THOUGHTS ON THE GENERALS BY TOM RICKS
Before I get into the detail of commenting on THE GENERALS, I would like to declare an interest.
For a time, I was going to write a book on that very same subject with retired U.S. Army colonel, Douglas Macgregor—a genuine original thinker—whose book WARRIOR’S RAGE I spent considerable time on (and edited). As it happened, we did not complete our generals project, but we did do considerable groundwork on the subject—and, of course, Doug—as a serving officer and decorated war veteran has had extensive operational experience of today’s generals in both peace and war. For instance, he was at West Point with General David Petraeus—who I first met when researching the 82nd Airborne Division for a book THE DEVIL’S FOOTPRINT—and he was in command during the Battle of 73 Easting.
The U.S. Army is a large institution, but at the top everyone tends to know each other, or of each other—particularly if they have been members of the same branch. Once you become a general, you are supposed to give up your branch loyalties, but pigs will be flying bicycles before that ever happens. Getting a star doesn’t really mean that you leave the Airborne Mafia, for instance. If you have spent two decades or more being conditioned to think ‘Airborne,’ its culture is in your blood.
What is a branch? Last I checked, there were 17 of them and they range from Airborne to Engineering to Artillery to Aviation. True, they work together and there is some cross pollination; but, at the core, they have a disconcerting tendency to function as separate fiefdoms (or clans or tribes). And each fiefdom is guarded jealously. If you wander, as like as not you will be told: “Stay in your lane.”
The Army really doesn’t have much time for holistic thinkers. In fact, it isn’t really structured to accommodate thinkers at all. Thinking tends to be treated as something of a social disease; so if you show signs of being an original thinker, you stand a very good chance of being squeezed out; or hammered down. Probably both. Write a thoughtful piece on land warfare which departs from the conventional, and you will be very lucky indeed to make it past colonel. The Army is an authoritarian organization and doesn’t take kindly to soldiers who question the status quo in any way. Since thinking tends to lead to questions, both are frowned on. Besides, it is part of the general officer culture that only generals really know anything worth knowing.
Tom Ricks’s basic thesis is that there has been something seriously wrong with U.S. Army generals since the Korean War which would be largely resolved if we reverted to General George Marshall’s WWII habit of relieving generals with alacrity when they fail to perform. Furthermore, he establishes his case in some detail and his book contains some fascinating content and is highly readable. In fact, it is an important and timely book—as far as it goes. But it is my strong view that it doesn’t go far enough.
The issue of flawed generals is fundamental to National Security and deserves vastly more consideration that we give it. Here, I’m not thinking of National Security merely in terms of warfare—although that is important enough—but in the widest possible sense with particular focus on the economic impact. On the one hand, our defense costs are obscenely high to the detriment of the U.S. quality of life. On the other hand, despite having the most powerful military the world has ever known, we have a highly debatable track record when it comes to actual combat. Thanks to overwhelming firepower, we tend to win the fight, but lose the war. Given our national tendency to go to war with disconcerting frequency, that is something we should think about.
I believe Tom’s highly readable book would have been much better if he had explored:
- The promotional system in the officer corps in more detail.
- How generals are selected.
- How generals are educated and trained.
- Why mediocre officers are promoted to the rank of general.
- Careerism in general.
- The mismanagement of procurement.
- The lack of intellectual depth in the Army.
- The role of retired generals.
- The role of generals in the MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional complex—with a particular focus on conflicts of interest and double-dipping..
- The culture of the general officer corps.
- How successful generals are evolved in other countries.
- A plan covering how the Army might improve the caliber of its generals significantly.
It might also have been particularly interesting—if provocative-- if Tom had linked the deficiencies in our general officer corps with the authoritarian corporate mindset which is now so dominant in the U.S. Here, the Army tends to put forward too arguments.
The first is that since soldiers are selected from the population is a whole, the Army is inevitably—and rightly—broadly representative of that population.
The second is that the officer corps—and general officers in particular—hew to higher standards than the population as a whole and are the guardians of the core values of the nation. General officers are superior.
If you notice a certain inconsistency in these arguments, I am right there with you. And it might also be useful to note that the gap between what many generals say and do is deep and wide.
Still, I don’t want to end on a gloomy note after reading such a stimulating book—and let me assure you that the Army does have some generals of exceptional caliber in its ranks—though whether it makes adequate use of them or not is an interesting question.
I’m watching with interest.