Small Wars Journal

The Generals... Readable but Flawed?

Fri, 11/30/2012 - 5:19pm

Gian Gentile provides an intelligent dissection of Tom Ricks' The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today at the New York Journal of Booksdeeming it "highly readable but flawed."

Tom Ricks’s new book The Generals regresses from Keegan and takes us back to a less complicated form of military storytelling in which wars’ outcomes were determined solely by the performance of army commanders.

The main argument to the book is simple: Relieve American army generals in war for poor performance and victory will be more attainable.

Read it here.



Sat, 12/22/2012 - 10:04am

I was a door gunner, the intellectual writings are interesting, strikes me as a little overthoght. It is really quite simple no matter the geography of the conflict/war, who has the most patriots who are willing to die for their cause/country? RVN ? not enough, Mid east ? please. The other most telling issue is coruption, please apply the above for the same result, works every time.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 12/02/2012 - 1:43pm

In reply to by CBCalif

CBCalif---got the statistics from a German source---but the following taken from your link is just as interesting.

"Peak unit proficiency simply could not be maintained with these losses. Over the course of the war this drain on leadership averaged a corps , commander killed every three months and -a division commander killed -in -action every -three -weeks! Although World War II was a very lethal war, could this problem have been minimized? An examination of German doctrine, general officer training, battlefield experience, and command rotation suggest it could have been."

Currently the Army is attempting something similar with mission command---what is interesting is that yes while their "auftragstaktik" worked at the tactical and operational levels--where it went badly wrong is at the strategical planning level for a lot of reasons not tied to "auftragstaktik" ie Hilter who as an Austian WW1 veteran had not been trained on "auftragstaktik".

The German Army of today still instills via doctrine "auftragstaktik" in their officers, General Staff officers and especially their NCOs---so even with a major defeat they seem to think there is something to it.

Nice comment by the way.


Sun, 12/02/2012 - 12:32pm

In reply to by CBCalif

CBCalif - Actually, Napoleon was quite aware of Russia’s strategic depth, and concerned that he conclude his campaign before winter set-in.

However, “War and Peace” ends in 1812, and Tsar Alexander I never intended to fight a short war and prepared both politically and militarily for such.

One wonders what our generals starting with Franks prepared for upon invading Iraq, having surely been aware of what a previous Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had said when asked why during the Second Gulf War, we didn’t keep going onto Baghdad?

History’s judgment on this matter is still out: I can recall in my younger years that to question Gen. Robert E. Lee was looked upon a heresy, where as his later adversarial counter-part Gen. U.S. Grant was fair game, the latter recently having been recognized as a fine evolving field commander.

I saw no previous commander of forces in Iraq evolving prior to Petraues taking the helm . . . Perhaps Petraeus's sin was not sharing the credit with chance, luck, and a mentor that had his commander-in-chief's ear?

We in uniform find criticism from those that have never worn a uniform themselves a bitter pill to swallow perhaps? Were a draft still in place, the MOA (Mom's of America) might collectively want some answers from those who plan and implement strategy and allow our military to be used for purposes alien to it's nature by not educating those that form policy often by irrational politics.


Sun, 12/02/2012 - 4:23am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Out of curiosity, did you obtain the data on German General casualties from the website at and / or… ? Some interesting information in the referenced study and in the tables, although (probably understandably) the numbers in the various tables don't always seem to match. I do have to read them with more attention to detail, however, to be sure my comment is correct.

A large number of those German General WWII casualties appear to have resulted from air attacks, artillery, and minefields on the Russian Front. The German Generals may have had a reputation for operational excellence, but they far overrated themselves and their capabilities and disastrously underrated the Russians when they elected to invade the Soviet Union and paid the price. I might add that one of my (long deceased) Great-Uncles was their equivalent of a Brigadier General in the Soviet Army. Don't know the term in Russian as my family always used the Hebrew / Yiddish word for his rank.

Also, one might question the German military's (their generals) understanding of the need for having and sustaining adequate logistical support inside Russia. They appear to have arrogantly believed they could rapidly overrun the Soviets and wouldn't need to worry about the level of logistical support they found themselves needing and did not have available. Given the destructive effect on Napoleon's Army resulting from his Army's failure to insure proper logistical support was available on the way in and out of Russia in the same area the German's planned to fight (and conquer) during the initial phase of the invasion one would think they would have been far more conservative when preparing for contingencies if all did not go as planned -- which it never does.

Also, while it is in all likelihood strictly a correlative relationship, along with observing the high number of German Generals killed ostensibly from leading from the front, we might remember they lost the war. It would be interesting to know whether that level of loss among experienced German Generals led to a decline in unit performance as they were replaced probably (?) by less experienced division and other level commanders. What is the cost of loosing so many high ranking officers? Some military historians, for instance, believed it had a devastating impact on the performance of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and was a key factor in bringing about their ultimate defeat.

Just intellectual food for thought. This former Navy Officer is not entering into the ongoing debate over Army command and leadership style in the indicated conflicts resulting from Rick's book as I would be totally out of my element in that conversation.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 12/02/2012 - 3:14am

It is easy to critique a book regardless of the author---would enjoy seeing Gian's response since he is on active duty on the lack of trust/staff team building fostered by BC/RC Commanders down to BN levels as well, the level of micromanagment demonstrated by the goup of middle management ie 06s through to two stars and their push back to the doctrine of mission command---mission command through from the art of command side not the science of control side ie C2.

Think what Ricks is alluding to is the "art" of command not the "science" side.

Would and could have General P been a great combat leader even while having an affair--most of our great combat generals had "issues". a recent article indicated that those recruited into the general force with "issues" turned out to be great combat veterans-while having garrison problems---similar to what rick's is saying although not at the general level.

Where were the current 1,2,3 stars in Iraq and or Afghanistan---leading from the front or the rear? In the German version of mission command "auftragstaktik" German generals lead from the front losing over 200.


Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 12/03/2012 - 1:26pm

In reply to by major.rod

My take on Ricks is that a broken clock is right twice a day. War correspondents for major mainstream media outlets tend to be iconoclastic - and that can be a good thing. I remember cutting my teeth on Ward Just's "Military Men" But Ricks is another thing altogether. For one thing, he has undermined the institution he reports on more subtly, with less real news or information, than his peers. What he really represents is the values of academia and the inside-the-beltway chattering class. One gets the sense that none of it is real to him. So he keeps score in the most superficial and venal manner possible. So, yeah, wait til this dog is available used.


Mon, 12/03/2012 - 2:35pm

In reply to by CBCalif

CB - Your specific examples about politicians being responsible for how strategy is formed (or forming it themselves) is a big ding I have against Ricks. As I've said a couple of times on his blog, great research, atrocious conclusions.

He also wishes away the second and third order effects of a liberal relieving policy.

As for reviews of his work it depends where you go and realize that the typical book sources like the media have a strong liberal bent. If you look at his previous book "Fiasco" (a NYT bestseller) you see much of the same mistakes when it comes to analysis.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 12/02/2012 - 1:52pm

In reply to by CBCalif

CBCalif---the mission successes and failures of MACV Studies and Observation Group (MACV SOG) need to be released before we all die and disappear---too many of us paid the ultimate price and not many American citzens knew what we achieved.

Yes we are anchored in the history of SF just as is Det A Berlin Brigade--which also needs to be released.

Also had attention been paid to the SF CIDG program successes (now the VSO program in AFG) we might have been further along in AFG.

Thanks for the last comment----


Sun, 12/02/2012 - 5:37am

In reply to by major.rod

Major Rod: You raise a very interesting point, at least for me, about the research that underlays books on military history prepared by those lacking actual experience. I haven't read Rick's recent book, but out of curiosity did read the reviews on Amazon and some other sources. Given that they were all (or almost all) supportive of Rick's views I would believe (maybe mistakenly) they accurately presented his viewpoints and conclusions.

What caught my attention, given my personal history, was a review praising Ricks for criticizing US Generals in Vietnam for managing the war and not leading strategically -- or words to that effect.

Ignoring the opportunity for sarcasm over the use of such vague terms in the manner they were employed, as I have noted more than once, as a young Navy Junior Officer in a staff administrative position on an Aircraft Carrier I had the opportunity to see / read first hand the operating restrictions placed by LBJ and McNamara on the conduct of the air war against North Vietnam and to see the detailed Op Orders concerning raids against targets they generally selected.

What was left for the Navy (and USAF) command to do but "manage" that effort. LBJ did not leave any room for strategic leadership on the part of his military brass. That information is available.

The USAF and the USN senior staff totally disagreed with the LBJ / McNamara approach to the air war against the North and comments about those disagreements can be found at least in the annual operations reports the USAF prepared for 1964 and 1965. It requires some detailed reading. Those reports were upon dissemination immediately classified Top Secret, but they have been declassified and are available on the web via one of the USAF schools. I have copies of them.

Add to that the fact that LBJ inquired of the JCS as to their opinion in 1964 not sure of the year anymore) as to their view of US military intervention in South Vietnam. The JCS unanimously opposed committing large scale conventional forces into that country and noted that if an air campaign was to be employed it should be massive in scope or would not succeed. The report, whose designation I have somewhere, was obviously rejected and no one I know has a copy of it. However, it is referenced in the above mentioned Air Force annual Operational Reports and probably elsewhere.

Add to that the fact that the Army generals in South Vietnam were operationally restricted by dictates from LBJ, for instance they were not allowed to send conventional forces into North Vietnam. So what was left to do but manage the war in the South?

And, all this begs the question, if the armchair writers don't like what occurred, what would they have done? What would have been their military strategy that LBJ and McNamara would have approved?

As an aside, I noted that MACV was not allowed to send "conventional" forces into the North for a reason. While deployed for a second time to West Pac during early 1968, for a non-Vietnam planning purpose, in another Staff position I had access to and was using then current Intelligence Digests. Included among the papers was a report and assessment concerning on the traffic coming down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail. It caught my interest so I read it. The data on the traffic passing a certain point was incredibly detailed specifying the number of men, elephants, mules, trucks and what they appeared to be carrying. While the report never identified the source of this information, I remember thinking to myself to know this level of detail someone is watching that point in the Trail and communicating this information back. Curiosity being what it is I went and checked other earlier Intelligence Digests and there was the same level of detail. I showed it to my boss, the Staff Ops Officer, and he came to the same conclusion. We were both surprised. From what we were later told, apparently Army SF teams were operating along the Trail, but just for observation purposes. Now that is courage -- a mission type in which I would never want to take part. To my knowledge their names were never made public. Quiet heroism.


Sat, 12/01/2012 - 8:40pm

Knowing Rick's penchant for doing great research and then coming to the wrong conclusions in his previous books I'm going to wait for a used paperback of "The Generals".

Gentile's review says as much.


Tue, 12/04/2012 - 1:04pm

In reply to by 50Bravo

50Bravo: Interesting thoughts, but given the combined facts that the Army consisted (I presume) heavily of draftees and the disruptive political situation in the US as the anti-war movement continued to grow towards the latter part of the war (the earlier 1970's) there was almost zero possibility that the Congress of that day would have provided the funding for maintaining the ground forces needed to prevent an NVA ground invasion. Or at least that is how I remember the political atmosphere of the late 1960's / early 1970's.

Presuming that to be true, the changes in US strategy would have to have been made on the other side of the time spectrum, beginning in late 1965 or ear;ly 1966 when (if I recall) large conventional ground force units began to be deployed into South Vietnam. A once Navy Officer (at that time and after) my knowledge of ground warfare certainly lacks depth. My understanding or impression of Westmoreland's and Abrams' comparative strategies comes primarily from books such as that by General Davidson (if I recall his name correctly) and that by Sorely. My comments about the defeat of the South Vietnam at the end comes from conversations with former ARVN Officers whom I know well including a lengthy paper on the subject one wrote, but never published.

More importantly, were the US Army to have employed a different military strategy in South Vietnam, given the political situation that was to later occur in the US, that would have to had occurred in the earlier period around 1966 when troops began entering South Vietnam in large numbers. Given the seemed combined need (at least as appeared to us at sea) to both stop the flow of NVA men and materials into the South and simultaneously for lack of a better term on my part) pacify the country, and remembering that LBJ and McNamara were dictating much about how that war was going to be conducted (can't change that fact), how should Westmoreland have employed his forces in that war? Maybe not a fair question, but just my curiosity as I have no preference or prejudice one way or the other when it comes to ground warfare, again knowing very little about it.

The only detailed discussion about pacification activities in South Vietnam that I ever "listened" to was (while visiting home on leave) a conversation between my father (then retired after 30 years as a Navy E-9 and subsequently employed by the Army and a number of Army Warrant Officers attending a helicopter maintenance training program at Fort Eustis (if I remember correctly). Mostly old timers winding down their careers drinking beer at a barbecue at my parents home. Two of them (former Infantry) somewhat younger than the rest who had went inbto Army Aviation had been liaison with the ROK's in Vietnam. They described how the Koreans pacified their area. Interesting stories. Sounded as though the ROK's were very successful at driving out the NVA/VC, but their success relied on their understanding of Asian culture and a level of brutality I am not sure Americans could employ. It is not for me to judge their methods, but according to the two Warrants, it produced success.


Mon, 12/03/2012 - 10:36pm

In reply to by CBCalif

CBCalif: I appreciate your insight.
My experiences were that none of the hamlet dwellers and militia types liked the GVN or the VC. They hated (and feared) the NVA.

My humble opinion is that the war was "winnable". Had we had the time to allow the locals to build up their ability to kill the VC and VCI, the VC mainforce and NVA would have had a very difficult time taking over the country. The key to such an outcome would have been: 1. keeping a large enough US force on hand to prevent the conventional invasion that took place, and 2. helping the locals develop the ability to control the VC and the VCI and fight off the NVA when they finally came. It is easy to talk about the incompetence of the ARVN. Many times the support we promised while edging towards the door was not delivered... but that;s another story.

I think this was very do-able. The locals with whom I worked were willing and able to fight. They needed decent equipment and someone to keep the VC and NVA off their backs and out of their hamlets. There would have been interesting times when the GVN attempted to act the way they had been with an armed and trained populace but that's another story (and their problem). My point is that, from my perspective, failure was not inevitable but was made likely by the choices made early in the conflict by conventional generals and their superiors when they were in an unconventional war and by the political decisions made to terminate the support we promised them.

50Bravo: In my humble opinion and from my aging observations LBJ’s large scale crusade to save South Vietnam was doomed to fail from the start regardless of the military strategy applied against the VC / NVA in country Vietnam. Both Kennedy and Johnson opted to intervene in a de facto civil war between the forces led by two opposing dictators – originally Diem versus Ho Chi Minh. The latter and Giap were far more popular with the Vietnamese on both sides for having driven out the French – as I heard quite a few ARVN and VNAF officers note while they were simultaneously deriding the incompetence and criminality of their own leaders, other than Ky who they all seemed to like, doing so after a few drinks in the NAS Pensacola O Club in the early Summer of 1965.

A combination of generally (but not all) incompetent ARVN generals and LBJ / McNamara’s restrictions on operations doomed their goal of establishing an independent South Vietnam in the face of continued movement of NVA forces and supplies into the South.

Westmoreland, who was prohibited from sending forces into the North, attempted to win by killing as many NVA as possible, but given Giap’s strategy that we would run out of patience for that war before he ran out of men the result was obvious. Abrams military strategy of pacification only succeeded as long the force size was a combined 500,000 or so US and maybe the same number of ARVN – a one million man ground force effort, with numerous thousands more US Navy and Air Force personnel providing available massive explosive power from aircraft and ships that could / would prevent the NVA being able to successfully invade the South while US and ARVN forces were dispersed over the countryside and not concentrated to combat an invading conventional force. As Lt. Col. Harry Summers pointed out, once the US withdrew its 500,000 man ground force contribution to the pacification effort and no longer was willing to provide protective air power for the South, Giap’s NVA conventional style invasion of the South mopped up the dispersed and obviously never concentrated ARVN while many of their leaders gathered up their money and jewels and fled the country. The mid range ARVN officers who ended up in the country that I know blame their generals for being completely incompetent in the face of the last NVA invasion.

Abrams large scale pacification effort may have provided a temporary vision of tactical success to pacification proponents, but given the US policy of withdrawing our forces from South Vietnam, its resulting dispersing of ARVN units across that country ensured their strategic defeat.

As noted by Bill M, in paraphrased form, despite measure taken to improve tactical performance, an overall flawed strategy, regardless of how expertly executed [will] still fail.

Presuming one believes there was value in achieving a temporary uncontested independence for the South Vietnamese in that war, the only military strategy to have achieved it would have been a truly unrestricted bombing and shelling campaign against the North accompanied by multi US divisions employed in large scale Sherman style raids with massive air support across that nation. That level of destruction would have motivated Ho Chi Minh to have agreed to end their campaign against the South, but they would have just waited until US forces left and then invaded the South and won.

Mr. Ricks thesis, I think, has merit but is not extended far enough down the food chain.

A combat commander has a responsibility to the men he commands. That is to weed out ineffective officers who either can't get the job done or waste their men in trying to get it done. Both are inexcusable. In Vietnam a platoon leader or Company commander wasteful of his men was usually OIC of popcorn and movies in short order. Not always but it did happen. In my opinion the problem is that such Darwinian logic is too infrequently applied to the careerists and their men can SEE that failure. This sort of failure goes to the heart of your credibility as a leader... not just your career.

Certainly NOT relieving senior officer who don't perform leads to ineffective officers replicating themselves since they are the ones who decide who gets promoted below themselves.

As in ANY large organization the most important job of the senior ranks is culling the turkeys. Always has been and always will be.

Finally, about the Vietnam/Westmoreland/Abrams thing that always seems to show up in Col. Gentiles writing:
I was there, and did the job.
I have not read all the reports and staff papers that Col. Gentile has probably read.
But the fact is that the old farts who were there, both as line unit officers and as MACV like me, are generally of the opinion that we were losing when Westy was in charge, we were wining when Abrams was and that, had Abrams BEEN in charge from the opening dance, the outcome would have been very different. Staff reports in that era, just as today tend to be more about putting derrieres in defilade than about any other issue.

Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 12/03/2012 - 1:30pm

In reply to by major.rod

One might ask, hypothetically. What if Nixon had indeed fired Abrams ? What would that have done to the Army as it tried to put itself together in the seventies ? I do think that as we sift through the rubble of Aghanistan and Iraq, a bit of revisionism on Vietnam may be in order. What, in fact, did General Abrams do, and when did he do it ?


Sat, 12/01/2012 - 8:30pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Outlaw, agree with Bill. I'm all for firing incompetents wherever they lie. God knows we have too many generals :).

The problem with a liberal firing policy is that it minimizes risk taking. Generals will micromanage. They will also pressure subordinates to "deliver" at all costs. Those could be casualties or integrity. Ricks doesn't grasp this as I've mentioned it in his blog on The 2nd and 3rd order effects is this stuff makes itway down into the ranks not like it's bad enough already.

Bill M.

Sat, 12/01/2012 - 1:19pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09,

I don't disagree with you that relieving a few incompetent generals would have resulted in more effective tactical operations, but I think a case can be made that the overall strategy was still flawed and regardless of how expertly executed may have still failed. Of course none of us will never know the answer to this, so it will remain a topic of debate forever.

I think your logic may be flawed if you believe relieving a few generals will result in "less" micromanagement. The bureaucratic careerists would more than ever fear their careers are at risk and be compelled to micromanage more to ensure no events happen on "their watch." I'm only refering to the inept and amoral officers which I think and hope are a minority.

Using Abu Ghrab as an example doens't make your point, because that was a failure of leadership to supervise in that case. Obviously there is a balance between enabling with mission command, and enforcing standards. Mission command, as you know, doesn't mean forfeiting command.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 12/01/2012 - 11:45am

"But his simplistic solution is also quite dangerous if the policymakers and others who read it come to believe it is true. America at war with Syria, Iran, Yemen, sure—just relieve a few generals, get the right ones in place, and victory will be assured.'

If a number of generals had been relieved from 2005 through 2011 we might in fact be further down the road of mission command being accepted especially in the true "art of command" area---would have taken the relieving though to the level of 06s to be more effective.

The levels of micromanagement, lack of Staff dialogue and the lack or trust/moral courage might have improved in the same timeframe if the same standards we set in placing E4s thru E6s in jail (Abu Ghraib to Afghanistan)had been in place for the upper management.