'The Generals': Thomas Ricks holds America's military command to account

The accomplished reporter is damning where needed


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There are four basic points to bear in mind in deciding whether to read this meritorious, informative book.

The first is that Mr. Ricks really knows what he is talking about. He has covered the U.S. military as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post for 30 years, in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Haiti, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Macedonia, Somalia and Turkey as well as Washington. He also read deeply into U.S. military history preceding his own time as a reporter. The book begins with accounts of U.S. World War II generals.


"THE GENERALS: AMERICAN MILITARY COMMAND FROM WORLD WAR II TO TODAY"

By Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin Press ($32.95).


The second point is that Mr. Ricks looks squarely at the fact that America has not been well-served by its generals for many years. Americans all know that we didn't win in Korea, Vietnam, the second Iraq War and Afghanistan. Mr. Ricks says it is because of the action or inaction of our senior military and civilian leaders. He puts the finger of responsibility squarely on a particular characteristic of America's current military culture: the unwillingness to fire generals who don't perform effectively.

The third point is one he doesn't make. That is that Americans have been betrayed by a U.S. military that has spent an average $400 billion a year on defense, on itself, since 1946 but doesn't deliver in terms of battlefield success. Killing an enemy combatant in Vietnam cost the taxpayer $60,000. Americans have been encouraged to think that U.S. forces have won wars and that their generals are military geniuses, but no one should mistake the killing of Osama bin Laden for victory in Afghanistan, as an example.

The fourth point of the book is that Mr. Ricks -- in no way an enemy of the U.S. military -- suggests a remedy for the problem that he sees plaguing the corps of generals in its honest efforts to perform effectively.

I'll leave that piece out as an incentive to read the book, taking his war-by-war, generation-by-generation analysis of America's military leaders, and seeing whether his study and conclusions make sense and lead to the sensible changes of policy in managing America's armed forces that he recommends.

• • •

The book is heavy, but it isn't. What pulls the reader eagerly from chapter to chapter is Mr. Ricks' extremely well-informed discussion of America's generals from World War II's Gen. George C. Marshall, born in Uniontown, to the current cast of characters, including the fallen Gen. David Petraeus, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and the at-first-blush-fallen-now-predictably-cleared Marine Gen. John Allen, the departing U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ricks does not hesitate to adjudge U.S. generals over the years as competent or incompetent. If his reader has followed the list of American military leaders over the years, as I have in real time as an observer since the Korean War, his comments and anecdotes are fascinating.

Gen. Marshall knew when his time was up and should quit; Gen. Douglas MacArthur didn't and went down in flames when President Harry Truman fired him. Mr. Ricks says flatly that generals' mistakes kill soldiers. He dedicates the book to "those who died following poor leaders."

He calls Gen. Mark Clark "the untouchable mediocrity." Gen. William Westmoreland was, according to Mr. Ricks, an ambitious micromanager. Gen. Maxwell Taylor was the "architect of defeat" in Vietnam.

Mr. Ricks' book probably made some of the generals and their admirers angry. The reader should be delighted. The book gives the serious student of America's wars and generals important material upon which to reflect. The last chapter is titled "Restoring American Military Leadership," of great relevance to all of us.

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Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).


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