One issue that has received little attention in this year’s presidential race is the war in Afghanistan. But according to Thomas E. Ricks, we should be paying attention — specifically to those in charge of the military there, because they can make the difference between long, expensive wars and decisive victories. That’s the lesson Ricks explores in his latest book, The Generals.
The book starts with George Marshall — a leader perhaps best known for his diplomatic role after World War II, but whose management style during the war was notable in part for his willingness to fire people. “In World War II, it was quite common to fire generals,” Ricks tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep.
Ricks says he was shocked to discover that Terry Allen, the general in charge of the 1st Infantry Division during the Sicily campaign, had been fired despite his success in the field.
“My jaw dropped,” Ricks says. “I had just come out of Iraq, where we are losing a war, where nobody gets fired, where combat ineffectiveness is just not relevant in judging a general. How could the U.S. military have changed so much?”
It all goes back to Marshall. Ricks calls him decent man, a good and even great man — but not a nice man. Ricks describes a scene a week after Pearl Harbor, when Marshall asks the young Dwight Eisenhower, then a brigadier general, how he’d fight the war in the Pacific. Eisenhower takes a few hours to write a memo laying out his strategy, and “when he gives the answer, hands the memo, that afternoon, to Marshall, Marshall looks at him, and Eisenhower wrote later, ‘The eyes were the coldest I think I’d ever seen.’ “
But while he may have been cold, Marshall knew Eisenhower was up to the task. “It’s striking that Marshall devotes so much time to finding the right man for the right job,” Ricks says. The legendary Gen. George Patton was senior to Eisenhower and seemed the natural choice to command Allied forces in Europe. “But Marshall knew George Patton well, and knew he was not the right man for that job … eventually he picks Eisenhower.”
Marshall was ruthless in pursuit of the right officers — he got rid of men left and right until he found the ones he wanted for the job. And that wasn’t so unusual; after Pearl Harbor, the commanding officers in Hawaii were drummed out of the service. But, Ricks writes, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, no one was fired, or even took responsibility for the attacks and subsequent setbacks.
“That is the puzzle to me of the book,” Ricks says. “I think several things changed. First, our wars changed. World War II was an understood war; people knew why we were fighting, and they were, as a nation, people were behind the war.” Subsequent wars were far murkier, with less well-defined opponents — guerrilla forces and peasant armies — and success was difficult to define. “What does success mean,” Ricks asks, “when you’re trying to get out of Iraq, when you’re trying to get out of Afghanistan?”
But things may be changing again. “When push came to shove, at the end of 2006, George Bush realized that simply listening to his generals was not working for him in Iraq, that we were really losing that war,” Ricks says. At the end of that year, Bush turned to a group of retired generals and civilian experts, and asked their advice. “And they said: You need to think about your generals differently. It can’t just be, ‘He’s a great American.’ You need to ask yourself, ‘Is this guy effective in his strategy?’ “
At that point, Ricks says, Bush appointed Gen. David Petraeus to lead American forces in Iraq. “And he takes a radically different approach. It’s not just the surge of troops — the most important thing was a different attitude, which is, let’s start asking questions of the Iraqis. How can we do better? … Petraeus shows some real independence of thought … he is an adaptive general.”
But we’re not going back to a Marshall-style approach anytime soon, Ricks says, partly because civilians, including our civilian leadership, are too unfamiliar with the way the military operates. “I think until we hold our generals accountable for being effective, that we won’t see much change in the way our military is led; we won’t see that kind of adaptiveness that I think we need in our leaders.”