'The Generals' Is a Sharp Analysis of the Performance of Generals and the Civilians Who Oversee Them

Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

The U.S. Army is often led by generals who are masterful at combat tactics, but woefully inept at recognizing changes in the battlefield, like the emergence of an insurgency in Iraq or the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 576 pages
Author: Thomas E. Ricks
Price: $32.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-10

Deep in his impressive, disturbing study of U.S. Army leadership, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today, Thomas E. Ricks offers his explanation of why the Iraq war seemed to spiral out of control even after Saddam Hussein was toppled and his army defeated.

The fault was not with the U.S. Army’s rank and file, Ricks concludes. “It was a well-trained, professional, competent force,” he writes. “But the soldiers were often better at their tasks than the generals who were leading them were at theirs. In Iraq, the U.S. Army would illustrate the danger of viewing war too narrowly.”

A former military beat reporter at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, Ricks is swinging for the fences in The Generals, analyzing the performance of generals and the civilian leaders who oversee them from Pearl Harbor to Iraq and Afghanistan.

He remembers the slam once used to describe the British army as “lions led by donkeys.”

His conclusions are stark, fact-based and strongly argued: The U.S. Army is often led by generals who are masterful at combat tactics, at converging battalions on an agreed-upon enemy target, but woefully inept at recognizing changes in the battlefield, like the emergence of an insurgency in Iraq or the reemergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In Panama in 1989, Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and Afghanistan in 2001, “Army generals would lead swift attacks against enemy forces yet do so without a notion of what to do the day after their initial triumph, and in fact believing that it was not their job to consider the question.”

Ricks is not reluctant to name names, among them Gen. Tommy Franks, who led U.S. forces in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and Franks’ successor in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.

“Most generals, at worst, get the opportunity to lose one war,” Ricks writes. “Franks bungled two in just three years.” Ricks blames Franks, “that most graceless sort of leader, both dull and arrogant,” for blowing a chance to kill or capture Osama bin Laden when he was cornered in the Tora Bora mountains in late 2001: “Franks seemed inattentive, almost as if the battle were someone else’s problem.”

In Iraq, Sanchez appeared not to understand the insurgency or have a strategy to fight it. “Sanchez compounded the problem through smallness of mind and inflexibility of approach. He did not seem willing to learn and adapt.”

The problem, as Ricks sees it, starts with a dispute among the Army leadership in the post-Vietnam era about whether to emphasize tactics or strategic thinking.

The tacticians won, and the concept that wars are fought to achieve political aims took a backseat among career-minded Army officers, Ricks says. The Generals provides plentiful detail about how nonconformists found their careers stunted.

Adding to the tendency of the Army to be muscle-bound was the loss of a concept that was used extensively in World War II: officers, including generals, being relieved of command for failing to accomplish their assignments.

Instead of a culture of accountability, the Army became bureaucratic, with generals considered too important to be relieved before their normal rotation times, Ricks says. Relieving generals, he says, became something that the civilian leadership at the Pentagon or White House would do occasionally but that the Army hierarchy was loath to consider.

The Generals focuses on the Army with only glancing references to other services. But those glances are instructive. The Navy has an aggressive history of relieving ship captains for losing the confidence of superiors; the only senior officer relieved during the land assault on Baghdad in 2003 was a Marine colonel whose replacement was ordered by a Marine general.

Much of The Generals delves into World War II and the partnership of Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, the Korean War where Douglas MacArthur went from national hero to “troublesome blowhard”, and Vietnam and William Westmoreland’s failures.

Ricks admires those generals — Matthew Ridgway in Korea, Creighton Abrams in Vietnam and David Petraeus in Iraq — who were sent in to fix the mess created by their predecessors. Ricks shows in fine detail how Ridgway — not a man given to humility or collegiality — went about rescuing and downsizing the U.S. objectives in Korea, in part by relieving MacArthur sycophants.

The modern Army’s lack of strategic thinking — what to do the day after the battle has been won — worries Ricks.

“We now are living in an era of strategic uncertainty... Old adversaries have disappeared or are diminishing, and new ones may be emerging. In addition, nonstate foes, such as terrorists, loom much larger in American calculations than ever before,” the author writes.

If there is a bright spot in Ricks’ analysis, it is the rise of strategic thinkers, general officers with combat leadership but also the ability to adapt and see the “bigger picture” of geopolitics and civilian-military relations.

Ricks names as exemplars Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Petraeus, who resigned last week as head of the CIA; and Marine Gen. James Mattis, who led Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq and succeeded Petraeus as commanding general of the U.S. Central Command.

Still, Ricks worries that the Army has “not steeled itself and launched a soul-searching review of its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan” so that its performance improves in the next war and fewer U.S. troops have to die while their generals dither.

“But as long as it cares more about not embarrassing generals than it does about taking care of soldiers,” Ricks concludes, “it is unlikely to undertake such a review.”


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Blitzed Trapper frontman Eric Earley talks about touring, the state of the music industry, and (whisper it) progressive rock.

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.