- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Major Tom Mcilwaine, Queen’s Royal Hussars
Best Defense guest book reviewer
This [The Generals] is an extraordinary book which will be widely read by serving officers. It raises some very interesting ideas, is fluent and persuasive and provides a junior officer with all the ammunition they would require to ask some very awkward questions of their seniors. That said I am not certain that it deserves some of the extravagant praise that has been heaped upon it (notwithstanding the fact that some of that praise comes from those such as General Zinni who know more about the art of generalship in the American military than I ever could).
There are a number of reasons for this. There is the problem of Ricks’s use of military history. He certainly has breadth, but depth is perhaps absent in certain areas and he appears to ignore context, particularly when discussing the actions of the British in World War Two but also when discussing Vietnam. He tends to rely on secondary sources which support his argument (such as Lewis Sorley’s recent hatchet job of Westmoreland) and chooses to ignore largely that which contradicts his argument. On the rare occasions when Ricks does acknowledge other points of view (such as Millet’s assessment of Ridgeway) he fails to provide an analysis of their opposing view, trusting instead that the power of his writing will explain why he is right and the opposing view is wrong.
Secondly, for a book based around the idea that Marshall is the acme of military perfection and American generalship, and supposedly based on research so extensive that he even read Marshall’s officer litter, there is surprisingly little on why Marshall is so good. He never deals with the fact that Marshall was badly wrong on the decisive strategic question of when to invade Western Europe, or that he was also wrong on the subject of the African campaign. The overall picture we are given is that of a superb selector of men (despite the fact that so many of his selections had to be replaced) and developer of a human resources system without parallel, which is fine as far as it goes, but perhaps not enough to justify the extravagant claims made by Ricks.
This leads onto the third and biggest problem with the book. Ricks’s argument is riddled with passages and chapters that directly contradict that which has come before. So Marshall creates a superb system – but the system fails without him – so is it really a system at all? Marshall’s system values character over intellect – which is precisely the flaw Ricks identifies in the selection of modern general officers. MacArthur leaves no mark on the US Army – but Westmoreland (who whatever his flaws certainly did influence the US Army) is a creature in the MacArthur mold. Korea is a disaster because commanders lack command experience in war – which doesn’t seem to hold either Eisenhower or Petraeus back. There are many more and this habit extends to his oral defense of his thesis and to his much publicized view that moral issues are of less importance than professional issues. When asked for something that Marshall doesn’t do well at a Q&A session at CGSC recently his first answer was his treatment of African-American soldiers – a moral issue – not his misjudgment of the timing of Overlord – a professional issue.
At that at root is the problem with this book. At a shallow level it has much to recommend it. An interesting topic, covered in just enough depth to provide useful talking points at a dinner party. But for a keen field grade officer it lacks depth, rigor, coherence and understanding. There is a superb book to be written on the flaws of American generalship and how to improve it (although I would suggest that on the whole American generalship is rather good) and such a book would be of great value but this most certainly is not it. Having read this book and heard Ricks speak, I would argue that he is not, and never will be, the man to write it. Worse, by writing a book as riddled with inconsistencies as this and by then promoting with such a breathtaking lack of humility he has done exceptional damage to the reformist cause which he allegedly supports.
Major Tom Mcilwaine is a British Army officer who is currently a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Ft Leavenworth. He has deployed to Iraq as a Platoon Commander and Battalion Operations and Intelligence Officer, to Bosnia as Aide to the Commander of European Forces and to Afghanistan as a Plans Officer with I MEF(Fwd).