Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Generals (Ricks 2012)

I just finished Tom Ricks' The Generals, a work I've been meaning to review for some time.

Summary: Ricks conducts an analysis is U.S. Army generalship - specifically the selection, management, and retention of general officers - between WW2 and today and what he believes to have been a clear deterioration of the quality of these commanders and a failure of the U.S. Army's command management process over that time.

Contents: The volume is a fairly clear display of Ricks' strengths and weaknesses, but in my opinions his conclusions are less well-drawn, less useful for the civilian reader, and less practical as a plan for military reform.

For a work of nonfiction The Generals is quite readable; Ricks is a good writer of general military history. It contains some brief but well-drawn portraits and summaries of the careers of the general officers from WW2, Korea, Vietnam, and the "War on Terror" periods, including Marshall, Mark Clark, Patton, and Terry Allen from WW2; O.P Smith, MacArthur, and Ridgeway from Korea; Taylor, Westmoreland, and DePuy from Vietnam; and Powell, Schwartzkopf, Franks, Sanchez, and Petraeus from the past two decades. In each section Ricks uses the officers he profiles to illustrate what he considers the characteristics of flag officer policy in each period and the results in terms of combat effectiveness or the lack of same.

To summarize his overall thesis, he begins by positing that GEN Marshall crafted a system of flag officer selection and employment during the opening years of WW2 that was characterized by idiosyncratic promotion and placement of officers in command slots based on a rather personal assessment of their potential for command.

Of necessity this meant that Marshall and his subordinate theater commanders made some mistakes, and so the other essential component of this system was the early and ruthless relief of officers who were, or appeared to be, not competent at that level of command.

But because of the very nature of the appointments these reliefs were not particularly prejudicial (unless the general officer involved was clearly criminally incompetent or personally troubled) and involved at least one second chance for the officer relieved. Ricks takes the time to point out several men who were relieved, reassigned, and subsequently worked their way back up to command positions.

So by the end of WW2 the "Marshall System" consisted of a linked system of appointment-relief-reassignment conducted as a public process. Relief was - at least according to Ricks - not associated with punishment, not hidden from sight, and not considered a failure of either the individual or the system but rather the understanding that command was a privilege and the critical function of command was the efficient use of (and, where possible, preservation of) U.S. soldier lives.

Ricks then documents the transition from this to what he describes as the current system of U.S. GO management in which reliefs are almost impossible, intimately associated with failure both of the system and the relieved officer, and, consequently, problematic in that incompetent commanders are not quickly removed from the system.

This, in Ricks' view, is directly responsible for problems that the U.S. Army encountered in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The work is well constructed, and arguments made with care, and in general I have no problem with Ricks' historical examples. The body of the work makes a good case for Ricks' thesis that the Marshall System has broken down and has been effectively replaced with a dysfunctional GO management process that promotes and places in command officers with severe military and geopolitical flaws.

However, I believe that The Generals also features a number of Ricks' weaknesses on prominent display as well.

He provides absolutely no context for his thesis; no other general officer systems outside the U.S. Army are detailed. He briefly discusses what he considers the differences between the U.S., British, and German armies of WW2 as organizations without any comparison between their differing methods of handling command assignments - which I assume there were. Such a comparison might be very useful.

He is inordinately impressed with the U.S. Army as an organization (which, while an opinion I share as a former GI, is not one that would seem helpful in the author of a work questioning Army policy). His intense focus on the Army, I think, also tends to minimize the role other institutions and branches of the U.S. Government and branches played in the evolution of the role of Army general officers and weakens his analysis.

As just a single example that occurred to me as I was reading his account of the increasing difficulty and complexity of the civil-military relationship during the Fifties (which he lays primarily at the feet of the "atomic military" and the problems the Army had with its role in the early nuclear age); he never once brings up the creation of the National Security Advisor position that effectively superseded the role GEN Marshall had played in WW2.

Certainly the interposition of a civilian appointee tasked with determining the scope, and even the details, or "national security" must have had some impact on the role of the Joint Chiefs, of the Army chief, and the commanders of Army theater-level organizations. But what that impact was, or whether there was any at all? Ricks has nothing to say on the subject.

Ricks doesn't deeply examine the role of military professionals in the pre-war debates leading to the the run-up to the post-WW2 interventions. He mentions, for example, that there might have been (and are) some teensy weensie problems with getting the citizens of a democratic republic to enthusiastically support a series of complex cabinet wars with difficult-to-articulate (at least if the speakers were being honest) objectives without discussing the effect this might have on the role, or ability, of general officers to influence the approach to or conduct of such wars.

Conclusions: Rick's draws the following conclusions:

1. That the current general officer corps of the U.S. Army has been crafted to be technically and tactically competent but is hopeless at anything more complex, being both too intimately entwined with civilian politics while at the same time poorly trained and educated about strategic and geopolitical issues and the current methods of training, promoting, and retaining generals should be changed.

2. That the civil-military relationship is deeply flawed, with both too much and too little interplay between the elected officials and the generals, and that a change in general officer management will improve this.

3. That the U.S. Army is, as a result, a superb instrument at the tactical-to-operational levels but deeply flawed for anything above that; i.e. that the U.S. Army can win battles but not wars, and that a change in GO management will improve this as well.

Recommendations: So far, so unexceptional. His final chapter containing the recommandations, however, sort of throws up its hands at ways to address this.

First, he recommends a return to the Marshall-style early relief-but-without-prejudice system. He then admits that in the small, insular world of the post-draft U.S. Army that this might not be possible, although he posits some potential moves to make this happen. My assessment would be even less optimistic. Ricks doesn't provide anything remotely like a way to develop a constituency inside or outside the Army that would drive this process. Marshall's revolution occurred at a unique moment in U.S. Army history. A revolution of similar magnitude - and that is what this would be - would need a similar setting.

Some of his other, relatively innocuous suggestions include personnel management changes such as the "360 review" concept (including juniors' as well as seniors' assessments in an officer evaluation report), extending the retirement age for senior officers (which is interesting, given Ricks' extensive documentation of Marshall's removal of an entire generation of senior officers in 1941 and '42 for being too elderly to command in the rapid pace of mechanized war), and revising officer education to produce general officers with the skills to think and plan strategically and improvise tactically in unexpected geopolitical situations. All worthy discussion-starting points in my opinion.

I consider that perhaps his least practical recommendation is his suggestion that unit rotations be halted or severely limited in counterinsurgency situations.

Given that this implies that U.S. soldiers would likely be locked into fighting against foreign rebellions for years the notion is beyond impossible both militarily (the probability of running out of troops is not inconceivable) and politically.

More troubling to me is Ricks practice throughout the work of avoiding questioning the usefulness of, or the role of the general officers in pointing out the likelihood of problems to, Great Power intervention in Third World rebellion suppression, more of which below.

Assessment: As a historical review and a potential discussion-starter I can cautiously recommend The Generals. It is eminently readable, and Ricks' work is not without value on the history of the U.S. Army's general officer policies and procedures.

As an actual prescription for constructive change in the U.S. Army, however, I consider this work severely limited.

First, it accepts without demur the formulation that an "increasingly chaotic" uni- or multi-polar world implies the need for U.S. military adventures in foreign domestic insurrections, rebellions, and disturbances.

Second, it implies that "better generals" can improve the likelihood that U.S. forces can successfully intervene in such conflicts. For example, although in his section on the Vietnam War Ricks mentions that the post-Tet success in counterinsurgency came largely as the result of the combination of the decimation of the COSVN guerrillas and the improvement of the ARVN - instead of any particular change in U.S. officer competence, and his section on Iraq specifies the employment of bribery of the Sunni muj and the success of Shia ethnic cleansing as the reason that the U.S. occupation "succeeded", he still considers these to have been be amenable to "better" U.S. generalship, a conclusion that I consider tenuous at best and unsupported at worst.

His formulation also elides the problem of the larger, mainly civilian/political formulations of "more rubble/less trouble" and "Muslims = terrorists" that seems to drive these open-ended interventions. Ricks seems as bound as his troubled generals to the tactical aspects of geopolitics, unwilling to accept that many foreign troubles contain too many unknown - and unknowable - strategic aspects for even the most widely read and deep-thinking general officer will be unable to predict.

Who, for example, would have been able to foresee that providing Western military aid to rebels against the Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan dictatorships would have helped foment a rebellion in Mali that Western military assets are presently fighting? And would a U.S. general- even a well-informed strategic thinker - genuinely be willing to suggest that since the West has a great deal to actually create the conditions for this revolt that that the best response might be to wait and watch, doing as little as possible beyond providing whatever the local proxies might need to limit the success of most anti-Western of the rebels?

So while Ricks' The Generals suggests a link between in improvement in U.S. general officer policies and improved success in the "little wars" the U.S. has been fighting since the early Nineties, my thought would be - I wonder...if such improvement, had it been in place before Vietnam, before Iraq, today...have resulted in fewer such wars, instead?

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas Ricks (Penguin Books, 2012) ISBN-10: 1594204047 20.22 HC at


Don Francisco said...

Interesting thoughts. Should we expect generals to be experts on geopolitics? Not to underrate Marshall, but WW2 was fairly simple from the point of view that the US had two clear enemies defined by a geographical area, which is not the case at all today.

As you point out, any politically sophisticated general would be honest as to the limitations of military force in achieving political outcomes.

FDChief said...

Well, I think one of the real weaknesses of the Ricks work is his failure to examine the changes in the politico-military organization of the U.S. government between 1941 and today. He completely dismisses - in the sense that there is no discussion at all - of the structural changes that occurred with the invention of the National Security Advisor position in the early Fifties, or the formation of the Joint Chiefs, or the whole NSC apparatus, or the rise of the CIA/DIA as the go-to sources of geopolitical intelligence...

I cross-posted this to MilPub and several of the commentors there, especially Al ("Aviator 47"), have given me some very good information on the other parts of this issue that Ricks fails to address.

And, as I say in the post, I think Ricks severely overestimates the degree to which the U.S. political class is willing to listen to our military leaders. I mean, just to give you one example, Erik Shinseki pretty much bitchslapped the Cheney School of Military Occupation and was promptly defenestrated. The sort of enthusiasm for these military actions often comes from the civilian side, and is not amenable to professional or technical expertise...

Lisa said...

Thank you for an excellent review. I understand more now, but as you say, the "solutions" offered are thin, and what might be the result of a solution? Fewer wars? Interesting concept.