Are American Generals Incompetent?

With a sense of certainty and selective outrage, Thomas Ricks casts his judgement on the quality of American ground combat leaders from World War II to the present in his latest book.  I found this book to be interesting, but a tad superficial, although to be fair, Mr. Ricks bites off a subject that you could write multiple volumes on and tries to present his arguments in a series of short, biting chapters that don't always connect well.

SO, first of all--as history, this book is okay, but not outstanding.  Mr. Ricks' basic thesis, that the US Army of World War II, where George C Marshall and his primary subordinates could readily relive any officer they felt unfit to lead troops in combat quickly disintegrated in the post-World War II era where almost NO officers were relieved for combat ineffectiveness is well developed and hard to argue with, at least on the surface.

He makes a very compelling case that the Army, composed exclusively of draftees until the end of Vietnam became overly bureaucratic and insular through both Korea and Vietnam, culminating in the My Lai massacre of 1968, where multiple officers in an Army division conspired to cover up war crimes.

He also makes some interesting points that in the process of rebuilding that post-Vietnam Army, officers became excellent tacticians, but poor strategists also resonated with me.  It was clear that the planning for "the day after" in Afghanistan and Iraq was both strategically and operationally poor and clearly not well thought-out and a good deal of that responsibility must be laid at the feet of the generals that commanded those operations.

I don't have any arguments with most of his recommendations for how to "fix" Army leadership either, although his moral certainty is diminished somewhat by the fact that he has never worn muddy boots or been shot at.

However, there are what I consider some significant cherry picking of his little case studies.  Although combat is certainly the acid test of a general, Mr. Ricks devotes nothing to American operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Somalia, operations that clearly had overtones of the "politicization" of American generals and their advice to and guidance from their civilian masters. 

Also, I think Mr. Ricks, who CLEARLY was no fan of the Iraq War, also glossed rapidly through this war...quickly condemning Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, while minimizing the effects of officers like David Petraus and H.R. McMaster.  More importantly, I don't think Mr. Ricks gives nearly enough credit to the retired generals, like Jack Keane, who convinced President Bush to reverse the course of the Iraq War and initiate the surge.

MOREOVER, I think Mr. Ricks also neglects to develop and tell the story of the relationship of President "retreat from Iraq" Obama and his generals and it would have been interesting to have some record of the debate in 2011 over the debacle that was the retreat from Iraq. 

Finally, Mr. Ricks seems to poo-poo the effects of "risk adversity" among generals and military officers in particular, but leaves off the corrosive effects of the last 30 years of social engineering fostered on the military by liberal progressives, where an officer's ability to integrate women and gays into his unit is probably more important to his promotion prospects than his combat record.  Armies reflect the societies they fight for and the general dumbing down and feminization of American society cannot help but be reflected in America's military, unfortunately.

SO, all in all, this book was okay, but not outstanding, in my humble opinion.  Mr. Ricks has made his mark in the defense reporting industry as a grouchy outsider, but he still has a long way to go to measure up to my favorite grouchy guy, Ralph Peters.