The Generals: Book summary and reviews of The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals

American Military Command from World War II to Today

By Thomas E. Ricks

The Generals
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2012,
    576 pages.

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Book Summary

History has been kind to the American generals of World War II - Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley - and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed. In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is. In part it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability. During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough. Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq War, "As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

In The Generals we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers. Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine General O. P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught into Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

But Korea also showed the first signs of an army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring. In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse until, finally, American military leadership bottomed out. The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, is the emblematic event of this dark chapter of our history. In the wake of Vietnam a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success. It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up. But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered from familiar problems, resulting in tactically savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly from the first Iraq War of 1990 through to the present.

Ricks has made a close study of America's military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning: about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Ricks's preoccupation is America's difficulty coping with guerilla wars from Vietnam to Iraq, and the flip side of his critique of bad leadership is a belief that good officers with innovative, politically adroit counter-insurgency tactics might have won those conflicts. His faith in the ability of great generalship to redeem any misadventure can sometimes seem naÃóve. Still, Ricks presents an incisive, hard-hitting corrective to unthinking veneration of American military prowess." - Publishers Weekly

"Here [Ricks} steps back to assess the decline in sound military leadership since World War II. Sobering." - Library Journal

"Informed readers, especially military buffs, will appreciate this provocative, blistering critique of a system where accountability appears to have gone missing - like the author's 2006 bestseller, Fiasco, this book is bound to cause heartburn in the Pentagon." - Kirkus

"Thomas E. Ricks has written a definitive and comprehensive story of American generalship from the battlefields of World War II to the recent war in Iraq. The Generals candidly reveals their triumphs and failures, and offers a prognosis of what can be done to ensure success by our future leaders in the volatile world of the twenty-first century." - Carlo D'Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War

"The Generals rips up the definition of professionalism in which the US Army has clothed itself. Tom Ricks shows that it has lost the habit of sacking those who cannot meet the challenge of war, leaving it to Presidents to do so. His devastating analysis explains much that is wrong in US civil-military relations. America's allies, who have looked to emulate too slavishly the world's pre-eminent military power, should also take heed." - Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford

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Author Information

Thomas E. Ricks Author Biography

Thomas E. Ricks was The Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams for national reporting, he has reported on U.S. military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Gamble, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and A Soldier's Duty.

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