Thomas Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

A review

Over the last thirty years or so, criticism of the military has been rare. It seems to be taboo. Harsh assessments of the generals are usually seen as unwarranted, or unpatriotic, or an unwelcome return to the vicious and misguided discourse of the Vietnam War. Washington Post writer Thomas Ricks is not reluctant to criticize our military elite. The Generals is an informed criticism of the top officers from the Second World War to the present. Ricks’s book, though not always well argued and misfiring in places, is exceptionally timely and should be read by all engaged citizens. Understanding the military should not be based on official statements, sentimental notions of war, or tired rallying cries of a past war.

The army was also intolerant of incompetent, less than aggressive, and overly independent commanders and fired them with an alacrity unseen in the post-1945 military. Such was the case with the lax Lloyd Fredendall, the flamboyant Terry Allen, and the incautious Leroy Watson. Demanding and unforgiving leadership, Ricks holds, was critical to the victory in WW2 and reluctance to fire commanders in the ensuing sixty-five years was central to many of America’s military problems, starting with the Korean War (1950-53).

The army fared poorly in the months after the North Korean invasion and Ricks of course points to inept generals, not the least of which was the lionized Douglas MacArthur. The US proconsul of the Far East tolerated a slew of underperforming generals, elided directives from the president and joint chiefs, and blithely ignored intelligence reports of Chinese troops massing in front of him. In Ricks’s view, Mac should have fired more generals and been himself forced out earlier. Matthew Ridgway deserves credit for stabilizing the front after the Chinese counteroffensive in early 1951. Ridgway’s well-chronicled feat was helped along by canning several generals.

Ricks attaches considerable blame on the generals for the Vietnam debacle – hardly a novel view, of course. An army trained to fighting the Warsaw Pact’s conventional might failed to adapt to fighting an insurgency. Instead, it used massive firepower techniques to wear down, or attrit, the communist forces – a process that inflicted high civilian casualties and weakened the already limited support for the Saigon government. As the war went on, with few signs of progress, recommendations by several division commanders (Frederick Weyand, for example) to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy were rejected by in-country commander William Westmoreland and the generals back in Washington.

A better-managed institution would have recognized the need for change and replaced hidebound generals with more creative ones. But the military remained wedded to irrelevant and counterproductive ideas and the army disintegrated. More importantly, we lost.

The army, as has been oft-noted, ably reconstituted itself after the war, though in a problematic way now manifesting itself. Training doctrines concentrated on mastery of technique, tactics, troop movements, and logistics. There was lamentably little encouragement of innovation outside the parameters of received doctrine or on considering consequences of a war. Counterinsurgency doctrines, which had gained a toehold late in the Vietnam War, were busted out of the service. There was to be little thinking outside the five-sided box on the Potomac.

The result of this predilection with technique over adaptiveness, according to Ricks, was a baleful succession of unimaginative generals (most notably, Tommy Franks) who misunderstood the problems facing them in Iraq and Afghanistan and responded with conventional techniques, which only paid homage to previous intransigence and to Santayana’s tired aphorism. When counterinsurgency was finally adopted by outlier David Petraeus, the army organization was unable to instruct lower-level officers just what it was. Some that did comprehend it in theory, willfully ignored it in practice.

There has been change at the top and ferment below. Petraeus had instilled adaptiveness in his 101st Airborne Division, which was far more successful in occupying northern Iraq than stodgier colleagues elsewhere who relied on the heavy hand. He rose swiftly in the ranks and came to command operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ricks notes that many middle-level officers (majors and colonels) chafed under the rigidity and micromanagement of the army system/ They know well the need for organizational change and will create a new military as they rise in rank. One can hope.

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Ricks’s emphasis on the importance of firing ordinary generals will not put him on the Pentagon’s shortlist for the next Secretary of Defense. Nor is the argument especially convincing. Did all or most of the firings lead to better performance? Perhaps, but the author’s evidence is spotty and anecdotal. No one defends General Fredendall after the Kasserine Pass defeat, but the author’s impatience with a corps commander in the First Gulf War (though shared by General Schwarzkopf) is petty. The ground war, after all, lasted only a few days and ended successfully.

Zeal for firing generals and uncritical acceptance of the Patton Mythology go hand in hand. Ricks echoes the old storyline of Patton’s boldness and Bradley’s and Hodges’s conservatism. The latter two, it might be noted, planned and directed the Saint-Lo Breakout, which shattered the German position in France and was probably the most daring operation of the entire war. Patton at the time was still in Ike’s doghouse in England. The ensuing race across France, upon which much of the Patton Mythology rests, was more the work of Bradley and Hodges than their more publicity-conscious peer, who was given a command in France only after the Breakout.

Ricks cites General Peers’s (head of the My Lai inquiry) of the generals for allowing discipline to degenerate in Vietnam. This does not address the matter of the turbulence and hostility toward the military throughout America, from which of course the troops came – draftees and volunteers alike. No organization, no system of recruit training, could have insulated the army from what was coursing through American life then. More responsibility might lie down the chain of command: the rapid expansion of the army and marines to fight the war elevated many an incompetent NCO and officer to undeserved positions, where they barked noisily but led badly.

Ricks criticizes the generals for not adopting counterinsurgency techniques (COIN) more swiftly in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but he has a rather uncritical enthusiasm for COIN. While it was certainly preferable to the use of heavy firepower, it is not an easily implementable strategy nor does it have a clear line of successes behind it. COIN’s “successes” over the last sixty-five years have been few and there is considerable doubt as to whether other factors weren’t more important in squelching insurgencies in, say, Greece, Malaya, and the Philippines.

The author accepts the military’s institutional self-assessment of being a peerless organization able to take up any burden and accomplish any feat. He thinks it’s only a matter of finding the right generals, but does not think the generals are up to the task of finding them.

Ricks does not adequately consider that a principal cause of military disappointments lies in their being ordered to fight wars that lead to predictable, adverse consequences and which are of dubious relevance to national security. No military genius can accomplish such things, and firing a dozen or more generals won’t help. At least a considerable part of the problem lies in our heedless presidents and credulous public.

The generals, the author notes, should have greater input on, and even put up firmer resistance to, such campaigns. However, the Constitution is not on the generals’ side. Nor is public opinion – especially since the end of the draft in 1973 which led to an all-volunteer military detached from too much of the public. Americans will withhold criticism of wars and generals, however misguided they may be, as long as most people don’t know anyone in uniform.

© 2013 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing served in the US army with indigenous forces in the Vietnam War and is the author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Good review Brian. I too am a Vietnam era veteran although in 3 years I never made it to Vietnam. I served in a military intelligence unit in Germany for 2 and a half years. But I did see incompetent officers from Lt to full bird colonels but war does that. The most competent people I worked with were the E8s and E9s, The Sgt Major was a brilliant and pragmatic man who had more education and experience than the Major he reported to.
    To reach the level of General (since WWII) you have to be part politician. The more stars you get the more of a politician you have to be. Petraeus was a politician and a media manipulation expert witch as much as anything accounts for his rise in the ranks.

  • Excellent review. I didn’t know that about Bradley and Hodges. I just fell for the storyline regarding Patton.

    This is a pretty big oversight: “Ricks does not adequately consider that a principal cause of military disappointments lies in their being ordered to fight wars that lead to predictable, adverse consequences and which are of dubious relevance to national security.” Withe presidents able to dispath the military with relative ease, this problem is bound to occur.

    In the Civil War, it was accepted to call a general before a congressional committee to grill him on why a key battle was lost. There were more than a few of those hearings and they were brutal. We’re at the opposite end of the spectrum now, where someone like Petraeus just shows up and the representatives fall all over themselves in worshipful adulation (except a few like Hagel and no good deed goes unpunished).

  • It seems to me that it’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket as in placing the responsibility of fighting a war in the hands of one general.

    A hierarchical structure such as the military is fertile ground for nurturing individual egos, not for generating a team approach.

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