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The Generals

American Military Command from World War II to Today

by Thomas E. Ricks

Hardcover, 558 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $32.95 |


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

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Book Summary

The Generals describes the values, strategic thinking and leadership qualities of military leaders from World War II to the present day and how the widening separation between performance and accountability has not resulted in any recent Marshalls, Eisenhowers or Pattons.

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Tracing Military Failures, Holding 'The Generals' Accountable

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Ricks: Firing 'The Generals' To Fight Better Wars?

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Should 'The Generals' Get Fired More Often?

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Generals


Captain William DePuy and the 90th Division in Normandy, Summer 1944

Captain William DePuy of the 90th Division saw it all in northwestern France in the summer of 1944.

On June 13, 1944, a few days after the 90th Infantry Division went into action against the Germans in Normandy, Lt. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, to whom the division reported, went on foot to check on his men. "We could locate no regimental or battalion headquarters," he recalled with dismay. "No shelling was going on, nor any fighting that we could observe." This was an ominous sign, as the Battle of Normandy was far from decided, and the Wehrmacht was still trying to push the Americans, British, and Canadians, who had landed a week earlier, back into the sea.

The 90th's assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. "Hanging Sam" Williams, also was looking for the leader of his green division. He found the division commander, Brig. Gen. Jay MacKelvie, sheltered from enemy fire, huddling in a drainage ditch along the base of a hedgerow. "Goddammit, General, you can't lead this division hiding in that goddamn hole," he shouted. "Go back to the CP. Get the hell out of that hole and go to your vehicle. Walk to it, or you'll have this goddamn division wading in the English Channel." The message did not take. Within just a few days the division was bogged down and veering close to passivity. "Orders may have been issued to attack, but no attacks took place," remembered DePuy. "Nothing really happened. Infantry leaders were totally exhausted and in a daze. There was a pervasive feeling of hopelessness."

In June 1944, DePuy was just fighting to stay alive — no small feat in the bloody, World War I-like combat of that summer. One infantry company in the 90th began the day with 142 men and finished it with thirty-two. Its battalion commander walked around babbling, "I killed K Company, I killed K Company." Later that summer in Normandy, one of the 90th's battalions, with 265 soldiers, surrendered to a German patrol of fifty men and two tanks. In six weeks of small advances, the division would use up all its infantrymen, requesting replacements totaling 100 percent. The average term of service for a 90th Division lieutenant leading a platoon in combat was two weeks. The 90th Division in Normandy, DePuy would remember bitterly, was "a killing machine — of our own troops."

On June 13, less than a week after the 90th had entered combat, Gen. Collins relieved MacKelvie. In the relief order, Gen. Collins wrote that the division's enemy opposition had been "relatively light," probably less than a regimental combat team — a blistering aside. However, the official Army historian Martin Blumenson disagrees, concluding on page 76 of Breakout and Pursuit that during the course of the summer, the 90th "met enemy forces at least numerically equal in strength who occupied excellent defenses." Collins instructed the 90th's new commander, Maj. Gen. Eugene Landrum, to fire the commanders of two of the division's three regiments. DePuy considered one of those two, West Point graduate Col. P. D. Ginder, "a horse's ass of the worst order. Goddamned fool ... he was a disaster." DePuy was hardly alone in his estimate of Ginder: Another officer, Lt. Max Kocour, a mortar forward observer, remembered that the regimental commander "almost constantly made the wrong decisions." Indeed, even after being relieved, the excitable Ginder continued to issue orders, at one point sending troops forward into an artillery target area without seeking permission or coordinating the movement, an action for which he was placed under arrest and sent back to division headquarters under armed escort. Ginder had been in command of the regiment for less than a month. His successor, Col. John Sheehy, was killed in an ambush after two days in command.

Col. George Barth took command of Ginder's regiment after Sheehy's death. One day he saw a long column of perhaps eight hundred men and asked DePuy which battalion they were. That was no battalion, DePuy replied — it was the day's incoming replacements for the division's casualties. Barth later confessed that, before taking over the regiment, he "had never before experienced 'zero morale.' "

MacKelvie's successor, Landrum, was given a few weeks to prove he was an able commander, but by midsummer he also was judged to be wanting. Gen. Omar Bradley, the senior American general in France at the time, decided to replace Landrum with Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, whom he had sacked a year earlier as assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division under Terry Allen. But the night before he was given the job, Roosevelt died of a heart attack. Landrum was eventually removed as the commander of the 90th, though before he left, he fired the assistant division commander he had inherited, Brig. Gen. Sam Williams, with whom he had clashed. "I feel that a general officer of a more optimistic and calming attitude would be more beneficial to this division at this time," he wrote. Bradley concurred and topped off the dismissal by demoting Williams to colonel.

The swift reliefs of World War II were not an instrument of precision, and, while often effective in leading to more capable commanders, they were sometimes clearly the wrong move. Other officers watched and assessed the fairness of such firings. In the case the 90th Division, the consensus was that the removal of MacKelvie was fully justified but that Ginder and Landrum probably deserved better, and that Williams certainly did. This peer judgment resulted in Ginder, Landrum, and Williams being given second chances. Ginder was assigned to the 2nd Division later that year as a spare commander and redeemed himself with a strong battlefield performance on Elsenborn Ridge, key terrain during the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his acts during the grinding Battle of Hürtgen Forest and was given command of the 2nd Division's 9th Infantry Regiment. During the Korean War, he would rise to command the 45th Infantry Division and make news by giving a battlefield tour in his helicopter to the pop singer Eddie Fisher, who had been drafted but was continuing to pump out hits. Even a commander escorted from the battlefield under arrest could recover. In 1963, Ginder retired as a major general.

Landrum was sent back to the United States and put in command of a division in training, but Dwight Eisenhower, the top American commander in Europe, declined to let him bring the division overseas. In 1950, Landrum served in Korea as a colonel, acting as chief of staff to Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, commander of the 8th Army, during the difficult first year of that war. He was allowed to retire the following year as a major general.

It was the removal of "Hanging Sam" Williams — the nickname came from his eagerness to impose capital punishment during a peacetime Army court-martial — that especially caught the attention of members of the division, and the army at large. "They got the wrong man," DePuy would argue, with feeling, decades later. He had seen Williams out and about, pushing officers and encouraging troops, while Landrum was usually found back at his headquarters. "Hanging Sam Williams was the assistant division commander and he was with us all the time. He was very helpful and a very brave and powerful man."

Williams abided, living with his demotion for seven years. He was promoted back to brigadier general in 1951 and a year later won command of the 25th Infantry Division in Korea. Ironically, but in keeping with his Old Army ways, Williams acquired a reputation in the Korean War for ruthlessly relieving officers he perceived to be incompetent. When he asked a briefer how certain troops would get to "Red Beach" in an amphibious landing, the officer said they would be transported by the Navy but conceded that the plan had not been coordinated with that service. "You are fired," Williams responded. Williams's blunt manner would catch up with him later, in Vietnam. In 1955, not long after the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu, he was made the top American military adviser in Vietnam, where he routinely engaged in shouting matches with the U.S. ambassador. (In an interesting coincidence, Creighton Abrams, the future American commander in Vietnam and Army chief of staff, in the 1950s would be assigned to work first for Williams and then for Ginder. He liked Williams but detested Ginder, who continued to display a remarkable mix of pomposity and incompetence.) Williams eventually retired as a three-star lieutenant general.

Later in the summer of '44, Bradley sent Brig. Gen. Raymond McLain, whom he had brought from Italy to England to have on tap as a replacement when someone was fired, to take over the 90th Division. "We're going to make that division go if we've got to can every senior officer in it," Bradley vowed. McLain kept him to his word, two days later giving him a list of sixteen field officers he wanted out of the division. It would not be surprising if DePuy, despite his youth, had helped compile that list, given his growing influence in the turbulent division's operations. DePuy believed that the division had been remiss in not removing several officers before going into combat.

DePuy's own World War II experience illustrates how the swift relief of some officers cleared the way for others with more competence. He began the war as a "green lieutenant" from the ROTC program at South Dakota State College. He finished it having commanded a battalion at age twenty-five and then been operations officer for a division. During the war he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and three Silver Stars.

The 90th Division also improved radically, going from a problem division that 1st Army staff wanted to break up and use to send replacements to other units to being considered, as Bradley wrote later, "one of the most outstanding in the European Theater." Retired Army Col. Henry Gole, in his analysis of the 90th Division and DePuy's command style, directly credits the policy of fast relief:

Because incompetent commanders were fired and replaced by quality men at division and regiment, and because the junior officers of 1944 good at war, including DePuy, rose to command battalions in a Darwinian process, the division became an effective fighting force. DePuy was 25 years old. His regimental commander was 27. The other two battalion commanders were 28 and 26.

DePuy would be haunted for decades by the bloody, grinding fighting of the summer of 1944 and by the incompetent leadership he witnessed in Normandy. "The brutality and stupidity of those days have affected me all the rest of my professional life," he said. It shaped DePuy's approach to fighting in Vietnam, where he would command the 1st Infantry Division twenty-two years later. He then would go on to play a central role in shaping the post-Vietnam Army that fought in Kuwait in 1991. "DePuy is one of the very small handful of very great soldiers that this country had produced in this [20th] century," said another general, Donn Starry. "The Army owes him a great debt, an enormous debt. He set it on the path for the 21st century."

Three aspects of the experience of the 90th Division stand out, even seven decades later. First, that generalship in combat is extraordinarily difficult, and many seasoned officers fail at it. Second, that personalities matter — the 90th floundered under its first two commanders in the summer of 1944 but thrived under McLain's leadership. Third, and most significant for understanding American history, that American generals were managed very differently in World War II than they were in subsequent wars. During World War II, senior American commanders generally were given a few months in which to succeed, be killed or wounded, or be replaced. Sixteen Army division commanders were relieved for cause, out of a total of 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat during the war. At least five corps commanders also were removed for cause. Corps and division command, wrote Secretary of War Henry Stimson, "was the critical level of professional competence" during the war.

I first learned about the standards to which American generals were held during World War II when, taking a break from covering the Iraq war, I joined a "staff ride" — that is, a study of a military campaign in which one walks battlefields and recounts the decisions of commanders and the information available to them at the time. The staff ride group, selected mainly from students in the strategy course of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was studying the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II. We were gathered on the highest point in central Sicily, looking north across the razored ridges of that extraordinary mid-Mediterranean island, when one student recounted how Maj. Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen, one of the most successful American generals of 1943, had been relieved after winning the last major battle of the Sicily campaign.

I was stunned. How could this be? I still had the dust of Iraq on my walking shoes, and my mind was still focused on that war, where even abject failure did not get a general fired. Relief in the U.S. military had become so rare that, as Lt. Col. Paul Yingling noted during some of the darkest days of the Iraq war, a private who lost his rifle was now punished more than a general who lost his part of a war.

That question haunted me on the flight home from Sicily to Washington, D.C.: Why do we treat our generals differently today, and what does that mean for the conduct of our wars — and for our nation? Trying to find the answer launched me on four years of research about American generalship from the beginning of World War II to the present. It eventually led me to the story of DePuy and the 90th Division, which in turn led me to write this book. What I found was a part of American military culture that has now been lost. During World War II, top officials expected some generals to fail in combat and were prepared to remove them when that happened. The personalities of these generals mattered enormously, and the chief of staff of the Army, George Marshall, devoted much effort to finding the right men for the jobs at hand. When some did not work out, they were removed quickly — but often given another chance in another job.

This is a story about a remarkable group of men, the Army general officers of the past three-quarters of a century, and the wars they fought. Each of these men was given powers we accord to few: responsibilities for saving lives and for taking lives; power over promotion and demotion; the responsibility to advise presidents on our most fundamental national issues; and — perhaps most valued by these Army general officers — the responsibility and the privilege of shaping their own institution by deciding how to train, select, and sometimes discard their peers.

George Marshall. Dwight Eisenhower. Terry Allen. Douglas MacArthur. Matthew Ridgway. Maxwell Taylor. William Westmoreland. William DePuy. Ray Peers. Colin Powell. Norman Schwarzkopf. Tommy Franks. Ricardo Sanchez. George Casey. David Petraeus. It is evident that each and every one of these men loved the Army — and, even more than with most institutions, derived their personal as well as professional identities from it. Despite being shaped by the institution, all of them remained recognizable individuals, some of them extraordinary. "Personality plays a tremendous part in war," George Patton once observed, and that certainly is true of the modern American armed forces, Patton himself being a primary example.

Generals are born, and generals are made. The promotion from colonel to brigadier (or one-star) general is one of the largest psychological leaps an officer can take. It is richly symbolic: The promoted officer removes from his or her collar the insignia of an Army branch (the crossed rifles of infantry, for example, or the tiny triple-turreted castle of engineers) and puts on a single star. As brigadier generals, the newly promoted officers are instructed in a special course — they no longer represent a part of the Army, but now are the stewards of the entire service. As members of the Army's select few, they are expected to control and coordinate different branches, such as artillery, cavalry, engineers — that is, become a generalist.

It is difficult to speak with much authority about that process of promotion to brigadier general, which remains largely the realm of rumor and speculation. The deliberations of promotion boards remain the holy of U.S. military holies, more closely held than the secrets of the nation's nuclear arsenal. But it is possible to look at who was selected, and what sorts of officers rose during different periods. It also is possible to look in detail at the training and education of general officers and at how different personalities struggled to change those processes in decade-long internal fights that did much to shape the future of the Army.

From that examination we can see how the institutional choices of the past have shaped the conduct of our wars today.

Most of all, we can study how generals performed in combat command. Different traits are required for different tasks. George Marshall had the military insight to know that at the top of the Allied military in Europe, overseeing the largest armed force in history, he would need an indefatigable team player with balanced judgment. He also had the skill to find the officer who could fit that bill, plucking Dwight Eisenhower from his post as executive officer of an infantry regiment to groom him for that unprecedented task, in which Ike eventually would wear five stars. Eisenhower, in turn, recognized that George Patton could excel in the battlefield task of pursuing the Germans across northwestern Europe. Had the two generals been reversed in their roles, as their relative seniority in service dictated, the history of World War II likely would be different.

The qualities that are valued change, partly because the circumstances of war change, partly because tastes change. The Army at various times has screened out certain qualities and decided that other qualities are indispensable. For example, George Marshall and his senior subordinates valued aggressiveness and cooperation — but Marshall was more inclined, on balance, to favor the aggressive officer, such as Terry Allen, while the senior subordinates, especially Bradley and Eisenhower, increasingly wanted cooperative generals who could be part of a larger team. During the 1950s, the Army especially seemed to value conformists. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, Army leaders talked incessantly about "warfighters." In fact, that turned out to be a misnomer, because they produced a generation of tacticians who knew how to fight battles but who apparently lacked the strategic ability to fight and conclude wars.

Despite these changes, there are traits that all generals must possess. These are characteristics often found in the outlines of the Marshall system, the characteristics he prized. They are still visible in today's generals. The same sorts of people — energetic, determined team players — tend to be chosen to lead the military, for what they do is essentially the same. Being a general usually involves being able to impose one's will on a large organization engaged in the most stressful of human activities. It is almost always driven by the twofold ability to first anticipate problems and devise solutions and then to get people to execute the resulting plans.

Yet the way in which the generals themselves are managed has fundamentally shifted since World War II. Marshall saw relief as a natural part of generalship. Firing, like hiring, was simply one of the basic tasks of the senior managers. It was inevitable when selecting human beings for extraordinarily complex and difficult jobs that some percentage would fail. But he did not see it, usually, as disgraceful. On his watch, relief often was not a discharge from the service but a reassignment.

The politics of relief are complex. In World War II, two senior generals who arguably might have been relieved were kept in place, at least partly for political reasons: Douglas MacArthur and Bernard Law Montgomery. Similarly, it would prove more difficult to relieve generals in small, unpopular wars. So in the latter part of the Korean War and in our wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, relief of generals by other generals became all but extinct. To a large degree, this has made the Marshall system far less effective: Without the accountability that the prospect of relief brings, his approach to leadership did not work nearly as well, as we were to see in Vietnam and Iraq. So while in World War II the firing of a general was seen as a sign that the system was working as planned, now, in the rare instances when it does occur, it tends to be seen, especially inside the Army, as a sign that the system somehow has failed.

The Army's shift away from swift dismissal in our recent wars has gone all but unnoticed, and so major questions about our military have been neglected: How and why did we lose the long-standing practice of relieving generals for failure? Why has accountability declined? And is it connected to the decline in the operational competence of American generals? That is, how did we go from a tough-minded thinker like George Marshall, who made his reputation in part by speaking truth to power, to eminently pliable chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff such as Air Force general Richard Myers, chairman from 2001 to 2005, and his successor, Marine general Peter Pace, who was chairman for the two years after him?

Answering these questions promises a way to better understand why our recent wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq have been so long and frustrating.

While touching on other services, this book focuses most on the handling of Army generals, mainly but not exclusively during wartime. Moreover, in discussing World War II, this study disproportionately dwells on the U.S. Army in Europe, because it was the incubator of the postwar Army and the theater of combat service for the six Army chiefs who ran the service from 1945 to 1960, as well as for the generals who oversaw the Vietnam War.

Of all the nation's armed forces, the Army arguably is the dominant service, the one around which the national defense still is constructed. Over the past decade, for example, more Army troops have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan than those from the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps combined. In addition, there is less to say about the history of leadership in the other services. The Navy follows an entirely different seafaring custom in handling commanders, and the Marines tend to act within that nautical tradition. The Air Force, having been established in 1947, is too young to have developed many distinct, long-lasting traditions. It had one period of being dominated by bomber pilots, then a second of being overseen by fighter pilots. Now it appears to be at the beginning of a new, indeterminate period, in which its current leader, Gen. Norton Schwartz, is a former C-130 cargo aircraft pilot, and it faces the proliferation of drone aircraft, remotely piloted vehicles that could radically change the Air Force's young culture in unpredictable ways.

After moving beyond World War II, this book looks less at relief, because there was less of it going on, and instead focuses on how the Army tried to compensate for that lack in several ways, but primarily with additional supervision — often referred to by those under supervision as "micromanagement." The second half of the book, covering the era when the Army all but stopped relieving generals, also shows the next step: When the military does not relieve senior generals, civilian officials will. The vicissitudes of the relationship between generals and their civilian overseers is a secondary theme of the book, because the quality of civil-military discourse is often a sign of whether a war is being conducted effectively, one of the few available leading indicators. When presidents and generals speak clearly to each other, in an atmosphere of candor and trust, wars tend to be fought more effectively than when officials mislead one another or simply do not deal with one another in a straightforward manner that surfaces and examines differences and assumptions. The foremost example of this is the distrustful relationship that existed between Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War.

When, after the debacle of the Vietnam War, the Army began rebuilding, it had to rely more on two other critical tools of management: training and education. In the absence of relief as a tool, these became hugely important in shaping the United States Army, which is one of our nation's largest, most interesting, and most important institutions. When we understand the Army, and especially the changes in its generals, we will better understand where we are as a nation and why we have fought our wars the way we have in the era of the American superpower, from Sicily and Normandy to Saigon, Baghdad, and Kabul.

From The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks. Copyright 2012 by Thomas E. Ricks. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.