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Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...

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

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today - Thomas E. Ricks

I am in no way well-versed in military history. My curiosity about the generals involved in WWII was piqued by my recent reading of The War. So, when I came across this work by Thomas E. Ricks, I thought it just might fit the bill. While I was able to follow Ricks’ overall thesis (which I'll get to momentarily), in reading the sections on the Korean War and even Vietnam, I felt like I was in a class for which I had skipped the pre-requisite coursework. Though, as mentioned, I haven't exactly “studied” modern warfare, but my having been alive for the campaigns in the Gulf etc. felt sufficient for following the later sections. So, do with this information what you will. Onward!

 

Dismissals and Mistakes

The military of the United States is (as is perceived to be) a different creature today than it was in the era of World War II. That, unto itself, isn't much of a thesis statement, and there are a preponderance of factors, technological, geopolitical and sociological alike, that have contributed to this stark contrast. However, Ricks gives us a cohesive narrative by tracing the changing role of dismissals and its impact on the tactical and bureaucratic environment of the American military. 

 

General George C. Marshall set the bar pretty high when it came to the rate at which leading officers were relieved while he was in command starting in September of 1939.

 

Marshall center with staff 1941

 

Though some may have seen this as "cold blooded," Marshall knew that unity had to come first in the course of coalition warfare. It was with this in mind that Marshall accelerated the promotion of Dwight Eisenhower , a man seen by the British forces as being a "strategic lightweight," but whose strength lay in his ability to prioritize and implement tactics, and who took seriously his charge from Marshall that he was to maintain cohesion among the Allied forces.

 

Eisenhower and Company E England 1944

 

So where are all the pink slips? Well, there are certainly a bunch of names I didn't know prior to reading this that I could list who were ousted. Likewise, though not a "dismissal" per se, Marshall wasn't wed to formulaic promotion by seniority. If he had been, George S. Patton would have been in front of Ike in line for promotion.

 

Lt Gen George Patton Sicily 1943

 

Patton may have been good at a lot of things, but keeping a coalition together was not one of them. Furthermore, Marshall wasn't running a sort of run-and-gun, once you're out you're out, hang your head in shame firing environment. In order to give commanders the independence they were afforded in the field, they had to be in the right environment. Dismissals often gave way to reassignments, which, as it turned out, was a really good thing. The American army made many mistakes, but it was also adaptive, something that was noted by the British who had an experiential head start due to the United States' late entry into the war. 

 

Mr. MacArthur Goes to Washington

Ricks gives General Douglas MacArthur the ignominious award as the "most overrated" man in the U.S. military (also, in his blog post, The worst general in American history?, he gives MacArthur the no. 1 spot). In addition to his general insubordination to a trifecta of presidents, MacArthur also resurrected the politicization of "the General." 

 

General Douglas MacArthur Korea 1950

 

While having generals in political office, unto itself, is not problematic, MacArthur is portrayed as a symbol for the worst possible relationship between the POTUS and military leadership. 

 

What's to be done?

Yes, I'm skipping a whole bunch of wars, but there is a point to all of this. These days the dismissal (or whatever you want to call it) of a general is a big, CNN-covered deal—one filled with shame and often associated with human rights abuses and/or sex scandals. Ricks argues that relief from command should not terminate a career, and, furthermore, should be seen as a sign that the system is working. Ricks cites the responses of soldiers who have left the force in his closing arguments (the most common reason for leaving, as it turns out, has to do with frustration with bureaucracy). We have come to a place, Ricks argues, where we are institutionalizing mediocrity. Incompetence is tolerated, and excellence is insufficiently rewarded.

 

My take

I admit I sort of three-star enjoyed this book, but feel like much of that was due to my lack of background knowledge. Basically, I feel under-qualified to dock additional stars.