Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks (author), William Hughes (narrator)

Blackstone Audiobooks, ISBN 9781470817275, October 2012

Thomas Ricks gives us very thoughtful history of the Army's general officer corps from World War Two forward to the near-present. (At the time of writing, David Petraeus was still Director of the CIA.) Be warned that it's not "objective;" Ricks has a definite viewpoint, and serious concerns about how we are currently training and educating the Army's senior officers.

He begins with WWII, George C. Marshall, and the generals that Marshall, and under him, Dwight D. Eisenhower, mentored and promoted. Marshall valued strategic thinking, a positive outlook, teamwork and cooperation, and an energetic commitment to moving forward. They easily and frequently removed officers, including generals, who were not performing adequately or achieving battlefield success, but they also often gave those officers second chances, new combat commands, rather than being relieved being a career-ender, as it became later.

This is, in one sense, the "fun" part of the book. Things get a little grimmer, as we move forward, and the post-WWII Army gradually abandons the Marshall model for educating, promoting, and guiding the careers of generals. Ricks describes first a slide into risk-avoidance, then the creation of the rotation system for troops and for officers that devastated the effectiveness and survival prospects of American soldiers in Korea and in Vietnam, and destroyed morale to the point where the horror of My Lai was possible.

Along the way, the notion of officer relief as a tool of Army management and leadership was lost, relief became a career-ender, and at all levels officers were left in place when they should have been removed, in order to not damage their careers--and causing the deaths of thousands of American soldiers who needed and deserved better leadership.

After Vietnam, there's a rebuilding, but, in a different kind of tragedy, it's largely a rebuilding of the army itself, the enlisted ranks and junior officers, with an unfortunate emphasis on training, rather than education, on tactics rather than strategy, on all levels, including the general officers, for whom strategic thinking is, or should be, a basic part of their job. This high professionalism on the tactical and operational level, and complete abdication of strategic thinking, had major consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we are still dealing with.

This is clear and understandable, but not in any way light or casual read. Serious issues are covered, and some of this material is painful. It's well worth the effort, though, especially for those concerned about our military and geo-political effectiveness.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from the library.

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