Best Defense

FP’s book club discussion of ‘The Generals’

In case you didn’t notice it  (it is hard to find on the site), Foreign Policy has been holding a “book club” discussion of my new book.  Here is my response to the comments, which are very interesting. —  First, thanks to all who participated. I learned from these discussions. I agree with much of what ...


In case you didn’t notice it  (it is hard to find on the site), Foreign Policy has been holding a “book club” discussion of my new book.  Here is my response to the comments, which are very interesting.


First, thanks to all who participated. I learned from these discussions. I agree with much of what they wrote, but of course here will focus on our points of disagreement.  

–I agree with Tom Donnelly that it would be good if Americans paid more attention to the competence of our senior military leaders. Unfortunately, as we have just seen, they seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than the real lives of our soldiers. The real scandal of Iraq was not that the public over-valued David Petraeus, but that it tolerated his three failed predecessors. Apparently mediocrity is acceptable if it keeps its pants on.

–I like and admire retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, but I disagree with his concluding paragraph on the health of our Army. I am especially worried by the state of its general officer corps. Yes, there are terrific officers like him (his first project since leaving active duty is getting a doctorate in philosophy, by the way) and H.R. McMaster. But there are not enough of them to form a critical mass. They remain outliers, often seen by more conventional officers as “50-pound brains” or even smartasses. I think the majority of Army generals are under-educated conformists who tend to veer toward risk-averse mediocrity, a tendency reinforced by the system of mindless rotation of commanders we have used in our recent wars.   

–Likewise, Tom Keaney is a fine fellow and an astute military analyst, but I think he is too quick to provide an alibi for today’s generals. Yes, it is more difficult to recognize success in small, unpopular, messy wars like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan than it was in World War II. Nonetheless, it is possible. Matthew Ridgway clearly turned around American fortunes in the Korean War, succeeding where other generals had failed. Creighton Abrams did better in Vietnam than William Westmoreland did, though perhaps not as much better as some people believe. David Petraeus succeeded in his mission in Iraq-he got us out of there-where his three predecessors had failed.

I think Keaney’s sense that the world is just too hard lets off generals like Tommy Franks, who simply didn’t understand his job. Yes, the civilians above him were badly mistaken. But Franks seemed to think it was a good idea to push al Qaeda from Afghanistan (a small, unstable Muslim nation) into Pakistan (a big, unstable Muslim nation with nuclear weapons). Franks also apparently believed that once he had taken the enemy’s capital, he had won-when in fact, that is when the real wars began in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I would conclude from this and other mistakes that the Army had failed to prepare Franks to be a general.   

Bob Killebrew has every right to invoke his own version of the ghost of George Marshall, especially because he was the guy several years ago who told me I should learn more about Marshall.

But when I interviewed Marshall’s ghost, contrary to Killebrew’s sense, Marshall was not at all pleased with the state of American generalship. Lots of little things puzzled and irked him. Yes, as Bob suspected, he didn’t understand why the Army has neglected professional military education, which should be its crown jewel during peacetime. He also was shocked to see so many retired generals making a bundle in the defense industry, and also endorsing political candidates and using the name of their services while doing so. Both struck Marshal as abuses of the profession.

But what bothered him most, the old white-haired general said in a slow, steady, quiet voice, was the failure of four-star generals to carry out their roles in dealing with their civilian superiors. He was shocked by the failure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to speak truth to power on several occasions, most notably during the Vietnam War and during the planning for the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, he almost lost his temper when discussing how Gen. Richard Myers allowed himself to be pushed around by Donald Rumsfeld. “How can you go to war without a strategic rationale?” he wondered. 

Jason Dempsey, like many readers of the book, thinks that my emphasis on relief is too simple. The problem, he says, is rather that the entire Army general officers corps is overly focussed on tactical issues, and so if one small thinker were ousted, he simply would be replaced by another. (This is my interpretation of what Dempsey wrote, but not his words.) So, he believes, some other sort of remedy is necessary. I disagree. I think that a few well-placed, undisguised removals would encourage the others, as it did with the peers of Admiral Byng.

But where I think where Dempsey and I really part ways is in our assessment of the adaptiveness of others-that is, the raw material of our generals and their successors. I think that there are many intelligent, determined, ambitious Army officers who would get the message that the ability to think and adapt is valued by the institution, and is the route to generalship. A little accountability could go a long way.

In other words, relief should not be seen as an end in itself, but rather as one the two most basic tools of personnel management-hiring and firing. I say, reward success, punish failure, and promote the promising, and you will get more of the adaptive generals that our nation needs — and our soldiers deserve.   

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola