By Chet Yarbrough
By Thomas E. Ricks
Narrated by William Hughes
Thomas Ricks, the author of “The Generals”, has strong opinions about what is wrong with the American military. His criticism of American generals is corroborated by two, three, or more original sources; many of which are military; some of which are provable false statements written by former generals. However Ricks’ criticisms seem driven by theory rather than reality.
Being in charge of millions of military personnel that have different backgrounds, different education levels, different life experiences, demands a higher level of regimentation than is required in civilian life. This is particularly true in combat situations where every military person’s life is at stake and leadership becomes preeminently important. Ricks develops a theory that postulates decline of American military effectiveness and offers facts to corroborate his theory. The weakness of his theory is, as Nietzsche suggests, “There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Ricks infers that more discretionary action by command personnel would improve military effectiveness. The difficulty of that suggestion is exemplified by Herman Wouk’s fictional story, “The Caine Mutiny”. Every general, every command person in life or the military, is freighted with human nature. How to get “the best of the best” in command situations is determined by trial and error. This is not to say that future generals do not need appropriate training and education for leadership. However, only experience-of-command-in-conflict will prove effectiveness.
Ricks creates straw men comparisons when writing about General George C. Marshall’s command in WWII, Ridgeway’s in Korea, Depuy’s in Vietnam, Schwarzkopf’s in Desert Storm, and Petraeus’s in Afghanistan.
The context of these theaters-of-war is too different to suggest there is a common thread of military command that would have made America’s generalship more effective.
This is not to suggest that Ricks condemnation of Generals
MacArthur, Westmoreland, or Sanchez are incorrect but that knowing who best fills a role in combat commands is only practically determined in retrospect.
On the one hand, Ricks persuasively shows the error of rotating command personnel too frequently; on the other, Ricks suggests generals should be removed from command when they fail to achieve military objectives. Drawing the line between command mistakes and incompetence is difficult and can lead to as much military ineffectiveness as excessive rotation of assignments.
Ricks suggests that the American military is too corporate with generals more focused on advancing their careers than serving their country. To a degree that may be true but what ambitious career seeker is without the desire to advance? Ricks argues that corporate mentality interferes with military effectiveness but no successful large organization can ignore corporatism or the essential value of organizational structure.
Generals are subject to the same motivations as all human beings. They lust, in different degrees, for money, power, and prestige in their line of work; just as corporate Americans pursue the same. Generals are babies that grow up just like captains of industry. There is no difference. Every leader is measured by their success in accomplishing military or corporate objectives. Failure follows each discipline and only average or better effectiveness sustains their respective careers. This is not to deny the difference in wins and losses. In the military, ineffective leadership may lead to death while ineffective leadership in business may lead, at worst, to unemployment.
Ricks’ book is interesting because it offers facts that reveal some of the strengths and weaknesses of generals in the military, past and present. He explains how General Marshall’s strategic brilliance prepared the military for success in WWII while General DuPuy’s tactical genius and training improved combat performance. He writes about General Schwartzkoph’s intellectual strength while revealing his political naiveté. Ricks’ writes about General Colin Powell’s political effectiveness while noting Powell’s monumental error in supporting false reasons for invading Iraq.
However, Ricks misses the mark in suggesting there is a better way to improve the effectiveness of the American military. There will always be a General Marshall, a DePuy, or a Petraeus to improve military effectiveness but only after losing an unconscionable amount of blood and treasure caused by other generals or politicians that have made too many mistakes.
There is no right answer to improving military effectiveness; i.e. short of ending all war.