Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book Review (#78 of 2014) The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
How important to the health of an organization is it to have the freedom and wherewithal to fire people who are not living up to the organization's standards? It is vitally important, and this book is an excellent case study.

Ricks' Fiasco, on the 2003 Iraq war, basically defined that war for me when I read it in 2005. This book, in turn, has changed my view of several other wars. You cannot read Ricks' books and not be skeptical of the plaudits for the U.S. military's competence and professionalism. We go to war with the army we have, and that is why we end up in protracted conflicts.

Part I of the book looks at World War II, particularly at George Marshall's role in shaping the military. The "Marshall Rule" is held up as the gold standard. Marshall wanted vigorous young generals who could be team players internationally, who erred on the side of aggression, and did not hesitate to relieve commanders at lower levels who were not up to the job. Marshall also stood up to FDR on occasion--he pushed back.

Marshall got along well with Eisenhower, who held many of his views. It was not unusual for division commanders to relieve incompetent or ineffective battalion commanders in WWII, but Ricks tells many stories where failures to do so resulted in unnecessary losses. As Ricks writes elsewhere,
"Forget about Saving Private Ryan, with its fantasy of a handful of American soldiers blocking superior German forces in improvised street fighting. The real deal was that the Army General Eisenhower threw into Normandy, for better or worse, was undertrained and all too often horribly led. Almost all the pre-invasion preparation was about getting to the beach, with little taught about what to do after crossing it. Many officers knew more about how to transport troops in trucks than about how to lead them in combat. Gole notes that even data from the previous two years of fighting Germans in North Africa and Italy was largely ignored. "

After WWII, firings in the Armed Forces went from an action crucial to the health of the organization to a little-used politically-tainted decision often left to civilians to make.

Part II looks in depth at battles and strategy in Korea. MacArthur, of course, is the poster child of a bad commander. The wonder is how MacArthur could have been so lauded, when he was so narcissistic and unethical-- accepting medals he didn't earn as well as cash from foreign governments, and trying to command a war from a country away. In Korea, one sees a disparity between the Marines and the Army in terms of relieving commanders and general tactics that still exists today.

Lt. Col. Don Faith, Jr., whose regiment lost 90 percent of its force in the disaster at the Chosin Resevoir is one that is singled out as both an example of command failure and a victim of it-- his own commanders were inept. The draftee army of the 1950s suffered from micromanagement as officers could not tell who was competent with only a couple years of time to get to know soldiers. Ricks mentions the 1950s management bestseller The Organization Man which stated that companies should focus on conformity and groupthink in making decisions--this was the Army.

The Korean conflict improved only after Matthew Ridgeway, a Marshall protege, was given a command and began to relieve officers and make changes that lifted morale and improved outcomes. However, Ridgeway gets a letter from his superiors warning him that relieving too many officers would lead to a Congressional investigation. The legacy of Korea was that it was up to civilians to make changes in the military.

Part III is Vietnam. I have read a few books on both Korea and Vietnam and this one cast both conflicts into a new light. American involvement in Vietnam began in 1955 and originally included CIA and Special Forces training self-governing villages on self-defense, which Ricks writes was highly effective. Former General Maxwell Taylor, who Ricks criticizes (among other things) for his role in getting America embroiled in Vietnam in the first place, convinces the CIA to give the program to the Defense Department, and it quickly comes apart. The Marines again adopt a forward-thinking strategy of holding ground around bases and villages, and slowly expanding outward to bring more civilians under their perimeter. This is criticized and changed until post-Tet 1968 when it essentially becomes official policy and works to bring 95% of the population under protection and actually start winning the war. By that time, however, morale and discipline had so broken down that you had crimes like the My Lai Massacre, for which top commanders got barely a reprimand. In the entire war, only one top general was relieved by commanding officers.

Ricks examines the experience of Gen. William E DePuy, a WWII veteran and believer in the Marshall Rule of accountability and relieving incompetent subordinates. DePuy's firings of incapable battalion commanders came under fire from his superior, for which he expected to be relieved himself. Despite this strength of character, DePuy opposed "pacification" policies-- paying the Viet Cong to stop fighting-- that Ricks writes had worked well in Vietnam and would later become official counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan. DePuy would later reform the post-Vietnam Army that fought the 1991 Gulf War.


General Westmoreland fares only slightly better than MacArthur in Ricks' analysis. He is described as being basically illiterate, never known to have read any books, and repeatedly falling back on what he knew as a less senior commander rather than as a generalist, as he was supposed to be. The only consolation is that he was better than his predecessor, Gen. Paul Harkins, who was scarily incompetent. Eventually Gen. Abrams replaces Westmoreland, who was relieved by LBJ. Abrams adopts tactics similar to previous Marine strategies and sees success, but politically it is too late and the Army is essentially broken.

DePuy worked to reform the Army after Vietnam with an emphasis on smaller units, more commanders, and special forces. He built the Army that liberated Kuwait in 1991. But, as Ricks writes "his relentless focus on tactics and training has unfortunately proved to be a poor way to prepare the Army for Iraq in the 2000s."

If there is a weakness of the book it is that the 1980s and late 1990s are hardly mentioned, so generalship in Grenada, Somalia, and the Balkans go unexamined.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf is given mixed reviews in the book. Definitely politically inept, Schwarzkopf even negotiated a cease fire with Iraq with little civilian input or advice from his senior advisers. He gave explicit permission for Iraqi's to fly armed helicopters, which allowed them to put down Shia and Kurdish uprisings that threatened to topple Saddam Hussein, something those groups did not forgive the U.S. for allowing. The 1991 Gulf War was "a tactical success but a strategic draw."

Gen. Tommy Franks is painted as MacArthuresque in his incompetency both in Iraq and Afghanistan. From allowing Bin Laden to escape Tora Bora to writing a memoir that paints a rosy and short-sighted picture of the 2003 campaign, Ricks piles the criticism on hard. Sanchez and others also are roundly criticized. I find it hard to believe that G.W. Bush read "dozens" of books on military occupations and wars (as he claims in his memoir) yet did not see the importance of relieving commanders and his own Defense Secretary. Only one general was relieved in 2003, by the Marines, essentially for cowardice. But a battalion commander who conspired with subordinates to cover up murder received only a reprimand from Gen. Odierno. Ricks does not mention Rumsfeld's repeated attempts to resign but that failure of the Bush Administration speaks for itself.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is praised for making changes and for his focus on accountability. This jives with Gates' memoir where he discusses the generals he fired from the battlefield to the V.A. hospital system. David Petraeus is also held up as an "outlier" of exceptional performance.The Army still has yet to conduct an in-depth review of its 2003-2012 conduct in Iraq, even after all the helpful changes Petraeus implemented.

Ricks' epilogue proposes potential changes, such as teaching officers critical thinking and encouraging officers to work toward advance degrees. Some of it is pie-in-the-sky dreaming, such as probationary periods for lower-ranking officers and requiring officer candidates to first do a peaceful term in a cross-cultural situation, such as the Peace Corps.

Ricks has an admiration for the sacrifice of the military, but a journalistic intent to get to the bottom of the story-- the truth. While there is no completely definitive work on Vietnam yet written, Ricks cites several books, such as Dereliction of Duty, as important reading. If you follow his blog and articles, you know he's still following up on research of the characters he documents. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5.

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