By Thomas Keaney
Tom Ricks's book, The Generals, provides a sweeping look at American generalship -- Army generals almost exclusively -- done in the style that marked his earlier works. He names names, cites revealing anecdotes, and just as importantly analyzes the factors at work that shaped generations of these officers. It's a book sure to create controversy, as it details what Ricks sees as a depressing trend in levels of performance and accountability exhibited by American generals since World War II.
General George C. Marshall becomes Ricks's model for generalship, both for Marshall's dealings with the U.S. political leadership, mainly Franklin Roosevelt, and for culling the general officer ranks of the U.S. Army to rid the organization of non-performers or those who could not measure up in other ways. Marshall then serves as Ricks's touchstone through the book while showing in relief how following generations of general officers, even those trained in the World War II tradition, adopted lesser standards than Marshall and others like him. Wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan provide much fodder to support this analysis. And though correct, I think Ricks leans too heavily on the Marshall example to deal with military performance in subsequent conflicts. Marshal's example cannot provide the answers, since in many cases Marshall would not or could not know the questions. More factors have been at work.
Simply put, comparing the standards and procedures used in World War II in relieving generals of their commands is unfair to the later generations. One problem is with metrics. If the objective is getting quickly to Berlin or Baghdad, shortcomings or failures would tend to be evident, or at least easily measured. Not to excuse the military leadership involved, but in the wars since, for the most part linking objectives with performances has suffered from political uncertainties of what objectives were being sought on the one hand and a military leadership focused too much on operational issues on the other, a brew that came together in a continuing, if at times low level, civil-military conflict over ends and means. In that atmosphere, personal accountability is more diffuse, and suffers as a result. Ricks points out these clashes in rich detail. Standing out most markedly in this regard are the gaps in understanding and respect between the Johnson White House and both the Joint Chiefs and the military leadership in Vietnam, and between Washington and the theater in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2006. The account of the confused dialogue, or its absence, between theater and headquarters is must reading for anyone seeking to understand the depths of these conflicts.
For Ricks, General William DePuy comes off as both savior and villain: savior of the Army post-Vietnam in giving the force a renewed purpose and sense of itself; and villain through his orientation on operational matters to the virtual exclusion of rigorous strategic thinking in Army doctrine and education. As much as that affected the Army, it led to similar effects on the other services' leadership, curiously in the name of jointness.
The principles of operational art being advocated at the time by General DePuy and others perfectly addressed one aspect of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation -- the requirement to teach joint operations, the integration of all military forces fighting as a team. The immediate answer was to focus teaching at the operational level of war, specifically what was defined as the joint campaign plan.
While an excellent technique for harmonizing the capabilities of each of the military services, campaign planning almost by definition has a concentration on the operational and tactical levels of warfare and far less to the political context of the campaign itself. Thus, Army doctrine on operational art, as Ricks describes, can influence officer education in all the services. Unfortunately, many of the subsequent military operations in which the United States became engaged not only stretched the use of the term campaign but also called for integration not with military forces of other services but with civilian agencies or non-governmental organizations. This was new territory for military leaders.
The Generals ends with a prescription for what Marshall would do in these circumstances. Perhaps, but this generation may have access to better answers. Experience in Iraq an Afghanistan has shown that some generals "get it" more than others, but success in such circumstances came from actions of individual units, not as a theater-wide program. The next step must be a more general reorientation of military education to the strategic context, whether it involves counterinsurgency or air-sea battle.
Thomas Keaney is Associate Director Strategic Studies Program, The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and a former facultymember at the National War College.