The Quality of Command

The Wrong Way and the Right Way to Make Better Generals

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Generally speaking: an officer meeting with U.S. General George Patton, Sicily, 1943 (National Archives and Records Administration)

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.

FIRING IS NOT LEADERSHIP

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.

Despite what Ricks claims, the Marshall model was not, in fact, an unquestioned success. Nostalgia for the “greatest generation” of soldiers, who won World War II, is all well and good, but an objective look at the generals Marshall picked suggests that many were less than great. Marshall made a number of mistakes, from selecting the incompetent Major General Lloyd Fredendall to command in North Africa to choosing such less than notable commanders as General Mark Clark to lead in Italy; Major General John Lucas, at Anzio; and several of the men responsible for operations after the Normandy landings.

Ricks is unclear, moreover, about just what the Marshall model is supposed to involve. At times, he celebrates the public firing of a general as a mark of leadership that raises morale and fighting efficiency. But at other times, he pulls back to suggest that sacked generals should be given another chance to command in combat before their formal exits. Such a soft dismissal, he contends, would preserve the dignity and self-respect of the officer in question.

Although Ricks argues that today’s military is incapable of following the Marshall model, in fact it already does, just in a different form. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt gave Marshall virtually unquestioned authority to shape the general officer corps, an authority never revived since. In the post-Marshall era, generals have continued to be fired in large numbers and often very publicly; the difference is in why, how, and by whom. These days, it is normally civilian leaders, not generals, who decide to remove generals from combat commands. Changes in statutes over the last 70 years have shifted authority for relieving senior generals from the chiefs of service to the secretary of defense, with input from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the position that most closely resembles Marshall’s in World War II).

Ricks’ idea that dismissal should be a basic tool of officer management, finally, is wrong. Firing generals does not make for better war fighting; battlefield genius can emerge just as easily from giving failing generals another chance to succeed. Union General Ulysses S. Grant failed at the Battle of Shiloh, but his distance from journalists in New York and Washington gave him time to refine his operational skills at Vicksburg and go on to lead the Army of the Potomac to triumph in the final campaigns of the American Civil War. And Ricks’ chapter on the World War II general George Patton demonstrates that generals sometimes display leadership and moral courage by refraining from firing a subordinate, such as when that subordinate, however deserving of dismissal, possesses battlefield skills that can save soldiers’ lives. Patton’s egregious slapping of soldiers at two field hospitals in Sicily in 1943 was cause for court-martial. But Marshall and his fellow U.S. general Dwight Eisenhower resisted political and popular pressure to fire him because they both knew that Patton was the only senior general in Europe with the élan and aggressiveness to lead the pursuit of the Wehrmacht across France to the German border.

General Stanley McChrystal is perhaps today’s closest analog to Patton. As head of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command during the middle years of the last decade, McChrystal oversaw the development of a precision-killing machine unprecedented in the history of modern warfare. The scope and genius of his creation will be appreciated more fully in later decades, once the veil of secrecy has been removed. But media controversy constantly dogged McChrystal’s accomplishments: the Joint Special Operations Command’s night raids drew the ire of critics, the mishandling of the friendly fire death of the former professional football player and U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman sparked calls for McChrystal’s dismissal, and the anti-administration rants of some members of his staff to a reporter for Rolling Stone ultimately led to his firing. Robert Gates, who was then U.S. secretary of defense, and his senior military advisers supported McChrystal until the end; they realized that, like Patton, his missteps were worth tolerating in order to keep him on the job. But they were overruled.

For all of Ricks’ lengthy discussion of recent commanders whom he considers failures worthy of dismissal, there is little mention of McChrystal, who represents the reverse case. And for all the pages Ricks devotes to Iraq, where maintaining incompetent generals was correlated with a lack of success, there is little discussion of Afghanistan, where a lack of success has been correlated with repeated general-officer changes -- something that undermines Ricks’ case.

FIGHTING FAIR

One problem with The Generals that a casual reader might not appreciate is the extent to which Ricks’ analysis appears to betray a service bias. To put it bluntly, Ricks seems to like the Marine Corps and not care much for the U.S. Army.

For example, he devotes almost a tenth of the book, 42 pages, to a single battlefield narrative: the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in Korea during the winter of 1950. This episode offers the worst possible comparison between the performance of the army’s 32nd Infantry Regiment and that of the Fifth and Seventh Marine Regiments. All the units attempted to extract themselves from Chinese attacks along the reservoir; the army regiment was cut to pieces, whereas the marines escaped virtually intact. Ricks concludes that the huge difference in casualties was due to superior Marine leadership. His analysis of this particular case is fair, but what most readers will not realize is that the case is not representative of the larger record. A side-by-side comparison of the fighting performance of both services from World War II to Afghanistan would have yielded a much more balanced picture of the quality of their leadership.

Ricks rightfully attributes soldier abuses in combat to bad generalship, devoting a chapter to Major General Samuel Koster’s cover-up of the 1968 My Lai massacre and several pages to Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez’s responsibility for the abuses at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, during the Iraq war. But the two most egregious violations of soldier ethics in Iraq were the killing of innocents at Haditha by a Marine unit and a similar atrocity committed by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division at an outpost near Baghdad. Both incidents were horrific, but Ricks gives the army atrocity 60 lines of text and the incident involving marines just five.

Two other treatments of army generals are worth noting. Ricks can find little fault with the military effectiveness of General Colin Powell, one of Marshall’s most competent and influential successors. So what does Ricks do? He concentrates his narrative on Powell’s performance as secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration -- certainly a sad episode for a great general, but by no means indicative of his military contributions. Finally, Ricks devotes a chapter to the vitriolic media battle fought between General Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander during Operation Desert Storm, and one of his subordinates, Lieutenant General Frederick Franks, the commander of the U.S. Army’s VII Corps. Ricks finds both men flawed and blames the Gulf War’s indecisive outcome on them. Yet as the author of the official history of the U.S. Army during Desert Storm, I hardly recognized Ricks’ treatment of the campaign. He criticizes Franks for his caution and Schwarzkopf for stopping Franks prematurely. But a fair treatment of Franks’ actions shows not excessive caution but laudable prudence, and the decision to end the war after only 100 hours of ground fighting was entirely unexpected and came directly from President George H. W. Bush, not the military commanders in the field.

In short, Ricks is undoubtedly correct that Marine officers make superb generals. But despite what one might think after reading this book, U.S. Army officers do as well.

STRATEGIC NECESSITY

Beyond personalities, the larger questions at the heart of Ricks’ book are about what constitutes great military leadership in today’s world and how the armed services can foster it. Ricks starts a useful discussion of these questions through his treatment of the debate between General William DePuy and Lieutenant General John Cushman on the future of the U.S. Army after the Vietnam War.

The early 1970s were a bad time for the U.S. Army. Battered by its failures in Vietnam and ravaged by budget cuts, the institution was in crisis. Along with a core of other devoted officers, DePuy decided to try to rebuild the broken force, revamping both its esprit de corps and its mission and using his leadership of the new U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command to put his ideas into practice. DePuy’s efforts produced many impressive results, including a renewed sense of professionalism and devotion to operational excellence. But his approach had some significant flaws as well. DePuy wanted to leave behind the entire experience of Vietnam, for example, and instead focus exclusively on the challenge of fighting the Soviets in a conventional land war in Europe. He also concentrated on teaching the army how to fight rather than how to think about fighting.

DePuy began the rediscovery of the “operational art of war” by developing the Air-Land Battle doctrine, designed for a war against the Warsaw Pact in Europe. He and others followed this with a revolution in military training, institutionalized in the opening of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, in California, and then the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas. As a result of all this activity, by the 1980s the U.S. Army had become the best fighting force in the world at the tactical and operational levels of war. Along the way, however, the army had focused solely on preparing for large-scale conventional war against peer opponents (as opposed to a wide range of possible conflicts, including counterinsurgency) and neglected the broad educational enrichment needed for officers to turn tactical and operational skills into war-winning strategic genius.

Sensing these growing problems, in the late 1970s, Cushman began pushing back against DePuy, arguing that operational excellence, however essential, was only the first step toward reform. Cushman recognized that future generals would have to operate in a far more complex environment, requiring even the most junior of them to understand strategy as well as tactics and operations. They would need to learn to fight a war among the people, leveraging the fighting power of all the services, as well as interagency, indigenous, and multinational partners, and showing cultural sensitivity, political adeptness, and comfort with what Ricks terms “civil-military discourse.”

Cushman’s ideal of the thinking, strategic general, one might say, is General David Petraeus, who through two wars earned a reputation for leadership, innovation, and political finesse. He took his doctorate from Princeton University and literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency. Other standouts in his generation include General Martin Dempsey, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and General Peter Chiarelli, the former army vice chief of staff, who reacted to the changing circumstances of the war in Iraq by studying at an Islamic cultural center and embedding his staff with the city council of Austin, Texas (so they could learn how to run a city). Petraeus, Dempsey, Chiarelli, and their colleagues from other services, such as General James Mattis of the Marines and Admiral Mike Mullen of the U.S. Navy, represent a new, post-9/11 generation of thoughtful and sophisticated generals, marked by serious study of the art of war and strategy.

Ricks notes that the DePuy-Cushman debate was a lost opportunity for the army to move beyond its narrow focus on operational excellence, and his reasoning would be widely shared by many close observers inside the army itself. But he does not take this point far enough, because Cushman’s approach is exactly what the armed services should embrace today, even more fully than it currently does.

One constant from Marshall to Petraeus is that the winnowing process for the selection of general officers begins around the grade of major, when a few are singled out for early promotion and advanced military schooling. In DePuy’s era, as in Marshall’s, one such midcareer pruning was enough, because during the Cold War, the army knew that it needed to concentrate on promoting officers with a special talent for maneuvering large units on a conventional battlefield. Today, however, good generalship requires a broader range of strategic gifts, including ones that do not necessarily reveal themselves at lower levels. The generals of the future will have to be capable of going beyond fighting from a battle plan to seeing the battlefield before any plans have been formulated, thinking in time and imagining cultural, political, and geostrategic circumstances that have yet to materialize. They will need not just tactical and operational skills but also intuition, imagination, agility, and a deep understanding of “the politics of war,” in every meaning of that phrase.

Ricks understands this, but his notion that one can find such paragons through a Darwinian process of firing underperformers is shallow. What the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps really need is to develop a system of officer advancement that, beginning at the time of commissioning, seeks out the right men and women through early education and cultural immersion. In other words, they need to follow the Petraeus model, not the Marshall model, considering intellectual gifts to be just as important as management skills in selecting new brigadiers. Those with the right strategic stuff should be sent early in their careers (at about the grade of captain) to earn advanced degrees in subjects related to the art of war or to the world beyond U.S. borders. Like Petraeus, Dempsey, and Chiarelli, they should be given time to reflect on their profession through a year or two as an instructor at a military school. Those with special strategic gifts will have to be protected professionally from the few DePuy-era tactical generals still ensconced in various positions. The war colleges, the hubs of strategic learning in the U.S. system of military education, need to be more selective and academically rigorous so that they do a better job of producing truly educated generals who are able to offer the strategic leadership the military needs.

The final chapters of Ricks’ book offer several good suggestions for how to produce better generals. Unfortunately, the author’s earlier, tendentious treatment of history and misguided emphasis on firing as a panacea are likely to so alienate knowledgeable military readers that they will have closed the book long before then. The timing of the book is particularly bad, because over the past few months, senior army leaders have started planning reforms at the strategic level. And by giving civilian and military leaders the wrong idea about the army’s problems, The Generals may actually harm these efforts. That is a shame, because Ricks’ basic observation about the current lack of strategic generalship is spot on -- and something that everybody should be concerned about.

 

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