Review of the book: “The Generals” by Thomas Ricks

Thomas Ricks is a non-fiction writer who writes mostly about the US military.  He wrote a great book a few years ago called “Fiasco”, detailing our missteps in the war in Iraq.  While a title such as that may seem to indicate to the casual observer that this is some kind of left wing (or right wing) screed, given that people like Ann Coulter have books titled “Treason” and such, that is not at all how Thomas Ricks writes.

He is a very thoughtful writer that cares deeply about the US military – its traditions, its execution, its soldiers, and how the military represents the United States.

The genesis for his current book, The Generals, is a trip Ricks took to a battlefield in Italy during WWII.  There he learned that the US general of the battle had been relieved.  This was shocking to Ricks, because that general went on to great success elsewhere in WWII, and this seemed at odds with what Ricks knew of the modern US military, which is that generals almost never get removed – usually if they do, it is by the President, and is the top general.  This was a general removed by another general.

From there, he started digging, and what he found is that in WWII, the US military relieved generals constantly for non-performance, usually giving them other chances to succeed elsewhere with a different command.  This was so foreign to how we do things now, which is that a general is only removed due to a sex scandal or, in the case of William McChrystal, saying stupid things to a Rolling Stone reporter.

This book is an examination of how the US military behaved then, and how it is behaving now, with regards to senior military leadership.

It is a very fascinating book.  You don’t have to be a fan of the US military in particular, or military matters in general, to like this book.  The book is less about “the military” with whatever connotations you may have about that in your mind, but rather about how large organizations behave – the internal bureaucracy, who considers what important and why, how people learn what the incentives are so that they can be successful, what it means when those incentives don’t match what is needed.  If you’ve never been in the military, but work in a large company with several different groups / divisions, you will probably see failings of your office in stories Thomas Ricks relates.

The general thrust of the book is, over time, the military went from an institution that was looking out for soldiers to an institution that was looking out for its generals, even if that meant soldier’s lives were lost.  Which, in a way, is how many militaries over the histories have behaved.  What was shocking is that the Army that Marshall built during WWII worked very hard to not become that, yet it became that anyway.

I learned quite a bit more about My Lai (the US massacre of a village in Vietnam) than I had known before, and all the behind-the-scenes failures during Gulf War I, which seemed like a resounding success given the Army’s devastation of Saddam’s forces.  And how, during Vietnam, just as the junior officers were beginning to see the fruits of adopting a counter-insurgency strategy, the upper leadership squashed it.  And thus, the military has had to learn it all again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all indicators are that the army is going to quash it yet again.

It is an easy read.  There are many names given the sheer numbers of generals, and a couple of times I had to go back and look up people – “who was Matthew Ridgeway again?”, but it is well worth the read.

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