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Ricks: Firing ‘The Generals’ To Fight Better Wars?

The Generals, is about what the author sees as a decline of American military leadership;it offers an argument about why the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been so long and so frustrating.

Dr. Alan Sabroskyformer US Marine and  Director of Strategic Studies at the US Army War College, offers a couple of significant points in reaction to the  author and military affairs journalist Thomas Ricks interview on NPR.

Click here to listen to the Terry Gross interview:

Ricks : Firing ‘The Generals’ To Fight Better Wars?

A couple of thoughts did occur to me. One is that the character of (US) modern warfare rarely puts even field-grade officers, much less generals, at great personal risk, and combat is one sure way of sorting out senior commanders, who in the United States case are rarely close to direct combat action. In WWII, German officers of all ranks habitually led from the front (I recall reading that about one-third of all German generals were killed in combat), and interestingly enough, the Israelis have adopted the same tradition, with an unusually high percentage of their casualties being officers. But not the US: in Vietnam, I believe five generals were killed (one of them, a Marine, probably by his own men after the battles for Hills 861/881S/881N). None as far as I can tell since then. I’ve known some very fine flag officers in all of the services who were junior combat officers in Vietnam, so they are out there, but it is certainly harder for them to reach the “stars” these days – just look at the ribbons on the uniforms of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for instance, and you’ll see scads of “meritorious service” medals, but very few combat decorations or Purple Hearts.

General turns CIA director, a state within the state—that increasingly dominates the affairs of the American government.

The other is that I am not sure it is wise to make the US military’s higher leadership more effective at this point in time, given the US political leadership’s affinity for being Israel’s military enforcer and the US military leadership’s unwillingness to oppose it or to resign openly and publicly in opposition to these needless wars (assuming, of course, that any now reach those ranks who DO oppose the process!).

I am NOT a pacifist or a dove: some wars do need to be fought (e.g., if the US had turned its forces loose on the drug cartels this past decade, from the growers through the producers through the traffickers through the trans-shipment countries to the gangs that distribute them, not forgetting the banks & lawyers that launder the proceeds, now THAT would be a war worth fighting!). But better US generals mean a better US ability to wage wars on Israel’s behalf, and the one decent chance of derailing this exercise is a US body count that finally outrages enough Americans to the point that they say “enough.” I’m not sure it would ever reach that point, but the type of generals the US now has in profusion make it more likely than a resurrection of very good generals.

‘We also have fewer horses and bayonets‘: CIC Obama to 2012 presidential contender Romney …

Though, not sure he knows the difference between a battleship and a battalion, the words are so much alike….<G>

And I am not being sarcastic (well, not much….). The depressing fact is that the overwhelming majority of the elected and appointed civilians supposed to exercise command and control of the US armed forces have little or no knowledge of military affairs, and many of their staffers aren’t any better. The last president qualified to be commander-in-chief was Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. The last Secretary of Defense substantively qualified for that post, going by the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947 which established basic structure and responsibilities, was James Schlesinger in the mid-1970s. And it shows, just like having emergency room procedures dictated and controlled by a hospitals accountants, administrators and attorneys. Intelligence and good intentions just aren’t enough, and one or both of those are all too often lacking. Anyone who wants to appreciate what this has meant for the US armed forces has only to look across the Potomac River at Arlington National Cemetery, and other US military cemeteries around the world.


Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, Commander of the 104th Infantry Division, Commanding general of the First Infantry Division in North Africa and Sicily.

WWno EDITORIAL: When Thomas Ricks first learned that Terry Allen, the successful general in charge of the 1st Infantry Division during World War II’s Sicily campaign, had been fired, he says, his jaw dropped.

“I was thinking, ‘My God, I’m coming out of Iraq where we have mediocre generals all over the place, where they’re flailing around, where they don’t understand the war they’re fighting, and nobody gets fired,'” he tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “How could we go from an Army that in World War II would dismiss a successful general to an Army in Iraq in which mediocrity is acceptable, nobody wants to stick their head out, and nobody gets fired for anything except for embarrassing the institution?”

Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He covered the military for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal for many years, and was part of two teams that won Pulitzer Prizes for military coverage. His new book, The Generals, is about what he sees as a decline of American military leadership; it offers an argument about why the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been so long and so frustrating.

He says it boils down to one word: accountability. Back in World War II, successful generals were generally promoted, while unsuccessful generals were relieved of their commands. But that began to change during the Korean War. Ricks says Maj. Gen. James Baldwin, who was relieved of duty in 1971 during the Vietnam War, was the last general to be fired for combat ineffectiveness.

“Today, being a general in the army is a lot like a professor having tenure in a university. If you have a moral lapse, they might get rid of you, but if you’re just not very good at your job, you’re comfortable and you have tenure,” he says.

Ricks says some of the reasons have to do with our wars becoming murkier and it being harder to tell what success is. It’s also a matter of public relations, Ricks says.

“When you’re fighting small, unpopular wars, there’s a natural inclination, I think, on the part of the military not to want to make their problems public,” he says.

Another issue is that today, firing a general is seen as ending a career and as a sign that the system isn’t working — “that somehow the Army let slip through somebody who shouldn’t have been a general” — whereas previously, Ricks says it was seen as looking out for the best interests of enlisted soldiers. In earlier years, he says, it was expected that 10 percent of officers just wouldn’t work out.

To Ricks, it’s time to take stock of military leadership and to stop acting as cheerleaders for the military.

“We’ve overreacted to the bitterness of the Vietnam era,” he argues. “Yes, support troops, but one way to support the troops is to question the military leadership.”

Interview Highlights

Ricks : Firing ‘The Generals’ To Fight Better Wars?

On why accountability has declined

“I think the first major change was the nature of our wars. In World War II, it was pretty clear what we were fighting about. The whole country was at war, and there was a sense of obligation to the country, especially on the part of George Marshall, the chief of the Army in World War II, that, look, ‘We’re fighting a war for democracy. We are responsible in a democratic way to our enlisted troops. Their lives are more important than the careers of our generals. The Army kind of loses that sense in Vietnam and subsequent wars.

“One general, Gen. William DePuy, said that we ran Vietnam to help the careers of officers, not to win the war — and as other generals commented, it was a hell of a way to run a war. The nature of our wars becoming murkier has also made it harder to tell what success is. So in World War II, it was very clear what was successful. In Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, it’s not so clear. So it’s harder to have a clear-cut ‘You’re fired because you failed.’

“And thirdly, when you’re fighting small, unpopular wars, there’s a natural inclination, I think, on the part of the military not to want to make their problems public. So in the Korean War, when Matthew Ridgway took over there at the end of 1950, he began firing a lot of generals. And the Pentagon told him to stop — they said, ‘You’re embarrassing us and you’re going to cause Congress to start asking embarrassing questions. So if you’re going to get rid of people, you have to do it quietly. You have to disguise — maybe find places to park unsuccessful generals, but don’t fire them publicly like we did in World War II.'”

On the status of Iraq and Afghanistan

“I’m actually more pessimistic in the long run about Iraq than I am about Afghanistan. I don’t see how Iraq holds together as a country. And if it does, it’ll be partly because it’s dominated by Iran. Afghanistan actually, I think, could hold together as a country. And I like the idea that President Obama has of saying, ‘Look, we’re out of there by 2014 as much as possible, [and] you guys, the Afghan Security Force, Afghan political leadership, need to get your act together because we’re going to be gone.’ A friend of mine describes this as the ‘Postcard of Mussolini’ theory — which is, you show these guys a postcard of Mussolini hanging from an Italian lamppost by his boot heels and say, ‘This could be you in two years if you don’t get your security forces together.’ And so Obama’s emphasis on 2014 is a good way of conveying that to them.”

On what would happen if Pakistan became an enemy of the U.S.

“Pakistan strikes me as the biggest problem in the world right now, much more than Iran. Pakistan is a country that seems to me on the edge of falling apart — [and one] that already has well over 100 nuclear weapons by best estimates and seems to be drifting to extremism. …

“It makes it much more difficult extricating ourselves from Afghanistan and hoping it is relatively OK after we leave. The second thing is India — it gives us a natural reason to be allied with India in addition to other reasons. India is a democracy, India is a very large and important country, and India has a burgeoning information-technologies industry. So there’s a lot of good reasons to be allied with India. The funny thing is India is not quite so sure it wants to start going steady with us. I think India is a little bit worried that the United States is not the best partner to have in the world at this point, and it’s doing quite well on its own and it doesn’t necessarily want to forge a close alliance with the United States.”

On military spending

“I think you could cut a lot of money from the defense budget — I don’t know whether it’s 10 or 20 or 30 percent. Right now we have a U.S. military that really is not very good at spending money. Since 9/11, they’ve just had a fire hose of cash turned on them, almost like, ‘Here’s the cash. Figure out how to spend it.’ And in military terms, 10 to 15 years is a generation. So we have a generation of officers who have never actually had to live with any austerity at all, or even had to think about things, about, ‘Maybe there’s a cheaper, better way to do this. Maybe this second way of doing it is not as effective, but it’s one-tenth the cost.’ So we have a military that really doesn’t know how to spend money effectively at all.”

On reinstating a draft

“The Vietnam approach is not the only approach to a draft. The reason I think we should have a draft is there is a basic disconnection now in this country between the population and the wars we’re fighting. There are two 1 percents in America. There’s the 1 percent that is grabbing all the wealth in this country right now, and then there’s the 1 percent — a different 1 percent — that fights our wars. … And the 99 percent is not affected by [those wars] at all. That is no way for a democracy to conduct itself.

“It means that our wars are conducted with some inattention, that our politicians are pushed by our people, and our politicians don’t push our generals to fight more effectively to terminate our wars more quickly. And our wars tend to drag on, to dither and to be led by mediocrity, conducting mediocre campaigns. If you had a draft, you would reconnect the people to the wars they fight, and they would be a lot more interested in the military. They’d pay a lot more attention. They would not stand for the kind of organization and leadership you see in the Army in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Thomas E. Ricks Recommends Five Books
On Recent U.S. Military History

World War II
This is almost impossible. Where to start? There are so many good histories, so many powerful memoirs, starting with Winston Churchill’s (The Second World War) and Field Marshal Slim’s (Defeat Into Victory). Also, Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy about the U.S. military in Europe — the last volume will come out next year — is a must-read. But when I think of my single favorite, I think it has to be Eugene B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.

Korean War
I’m tempted to pick Martin Russ’ The Last Parallel, a memoir of being a Marine near the end of the war. But the centerpiece of the war really for me is the Chosin Reservoir campaign. For that, I think I’d have to pick Roy Appleman’s East of Chosin, a painful history of the forgotten fight of an Army regiment that was wiped out on the east side of the reservoir.

Vietnam War
An odd war — thousands of volumes written, but no one great book. Right now I am in the middle of Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn, which is terrific. But I won’t know if it is my favorite until I finish it. Until then, I think I will have to choose James McDonough’s Platoon Leader.

Second Gulf War (1991)
For this one, I think I’d have to go with The Generals’ War by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor. It covered the war but also provided some prescient doubts about the quality of U.S. military leadership.

Iraq War
Putting aside my own works on this war (Fiasco and The Gamble), I think my favorite so far is The Long Walk, a memoir by a bomb-disposal technician, Brian Castner.

Afghanistan War
The overall book hasn’t been written yet. But I think the ones that capture the feeling of how this war went are the many memoirs about how Osama bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora. The place to begin is probably Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo’s Jawbreaker.

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3 Responses to "Ricks: Firing ‘The Generals’ To Fight Better Wars?"

  1. John  November 5, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    If they are “ineffective”, how much of this inefficiency might be due to knowing in their heart of hearts that they caught in a job working for an army that is terrorizing Arabs and fighting unjust wars as “Israel’s military enforcer.” Somewhere in some of these men’s hearts, they must know that terrorizing the people of other lands is evil, and it has to wear on them.

    It is our job to keep writing and keep speaking to others to awaken people so that they will admit to themselves that these wars are CRIMES thus enabling them to awaken others.

  2. rexw  November 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Alan Sabrosky, a man who always knows his subject well,that actual fighting is almost incidental to all the other functions one must perform as a US General. Any General for that matter..

    It always seems to me that a General has to be an accountant, personnel manager, school teacher, social worker and a leader. And yet, people like Petraeus, now the head man at the CIA, comes to mind because as Alan wrote “just look at the ribbons on the uniforms of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for instance, and you’ll see scads of “meritorious service” medals, but very few combat decorations or Purple Hearts”.

    There are two ways to look at this. Firstly, at what rank does a younger officer become almost totally detached from the actual battle in the current theatres of military activity?. His need to provide direction and management of the resources of say an infantry regiment almost makes him so far behind the flying bullets that his ability to collect medals other than for ‘meritorious service’ must be extremely difficult. One could argue that any General, or Colonel as well, who is dangerously close to any battle, is on the wrong bus and can’t read a map..
    Yet we saw Petraeus almost needing a second coat on which to hang all his metalwork. (or are they plastic, these days).

    His last photographs almost bordered on vulgar.

    In researching the man, I could not find an example of where he has had to dodge a live round from anyone with evil intent. But does that really matter? Medals do not maketh the man…..just adds to his media image.

    But he was a General. One would like to think that he has skills well away from the dirty mud of life in a trench. Someone must think so as he has moved on to where the skills mentioned above come into play in a serious way. Budgets and fiscal matters at the CIA would be his forté in 2012, surely. Far more perilous than any battlefield I would think particularly in fiscally challenged America.
    Is bankrupt a better word, perhaps?

    The recommended books would be interesting if only to see how or if the different writers can justify any of the dirty wars which are occupying a single publication each. Of course, the war which has coloured the world’s view of the US (and tarnished their reputation, forever) is of course the Bush /Cheney/Rumsfelt Iraq War, a war without reason, against a leader prostrate before the US, committed to selling out his country for 20 years at least with oil contracts, infrastructure projects, a ten million motor vehicles purchase, major capital purchases going on forever and while still suffering the after effects of a cruel, inhumane sanctions program. Is there a saying, “like shooting fish in a barrel”? Well no better example can be found, ever. Perhaps 2 million dead (including sanctions) against 4.000 Americans.

    Good odds though for an increase in US military hegemony. Worth continuing the game plan after such a momentous “mission accomplished” . Didn’t Bush look smart in his tight uniform.

    So off we go again into the hills of Afghanistan, a country steeped in religious controls, power plays like no other, (the exception being the Zionists and their power plays to control the media), with US casualties already up to 2,000 with many others from other countries, now about to leave the battlefield to those local people, the Taliban, who have lived there all their lives and have a level of patience like no one else, knowing full well that in 2014, it will be business as usual. Taliban heaven or whatever they might call it. Inheriting military hardware, infrastructure and only requiring three months to show who is / has always been, the boss. Achievement?

    Zero, again. Ask the British, the Russians and now the US and the camp followers such as Australia, the UK and other miscellaneous groups. History is such a great teacher. One learns so much from the past.
    But when military hegemony is the game, the sky’s the limit, everything can be seen as collateral damage and that’s quite fashionable. Ask the Israeli / American Neocons, thick on the ground in those days waiting for the next fracas to be able to submit intelligent reports from some AIPAC-sponsored think tank on which the feckless Preident, whoever he is, will act.. How it all goes on, yet again, ad nauseum.

    So then we think of Korea, still occupied by 28,000 US troops without whose presence the Koreans would have been united decades ago. And Vietnam, another war based on lies? By any measure a serious loss, an embarrassing loss but no holidaying US troops still on the streets there as in Korea. Vietnam, a united country once again.

    Time and a distinct lack of skill does not allow one to address these wars like the experts and I am sure they are analysed in the recommended books very well indeed. However, as Alan stated, Afghanistan is not yet written and will probably become a specially priced two book set with Iran.
    Just wait a month or two.

    Don’t ever expect any 2013 General to emerge be-medalled and with an enhanced reputation as may have been the case in some of the early wars that America has started, circa 1861, numbers now approximately 200. On all accounts, the US is not finished yet. China is in their sights and the US has just been given a base by the US sycophantic government in Australia, base #901, globally.
    Before that Romney (God forbid) has promised Israel to have a crack at Iran, reasons unknown to any rational human being other than Iran having become Israel’s bête noir. Perhaps it is because Iranians are a highly intelligent and well-educated people. The contrast may be just too much for Israelis to swallow.

    But Israel will continue to be the foreign policy maker for the 300 million people in the warlike USA. Just keep those recruitment offices full. Israel needs them .To be controlled by such an evil country whose military claim to fame is against unarmed men, old women and little children, must be embarrassing for the oft-stated world’s #1 superpower who gives them the weapons to kill, at no charge ,naturally.

    That’s what friends are for.

    Enough of all this. On with the next war…..and the next book.

    • Debbie Menon  November 6, 2012 at 1:51 am

      Hello Rex,

      You have to listen to the NPR interview to catch the significance of Sabrosky’s comment:

      Dr. Alan Sabrosky: “I am not sure it is wise to make the US military’s higher leadership more effective at this point in time, given the US political leadership’s affinity for being Israel’s military enforcer and the US military leadership’s unwillingness to oppose it or to resign openly and publicly in opposition to these needless wars, assuming, of course, that any now reach those ranks who DO oppose the process!”

      In my books General Petraeus goes down as the General with the most failures under his belt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and in the first civilian job held as Director of CIA : He failed in Benghazi:
      CIA Takes Heat for Role in Libya :

      Also, recall David Petraeus, who has assiduously courted the neo-conservatives (e.g., the email exchanges with Max Boot Reporter at the National Review, The embarrassingly obsequious “hey, boss, am I doing good? gee, boss, thankee, thankee” approach he took with Max Boot) to position himself for a run for the presidency in 2016.

      Read Ray McGovern’s article titled : Petraeus — Can He Tell It Straight? in respect to his relations with the neo-conservatives and his email exchanges with MAX BOOT here:

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