Book Review: The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today


by Thomas E. Ricks

New York: Penguin Books, 2013. Pp. 558. Notes, index. $18.00 paper. ISBN: 0143124099

Journalist and military affairs author Thomas Ricks’ new book has a very simple thesis: during World War II, George Marshall established an institutional culture within the army which encouraged the removal of those generals who could not lead their combat units effectively (the ‘Marshall system’), a practice that Eisenhower himself often made use of.  This policy benefited the army and the war effort immeasurably as the generals who eventually came to lead the divisions, corps, and armies serving in the important theaters of operations were men of proven military talent.  The result was a speedier end to the war with a minimal loss of American lives.

In the decades since World War II, however, the Marshall system has largely lapsed as the army became more adverse to removing incompetent generals, with the result that America has been less capable of waging war effectively.  Even the First Gulf War, the most dramatically successful of our recent military ventures, was a tarnished victory since many of the more important units of the Iraqi army were able to elude destruction thanks to the cautious leadership of Norman Schwarzkopf.  Ricks asserts that our lack of success in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan was largely due to a failure of military leadership.  The current American army has evolved into a more bureaucratic, corporatist type institution that rewards mediocrity over risk-taking (the ‘organization man’s army’),and where conformity and cronyism has engendered an institutional disinclination to remove unsuccessful commanders from important military commands. Relieving a commanding officer from a combat command can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s reputation, and the post-World War II officer corps has shown a decided reluctance to damage a colleague’s career, and so ineffectual generals are kept in place, and American army units continue to stumble along ineffectually, until civilian leadership (usually the President of the United States) decides to intervene and make the needed change.  Such a solution actually suits the army since it helps the high level commanders avoid the appearance of being the bad guy when it comes to ending a fellow officer’s career.  However, waiting for the president to act is also not a very satisfactory solution to the day-to-day problems of military leadership as the president historically has only removed the most high-profile commanders (such as MacArthur during the Korean War), and certainly cannot manage the performance of the many subordinate commanders.  In recent years civilian leadership has developed a more worshipful attitude towards the military profession, and so has proven even more reluctant to criticize the performance of commanders, much less remove generals from overseas commands. 

Ricks argues that unless the United States Army returns to the Marshall system and holds its generals accountable for their performance in the field, the nation will continue to squander its military assets in future conflicts.  To make his case, Ricks provides some narrative discussion of relations among important commanders during the Second World War, including some unflattering portrayals of MacArthur, Patton, and Montgomery.  For Korea, Ricks gives a detailed description of the battle of Chosin Reservoir to underscore the disparate outcomes produced by the difference in leadership styles between the US Army and the Marine Corps during this dramatic action.  Vietnam is presented as the absolute nadir of American military performance, characterized by the army’s single-minded obsession with body counts as a measure of military success, the epitome of the corporatist approach to warfare, which, in turn, led to tragic outcomes, such as the My Lai massacre and the shameful cover-up engaged in by army brass. 

Ricks gives surprisingly little coverage to recent events in Iraq (previously discussed in Fiasco) and Afghanistan; one suspects that this will be reserved for a future volume.  As it stands, the book covers a lot of ground and is focused solely on the issue of military leadership and its impact on military outcomes.  As such, discussion of the many other issues that impinge on the success of military operations are omitted.  For this reason alone, specialists in any one of the campaigns Ricks covers will probably dispute with him on the details of these operations and the extent to which leadership affected the outcome.  The book is clearly written for a non-specialist audience, most likely Beltway policy makers, and is very much a product of the political climate of our own time.  Contemporary Americans are increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated with the performance of their public institutions and are searching for expedient solutions.  At a time when Americans are demanding more accountability for the job performance of corporate executives, politicians, and even teachers, Ricks seems to be suggesting that the same standards should also be applied to the people who hold the awesome responsibility of leading our soldiers in combat.


Our Reviewer:  An Associate Professor of History at La Guardia Communicty College, CUNY, John Shean has written extensively in history, including Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army

Reviewer: John F. Shean   

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