Monday, December 24, 2012



It’s really madness to do any shopping on Christmas Eve but I needed some office supplies and hoped to find a copy of THE GENERALS by Tom Ricks, so made the trip—and found the book.

The thesis of Ricks’s book is that there is something wrong with the current crop of U.S. Army generals, and that we would be better off if we reverted to the World War II practice—as espoused by the then Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall—that generals who did not perform should be relieved as soon as possible. Indeed, Marshall sacked an extraordinary number of officers, either for being over the hill (as he saw it) or for incompetence—and the results were impressive. Just for starters, we won the war. Since then, if you think about it, we have largely ceased sacking generals, and one can make the argument that we have drawn or lost just about every war we have engaged in—despite the use of truly massive resources.

It is a great pity we don’t think more about the military. It soaks up a truly extraordinary amount of this nation’s treasure, yet we rarely question either the expenditure itself, or the uses to which it is put. And when war comes—which is all too often where the U.S. is concerned--we rarely question the conduct of it. The Republicans wrap themselves in the flag—as if neglect of their oversight duties should be equated with patriotism—and the Democrats have been so terrified of being accused of being soft on defense, they have been equally negligent. Instead, we are a democracy (a debatable point in itself) where the MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional Complex—has been given something close to a free hand.

My interest in the generals goes back to the early Nineties when I started researching the U.S. Army with a view to writing a series of military adventures. That research gave me considerable access, and I became quite curious about the competence of the more senior officers. Some, up to the rank of colonel, impressed me greatly. Their superiors, by and large did not. Most could not hold their own in an hour long interview. Simply put, they did not come across as particularly intelligent men. They were defensive, unimaginative, lacking in intellectual curiosity and seemed to be primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo. In essence, they were bureaucrats in uniform—subject to some notable exceptions.

Subsequently, in 2001/2002, I worked in the Pentagon for a while—met many more generals—and there found my previous reservations reinforced. There was indeed something seriously wrong with Army general officers—and the conduct of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan illustrated that fact in good measure.

I’ll comment further when I have finished Tom Rick’s book.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


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