieved of duty in wartime, Ricks contends, drives military leaders to act boldly, flexibly, and creatively. When that fear is present -- as Ricks claims it was during World War II, thanks to U.S. General George Marshall’s whip hand -- good generals get better, and bad generals get purged. But when that fear is absent -- as Ricks believes it has been over the past several decades -- mediocrity prevails, with unfortunate consequences for the army and the nation.

An award-winning reporter for the The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post who now blogs for Foreign Policy, Ricks has written several books, including important analyses of the early and late phases of the Iraq war. This new volume is the result of four years of effort studying American generalship. Ricks devotes a chapter each to army generals he considers failures in combat, from Douglas MacArthur in Korea to George Casey, Jr., in Iraq.

The Generals tackles a crucial subject and contains some valuable insights and suggestions. Unfortunately, its treatment of individual case studies leaves much to be desired. Most important, its basic thesis is simply wrong. Firing generals was not the key to U.S. military success in the past, nor will it be in the future. The challenge for the military is not tough love but rather figuring out how best to attract, retain, nurture, and groom the strategic talent it needs, from top to bottom.


Ricks’ hero is Marshall, who, as U.S. Army chief of staff from 1939 to 1945, instituted the so-called Marshall model, a pattern of frequent and often harsh firings of general officers before and during World War II. Through these removals, together with a complementary pattern of rapid promotions for officers he deemed talented, Marshall tried to mold the senior military command in his preferred image. Ricks admires Marshall’s willingness to break eggs in the process, and he argues that the reluctance of Marshall’s successors to do the same has had a malign effect on the U.S. military. This analysis is incorrect, however, for several reasons.

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