Tom Ricks has written a new book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, which I’ve not read yet because it’s not out in the UK. Also I don’t have time. So this is not a review. Anyway, there are a lot of those already out there from Neil Sheehan (enthusiastic) to Spencer Ackerman (very enthusiastic–interview with Ricks at the link also) to Andrew Roberts (kind of bitchy) to Robert Scales (quite critical) to James Jay Carofano (disappointed). I look forward to making up my own mind on it when I get some time to read it (ca. 2014 to judge from the ‘to read’ pile on my desk). In the meantime, I was struck by a couple of things said in the reviews and with Ricks’ interview with Danger Room.
The gist of the book, I gather, is that we have quite a few more bad generals than we ought to because not enough of the demonstrative failures among them get the sack. I am pretty sympathetic to that argument, myself; but Scales in the review above gives a sharp and smart rejoinder to it. Judge for yourself. I was drawn, however, to this line from the interview:
Our generals today are not particularly well-educated in strategy. Exhibit A is Tommy Franks, who thought it was a good idea to push Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda from Afghanistan into Pakistan, a larger country that also possesses nuclear weapons. Franks also thought that he had won when he took the enemy’s capital in Afghanistan and Iraq — when in fact that is when the wars really began.
When generals don’t know what to do strategically, they tend to regress back down to what they know, which is tactical. That’s one reason why in Vietnam you saw colonels and generals hovering over company commanders giving orders. It is also why our generals were so slow to adapt in Iraq. By the time they became operationally effective, it was 2007, and we had been fighting in Iraq for nearly four years, longer than we had during all of World War II.
Maybe it’s just a personality quirk of mine but the more people criticise Franks the more I want to defend him. Now let’s not take this too far, but the commander of CENTCOM’s job is to implement policy with the means at his disposal, right? And American policy was, still is, in effect: prevent another 9/11 occurring by chasing Osama bin Laden to the ends of the earth, smashing up his organisation and demoralising his followers and potential followers, and pulverising anyone mad or bad enough to get in the way. Bad policy, maybe; but what’s the general to do? He’s the clunking fist not the executive agent who decides whose face gets hammered by it. Danger Room gets this, as it would seem does Ricks, from the tone of this Q and A:
DR: Isn’t it too simplistic to blame bad generalship for lost wars and good generalship for successful ones? Tommy Franks may have been “dull and arrogant,” as you write, but he didn’t decide to invade Iraq; David Petraeus may have been his polar opposite, but Afghanistan is in shambles.
TR: Yes, it would be too simplistic. That’s why the major second theme of the book is the need for good discourse between our top generals and their civilian overseers.