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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The military writer Thomas E. Ricks spent years covering the war in Iraq. In the middle of it, he took a break to study a battlefield from World War II, in Italy. And he learned a surprising fact.

THOMAS E. RICKS: After the toughest battle of the campaign, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division - who had just won that battle - Terry Allen, was fired. And my jaw dropped. I thought, I've just come out of Iraq, where we are losing a war; where nobody gets fired; where combat ineffectiveness is just not relevant, in judging a general - no generals get fired for combat ineffectiveness, these days. How could the U.S. military have changed so much?

INSKEEP: That question propelled Ricks' latest book, called "The Generals." He reviews decades of U.S. military history, and he argues that the military gradually lost its practice of ruthlessly holding military officers accountable for failure. Tom Ricks' story begins with a man who did relieve commanders, Gen. George C. Marshall, who built up the U.S. Army to fight World War II. Before the fighting he began, Marshall fired hundreds of officers he considered dead wood. And he continued to relieve, retire or reassign officers, until he found men who did the job.

So who was George Marshall?

RICKS: I've been thinking about this 'cause I actually have to give a speech in December, to the George Marshall Foundation in Richmond, Va. ...

INSKEEP: Hmm.

RICKS: ...and I'm feeling a bit antsy about it, because I think the first sentence I'm going have is, "George Marshall was not a nice man." I don't think he really was a nice man. I think he was a decent man. I think he was a good - and great - man.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

RICKS: But he was a rather cold, reserved guy. Dwight Eisenhower, then a young brigadier general, comes up from Texas and meets with George Marshall, one week after Pearl Harbor day. And Marshall puts the question to him, how should we fight the war in the Pacific? Eisenhower says, give me a few hours.

He writes a three-page memo that lays out what he believes the strategy should be. When he gives the answer - hands the memo, that afternoon, to Marshall, Marshall looks at him; and Eisenhower wrote later: "The eyes were the coldest I think I'd ever seen."

INSKEEP: So he's a ruthless guy; he's a cold guy. But that anecdote about Dwight Eisenhower points to another part of this guy's management style. He picks out this young officer - Eisenhower - and brings him in, and immediately gives him a really demanding task: Take a few hours, and sketch out the strategy for the entire Pacific War.

RICKS: (LAUGHTER) Yeah, have fun. Yeah. It's striking that Marshall devotes so much time to finding the right man for the right job. He did not see officers as interchangeable. He did not say, well, who's in line for the next job? I'll just throw whoever is - which is kind of what we did in Iraq, which - another thing that bothered me, OK? You know, do we have a lieutenant general lying around? Give him the job. So for example, in the natural course of events, George Patton was much more senior to Dwight Eisenhower, and would have been one of the people you'd consider for commanding the Allies in Europe. But Marshall knew George Patton well, and knew he was not the right man for that job.

INSKEEP: Very talented, but not the most stable of guys.

RICKS: Yeah, a little bit nutty. But he knew Dwight Eisenhower's reputation - didn't know him well personally - and eventually, he picks Eisenhower. There were certain characteristics he was looking for; and these were not naturally the characteristics that we see in generals, in other countries. He wanted determined, optimistic team players; and Eisenhower was very much a team player.

INSKEEP: So you described this guy - George Marshall - who was ruthless; who sought a certain type of officer, and kept relieving commanders until he found the officers, and could promote the kinds of officers that he wanted. You then go on to write about succeeding years. And you write here - late in the book - "After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the top American military offices in Hawaii were drummed out of the military. After the surprise attacks on 9/11, no one was fired or took responsibility, nor were subsequent setbacks punished." What changed?

RICKS: I think several things changed. First, our wars changed. World War II was an understood war. People knew why we were fighting, and they were - as a nation, people were behind the war. Our subsequent wars - Korea, Vietnam, Iraq - were far murkier affairs, and success was very difficult to define. What does success mean when you're trying to get out of Iraq, when you're trying to get out of Afghanistan? Second, the Army went from - under Marshall, believing that if foremost was a force fighting for democracy, that it needed to be democratic in its treatment of soldiers; that it needed to favor the interests of the enlisted soldier, over the interest of officers.

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning that if an officer was getting people killed, the officer had to go.

RICKS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Went from that to a different mindset, which was...

RICKS: A different mindset in Korea, in Vietnam; in which they were kind of looking after the interest of officers. So they begin a rotation system in Korea, so everybody can get a taste of leading in combat. In Vietnam, not only did they have a one-year rotation system, for officers they make it a six-month rotation system; in which you command a unit for six months, and then you have a staff job for six months - or vice versa - whereas the enlisted guy still does a year in combat.

Again, they say this is to season the officer corps but really, it was to give a lot of guys the ability to say that they'd led in combat. And it was a lousy way to run a war, and I think even the Army recognizes that now. And now, they have units come in and rotate on a unit basis, rather than as individuals.

INSKEEP: You go on to the Army as it existed at the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you feel that things are a lot less flexible; nobody ever gets fired; people are not held accountable for failure that often - at least, within the military itself. But that was the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Have things changed again, over the past decade?

RICKS: Yeah, when push came to shove, at the end of 2006, George Bush realized that simply listening to his generals was not working for him, in Iraq; that we were really losing that war. And so finally, December 2006, Bush turns away from his generals; and turns to a couple of retired generals, and some civilian experts, and says, what do I do? And they said, you need to think about your generals differently. It can't just be, he's a great American. You need to ask yourself, is this guy effective in his strategy? You know, are we winning?

And so at that point, they turned to Gen. David Petraeus - who interestingly, is not particularly well-liked in the Army. And he takes a radically different approach. It's not just the surge of troops. The most important thing was a different attitude, which is, let's start asking questions of the Iraqis. How can we do better? And they actually go to the insurgents, and they put them on the American payroll. So Petraeus shows some real independence of thought - the ability to think critically and independently; to understand the war he is fighting. He is an adaptive general.

INSKEEP: Is there any sign of going back to that army of George Marshall's era, where people who were seen as not getting the job done are - simply - relieved?

RICKS: I wish we would, but I think until we hold our generals accountable for being effective, that we won't see much change in the way our military is led; we won't see that kind of adaptiveness that I think we need in our leaders.

INSKEEP: Thomas E. Ricks is author of "The Generals," his latest book. Thanks very much.

RICKS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can read an excerpt of "The Generals" at npr.org.

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