The Generals: American Military Command from WW II to Today

GENs Marshall and Eisenhower

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

By Thomas E. Ricks

 Type: Nonfiction


The Generals is a very well-written book, covering leadership by U.S. Army General Officers (GOs) from World War II to today. This book is especially interesting to me because I enjoy reading military history and because I have served over 22 years as an active duty Army Officer. I am currently living the dream and I can definitely see both GEN George Marshall’s and GEN William Depuy’s protégés alive and well in the U.S. Army today. At 576 pages it is quite a long read; however, by the time you get to the end of the epilogue on page 462, you will realize that it was well worth the time spent.

My Reactions: 

For me this was an interesting book because I was able to reflect on the various leadership styles of the GOs that I have worked for over my career and I can definitely see how Army leadership came to be what it is.

Bottom-line: this book offers numerous leadership tips for current and future Army Officers and I believe the takeaways can be applied to leaders in all organizations. If a leader is failing, his superiors have a responsibility to look at ways to help him improve or to replace him. The U.S. Army has a system where unit commanders are relieved and replaced by new leaders. This practice works well but it is not often used unless the situation overwhelmingly calls for it – and to tell you the truth, sometimes the circumstances warrant a go-slow approach, other times, the do-it now philosophy is the way to go.

  1. I agree with Mr. Ricks’ premise that civilian and military leaders have gotten away from the practice of relieving GOs today, especially during wartime, when compared to how many GOs were relieved in World War II and the Korean War. In fact, aside from the high-profile relief of GEN Stanley McCrystal, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) for his failure to control his staff from negatively speaking about the Commander-in-Chief, there have not been any GO reliefs for failing to accomplish the mission in Iraq or Afghanistan during the early years of both wars.
  2. The counter-point to this relief argument is that if implemented and practiced rigorously throughout the U.S. Army, I wouldn’t be surprised if the people who would suffer most would be the lower ranked Commanders, i.e., the Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels and Captains, who are not the intended targets from Mr. Ricks’ perspective. In fact, I think this would cause the Army to lose more of the adaptive, innovative, and creative officers that it actually needs to stay in. As Mr. Ricks states in the book, GOs will protect other GOs, so naturally the focus will shift to lower-ranked commanders to enforce this policy of relief.
  3. Another problem with relieving GOs during wartime is the natural inclination to give GOs an opportunity to succeed in a tough situation by giving them the necessary time to be successful. War is chaos – military leaders and troops go into harm’s way to use military means to accomplish political objectives. When you look at the unrelenting challenges that are faced by GOs at war, whether it’s GEN Eisenhower in WWII, LTG Ridgeway in Korea, GEN Abrams in Vietnam, or GENs Casey, Petraeus, and Odierno in Afghanistan and Iraq; what person, whether he is the President of the United States or the Secretary of Defense, wants to relieve a GO who has stood in defense of this nation, on foreign soil, to run a war? I would venture to say no one! You can see why it’s so hard to relieve a GO when they are doing the heavy lifting for the nation with the constant concern of their soldiers being killed or wounded and the subsequent impact on military families at home. I believe that there is a time-factor as well. Anytime you go into combat, you will not see immediate results. For example, you won’t know if a strategy will be a success or failure because it takes time for the results to come in. It could be six to twelve months before you know if the strategy worked…and the GO who initiated the strategy has since moved on to a new job, so his replacement is dealing with the aftermath.
  4. Mr. Ricks did a great job of discussing how GOs are developed and educated, effectively highlighting the differences between the intellectual GOs and the tactical GOs and how these two schools of thought have permeated throughout the Army since WW II. The selection process for GOs or “how GOs become GOs” is done in a very secretive manner, so no one besides Senior GOs and the selection boards “really” know how a GO becomes a GO. I would argue that if you focus exclusively on how GOs are developed, trained, and educated by focusing on the schools they attend, the training they receive, and their experience at various levels of command, you only understand the official version of how GOs are selected. This is great, but I think you miss the facts on how it’s really done.
  5. Have you ever wondered how the Army is able to consistently produce GOs that are so similar? This occurs because of the behind the scenes relationship building and mentoring that goes on between GOs and their selected protégés. A common understanding within the Army is that it is the prerogative of GOs to select those who will lead the Army in the future. In fact, there is even a commonly used adage that says, “Only a GO can make a GO,” this roughly translates to mean that you will not become a GO unless you are sponsored by a GO. This is the same selection process that occurred between GENs Marshall and Eisenhower and; following that, GENs Eisenhower and Patton…and it’s based upon their longstanding relationships. GEN Marshall hand-picked GEN Eisenhower to lead the invasion of Normandy. GEN Eisenhower repeatedly tapped GEN Patton to take on tough missions even when GEN Patton probably deserved to be relieved for a number of “soldier slapping incidents” that he was involved in.
  6. Why is the U.S. Army not producing the innovative, creative, and free-thinking types of leaders such as GEN Petraeus or GEN William Simpson? In my opinion, when you look at the Army leadership, it looks surprisingly the same. From physical looks and, surprisingly, to how leaders think, act, speak, and process things. In essence, people who are being tapped to ascend into major leadership positions are, in some instances, mirror images of their mentors, so the Army is not necessarily getting adaptive, innovative and agile officers because the people who are selected tend to be just like the people who selected them.
  7. What Mr. Ricks did not address, in my mind, is the Army’s “behind-the-scenes” selection systems. The Army’s official selection systems are the mechanisms used to review, evaluate, and select officers for promotions, schools, and commands. The official selection systems are streamlined, orderly processes used to review the files of a large number of eligible officers and they are pretty efficient. In fact, the official selection systems serve a clear purpose and are rigid for a reason – to promote fair selection opportunities for all eligible officers. On the other hand, what you come to realize after serving for a while is that the “real” selections take place one-on-one and are developed based upon relationships that are formed and nurtured over many years. The official selection processes for command and schooling are used as mechanisms to sift through the large numbers of eligible officers. The real process that goes on behind the scenes and over a period of years are the relationships that are built up when GOs select people because they “like” them and/or because they are “good-ole boys” because they look, talk, act, and speak like them. The Army is not unique in how it selects its leaders; in fact, corporate America picks its leaders on somewhat of the same basis of shared background, values, and education. Attending Harvard for the corporate elite is just as important as attending the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point is for the military elite. This is a natural occurrence, in fact, I would venture to say that most people want to work with and help out people that they know and like. The problem occurs when this selection philosophy does not put the right officer, in the right job, at the right time. This is the real challenge created by the behind-the-scenes selection process in the Army and until this process gets looked at, we are not going to see any changes in the types of military leaders the Army produces.

Overall, I believe that Mr. Ricks did a fabulous job of highlighting the fact that if a U.S. Army private can be kicked out of the service for losing an M16 rifle, then certainly U.S. Army General Officers should be held accountable for losing wars.  Click on the image above for more information.

The Generals

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: