The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 10 Dec 2013
Believing that the generals of the US Army since WW2 had much to learn from their WW2-era counterparts, author Thomas Ricks set forth a comparative study of top US Army figures between the 1930s and the 1990s. The Generals opened with the effective leadership of the earlier era during which generals lead with personal example and made decisions with understanding of accountability. Moving on through Korean War, Vietnam War, and Iraq War, he demonstrated how some generals maintained such characteristics while many others failed to learn from their predecessors. Ricks clearly, if a bit dryly, presented his analysis of how George Marshall's willingness to sack a large number of generals in order to produce a younger and more dynamic leadership, and how the US Army went on a downward spiral as it began to view generals as business managers rather than inspirational leaders.
Ricks' work, however, had some issues as well. He presented some of his main characters very much in an one-dimensional manner. The feeling I got from the author was that while some generals were absolutely faultless leaders, some others offered nothing for later generations to learn from. I could overlook such generalization, as he was trying to cover 60 or 70 years of US Army history with a single book. However, such over-simplification created major conflicting notions in his own book that he did not realize. For example, at the start of the book he praised Marshall for recommending the relieving of poor-performing generals; yet Ricks did not seem to notice that, as he was describing all the shortcomings of Douglas MacArthur, if Marshall had been so diligently sacking poor leaders, then was it not Marshall's major failure for not convincing President Franklin Roosevelt prior to his death in 1945 or President Harry Truman afterwards to remove MacArthur? In another example, while the author praised Marshall for not socializing with Roosevelt, the author also looked down on MacArthur for not having lunch with Truman at Wake Atoll in 1950; did MacArthur's megalomania necessarily provide fair grounds for this double standard for the judgment of his professional conduct? Finally, despite the book having been published in 2012, Ricks was still perpetuating the myth that MacArthur abandoned his troops in the Philippine Islands at the onset of the Pacific War; he failed to mention that MacArthur departed only after Roosevelt repeatedly ordered him to do so.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. William Hughes read the text clearly and with consistent volume. Somehow, he conveyed the feel of a military science academic in his voice, which I naturally enjoyed.
Through The Generals, Thomas Ricks offered his view of the successes of WW2 generals, where things went wrong in the subsequent decades, and how the US Army leadership could put things back on track in the near future. While I agree with his conclusion that generals must lead and not merely manage, and that they must be made accountable for any shortcomings, his analysis of the various generals left a bit more to be desired.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939