Generals on the Firing Line

Tom Ricks thinks we don’t make generals like we used to. He may be right.

Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (New York: Penguin, 2012), 576 pp., $32.95.

The defense world is buzzing over journalist Tom Ricks’s new book, The Generals. Ricks thinks we don’t make generals like we used to.

He may be right.

During the Second World War, General Robert “Ike” Eichelberger took out a Japanese sniper. It was a personal act of war, a throwback to ancient days when a commander’s prowess was measured by the blood he spilled in battle. Eichelberger merits a positive mention in Ricks’s book. Few of today’s generals come off as well.

Ricks, however, is more interested in grading generalship than marksmanship.

A respected war journalist and bestselling author, Ricks assesses a long list of senior army officers from George C. Marshall to David Petraeus on the tasks of the “modern major general”: organizing for combat; making decisions in battle, and bridging the gap between what political leaders demand and what armies can deliver.

Ricks puts great emphasis on a general’s willingness to fire commanders who just don’t cut it. He contrasts Marshall’s house cleaning after Pearl Harbor with the present-day reluctance to fire underperforming general officers. The trend, Ricks argues, reflects a deeper malaise. “Tolerance of below-average performance,” Ricks concludes, “has [had] a corrosive effect on the quality of Army leadership.” Army leaders are by and large technically competent but play it safe and are overly fixated on pleasing their political masters.

To make his case, Ricks whisks through the U.S. Army’s combat history from Normandy to now. The Generals is part breezy biography with short chapters on pivotal senior leaders such as Marshall, Patton, MacArthur, Ridgeway, Westmoreland and Petraeus. Also profiled are more junior generals such as “Terrible” Terry Allen, “Hanging” Sam Williams and Eichelberger. Ricks uses their careers to illustrate how the Pentagon brass shape the officer corps. The Generals also presents riveting combat vignettes to show how leadership affects life at the sharp end of war.

The impressive cast of characters and events is one of the book’s great virtues. Ricks tells his tales well. His description of the battle of the Chosin Reservoir, for example, is riveting. The Generals provides just the right balance of detail and analysis to make the book both good scholarship and a very, very good read.

In many ways, The Generals is a nonfiction update of Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle. Myrer’s novel covers the careers of two American generals from World War I to the Vietnam era. One represents the essence of selfless service, the other the epitome of a self-serving officer. Over the course of the novel, the virtuous character, Sam Damon, sacrifices everything while increasingly being labeled as out of step with the army mainstream. Meanwhile, his doppelganger rises to the highest rank of influence and power.

Parallels between Once an Eagle and The Generals are more than superficial. Myrer always claimed that the two characters were composites of several historical figures. The two careers and personalities, however, closely match the valiant, hard-charging Matthew Ridgway and the slick Maxwell Taylor. Both are featured in The Generals.

Ridgway earns respect as a throwback to Marshall’s World War II standards of putting the mission and the troops first. Taylor gets slammed for representing “almost the opposite of George Marshall.” Ricks rightly labels him “intensely politicized. . . . He made a habit out of saying not what he knew to be true but instead what he thought should be said.”

The chapter covering World War II was where Myrer strayed most from the Ridgway-Taylor model. While Ridgway and Taylor served in Europe, Myrer’s characters fight in the Pacific. Here, Myrer patterned his heroic character after Eichelberger. The organizational man reflects “Doug Out” Douglas MacArthur, whom Myrer thoroughly despised. In similar fashion, Ricks gives Eichelberger high marks and casts MacArthur as a “negative example” for future army leaders.

Although The Generals brings the story up to date, it is a story we have heard before. And while the narrative is powerful, it leaves a lot of the story out. That’s fine for a novel and acceptable in a solid journalistic account of America and its generals. But it’s a deficiency in a book that attempts a full understanding of how the U.S. Army has been commanded in the modern era.

Studying American generals in absence of the America around them provides only one side of the story. The United States has a democratic army. Its officer corps, particularly the senior officers of the post–World War II era, strongly reflects that.

But Ricks for the most part leaves out the rest of America. He rightly mentions William Whyte’s 1956 best seller, The Organization Man, a critical portrait of post–World War II corporate America. Whyte attacked an ethos where the goal of serving a corporation had become getting along in the organization. Ricks, however, simply uses Whyte’s book as exemplar of what he argues happened to the army. It is not that simple.

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