Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

An Army general produces the most ambivalent review of my new book

I’ve seen many positive reviews of my book, and a few negative ones. But I have not seen one so entirely ambivalent as the one by retired Army Brig. Gen. John Brown in ARMY magazine. On the one hand, the general thinks my new book is “engaging, well-written, sensibly documented, and interestingly organized.” He adds: ...

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590129_130104_the-generals_custom-fab318aef0333ad74a4026755fb4f061c863d881-s6-c102.jpg

I've seen many positive reviews of my book, and a few negative ones. But I have not seen one so entirely ambivalent as the one by retired Army Brig. Gen. John Brown in ARMY magazine. On the one hand, the general thinks my new book is "engaging, well-written, sensibly documented, and interestingly organized." He adds: "People are going to read and enjoy this book."

On the other hand, there is actually quite a lot General Brown dislikes about my book. Most of all, he really, really hates my emphasis in the book that the Army should fire ineffective generals, and even announce such actions. "Much the same was said about public flogging in its day," he comments. I guess that makes George Marshall a public flogger.

At this point in the review, the GPA (the Generals' Protective Assocation) kicks in. "We need not apologize for being protective of our colleagues and their reputations," he admonishes. Hmm. I would say, Oh yes you do, if by doing so you have protected failures and incompetents at the expense of the troops and the nation. That would be at least unprofessional, and perhaps a dereliction of duty. 

I’ve seen many positive reviews of my book, and a few negative ones. But I have not seen one so entirely ambivalent as the one by retired Army Brig. Gen. John Brown in ARMY magazine. On the one hand, the general thinks my new book is “engaging, well-written, sensibly documented, and interestingly organized.” He adds: “People are going to read and enjoy this book.”

On the other hand, there is actually quite a lot General Brown dislikes about my book. Most of all, he really, really hates my emphasis in the book that the Army should fire ineffective generals, and even announce such actions. “Much the same was said about public flogging in its day,” he comments. I guess that makes George Marshall a public flogger.

At this point in the review, the GPA (the Generals’ Protective Assocation) kicks in. “We need not apologize for being protective of our colleagues and their reputations,” he admonishes. Hmm. I would say, Oh yes you do, if by doing so you have protected failures and incompetents at the expense of the troops and the nation. That would be at least unprofessional, and perhaps a dereliction of duty. 

General Brown also takes sharp exception to my description of the 1991 Gulf War, in which he fought. “I had been under the illusion that accomplishing all assigned missions with a minimum of casualties while liberating a friendly country and driving out a powerful adversary was a success — but what do I know?” I would respond, It is not what you knew then, it is what you have learned in the last 22 years. What we do know now is that Saddam Hussein believed he had won that war, because he emerged from it as the sole Arab leader to take on the United States and its allies militarily and survive. (See page 386 of my book for quotes from his cabinet meetings about this.) Plus, the 1991 war never really ended — we fought in Iraq for another two decades. Bottom line: If your foe thinks he won, and the fighting doesn’t end, then I don’t think you’ve won your war. Rather, I think you may have won your first battle and then ended the conflict prematurely.

General Brown also thinks the way I write about Generals Franks, Sanchez and Casey is “presumptuous.” I thought I was just using plain English. Trying to say clearly what one really thinks is harder than it looks.

Oddly, Brown disregards the account at the beginning of my book about how I came to write it. He suspects I had “a portfolio of favorite stories” I wanted to tell. Rather, as I explained in a section beginning on page 7 of the book, I was puzzled by how the same U.S. Army that was so quick to relieve during World War II was so slow to relieve in Iraq, and it made me wonder if lack of relief is liked to lack of accountability — and most importantly, if lack of accountability leads to lack of adaptivness

He also seems to have skipped my long section on the post-Vietnam rebuilding of the Army, saying that in my account, “American generalship involved in successes off the battlefield since World War II don’t seem to matter.”

Yet. Yet for all that, he emerges surprisingly enthusastic about the book. It ends, he says, “with some pretty respectable recommendations.” His surprising conclusion: “The Generals will raise your blood pressure and expand your mind. I recommend it.”

In related news, the Army War College library put The Generals on its new suggested reading list.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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