By Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin Press, 2012
576 pp. $32.95
Tom Ricks has done it again, producing an interesting and useful book. He has two major themes in The Generals. The first is with Army generals today: senior leaders are unable to remove inadequate generals. His second is more important: the costly incapability of the generals to think and act strategically. In every case of disaster Ricks cites, strategic thinking was absent.
The book contains 30 chapters (and an epilogue) covering World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the two Iraq wars. The author sketches portraits of U.S. Army (and one Marine Corps) general officers from World War II forward. There are heroes including George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, O.P. Smith, Matthew Ridgway, and David Petraeus (the book was published before Petraeus resigned from the Central Intelligence Agency). There are also villains including Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, Tommy Franks, and Ricardo Sanchez.
The strategic debacle in Vietnam is exceptionally well treated. Ricks’s cogent analysis is a searing critique of errors that we must never make again, and it tells readers how to lose a war—and in doing so damaging America’s reputation, severely weakening the home country, provoking runaway inflation, and, most importantly, wasting 58,000 American lives.
Ricks’s generalized portraits of the World War II generals will meet with broad acceptance. His model officer is Marshall, an Army chief of staff who was in the right, place at the right time. The main attribute Ricks cites is Marshall’s inclination to relieve officers he thought were inadequate to the task. He let hundreds go in his 6 years as chief, which became a lost art (except for Ridgway) after he left.
His number one antihero is Taylor. Ricks, unfortunately, gets carried away here: “Maxwell Taylor arguably was the most destructive general in American history. As Army Chief of Staff in the 1950s, he steered the U.S. military toward engaging in ‘brushfire wars.’” Also, “[H]e encouraged President John F. Kennedy to deepen American involvement in Vietnam. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he poisoned relations between the military and the civilian leadership. He was also key in picking Gen. William Westmoreland to command the war there.”
To begin with, Taylor steered neither the Army nor the military in any direction while he was chief of staff. Dwight Eisenhower was the President, and his grand strategy did not focus on “brushfire wars,” and certainly neither did the Air Force strategy. This was the era of strategic bombers, massive retaliation, and bomber-pilot generals put in command of Air Force fighter commands by bomber-pilot chiefs of staff. Secondly, Eisenhower was never the ultimate decisionmaker (certainly not in the 1950s), and in the next decade, he worked under a strong-willed Secretary of Defense and determined Presidents who were much more culpable for the Vietnam tragedy.
There is, therefore, a balanced shortcoming in this book. Ricks has abundant examples of senior officers failing in their missions because they were strategically inept, but all of them had civilian supervisors who, while not getting a complete pass from Ricks, are not nearly as appropriately condemned by the author. I realize the title is The Generals, but there are levels of authority above combat general officers.
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson did not have to follow Taylor into oblivion in Vietnam. Johnson was not required to let Westmoreland fight with a totally backward ground strategy while dropping more tons of bombs on South Vietnam than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined in World War II. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney did not have to let Norman Schwarzkopf stop Operation Desert Storm after 4 days of ground warfare, leaving Iraq’s Republican Guard nearly intact and prolonging Saddam Hussein’s murderous reign for more than a dozen years.
Regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom, Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez were tacticians when strategists were needed. The former rushed to Baghdad leaving his support forces to be mauled by bypassed mujahideen, and the latter permitted the inhumane treatment of Iraqi insurgents and rounded-up civilians as well as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison. These actions made enemies of the Iraqi population, and Ricks completely misappropriates the blame.
Finally, Ricks appears to believe counterinsurgency combat is a valid combat mission for the U.S. military. It is not. I do not understand why any political decisionmaker, after costly failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, would advocate counterinsurgency. We go to war in places we do not understand—in order to save nondemocratic and often corrupt states that are open to attacks by insurgents—against adversaries who have greater knowledge than we do of the countries we fight.
We need to continue to study counterinsurgency art to advise states seeking our help, and who are worthy of our help, ever careful to avoid mission creep, but not sacrificing our people—58,000 in a losing effort in Vietnam, thousands more in Iraq—and our wealth, estimated to be $1 trillion in Iraq. Tell me what we got for our money and our lost men and women.
That said, read Tom Rick’s The Generals to appreciate better the awful costs to the United States of failures in strategic thinking. JFQ