Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ricks on the Generals

Having spent four months as a cook at Fort Leonard Wood Mo in 1958, I feel comfortable pronouncing  on military matters (better qualified than most members of Congress, wouldn't you say?).  So I'm happy to declare Tom Ricks' Generals to be a fascinating read--imperfect, but full of good stuff which I, despite my vast experience, did not know.  

If you've read any of the reviews, you know the takeaway point: Marshall fired generals.  Eisenhower fired generals.  Ridgeway fired a few generals (in Korea, remember Korea?).  But after aside, since World War II, nobody fired generals, except in a few notorious cases where the President fired the Man at the Top.   The army became, in oversimplification, a careerist's army, on the order of the corporate megalopolis.  As in, how to succeed at extermination without really trying.

Related point: looking back from a later generation, it's possible to see more clearly what an awful cockup we made in Viet Nam: how completely we misunderstood the war and  how (consequently) we came so completely to mishandle it (Ricks' account of the My Lai massacre is harrowing--not news but worth retelling).

All this is worth the price  of admission.  But there are some disappointments.  Most important, Ricks doesn't seem to have much to offer on how it was the Army changed its command pattern so completely and so fast.  He does make the point that the Marshall/Eisenhower scheme worked fine in a big and popular war that we seemed to be winning; less so in smaller less popular wars where mischievous home front Congresscritters were always happy to find an excuse for interfering.  And he's got some wonderful side points about the different command structure of the Marines, always operating in, around, but never of, the Army.

You will surmise that I haven't finished the book yet; haven't got to the Bush wars where, from the standpoint of an outsider, the Army seems to have realized that there are things it hasn't done right and on which it must (or maybe not) change.  I suppose I'll have more to offer when I get there but for the moment, a vagrant thought: I've already remarked (tracking Ricks) on how much the 50s/60s Army reminds the reader of the 50s/60s corporation, where the trick was to keep your tie nicely knotted and your nose clean.  Of course that kind of corporate life has more or less vanished now.  Will it be possible once again to map changes in the modern Army onto changes in the much-transmogrified private sector?  If it is, you know  you'll read it here.

Oh, and One More Thing:  Can anyone recommend a comparable book on the leadership of the Vatican?    Management Lessons from Benedict XVI; now there's a page-turner.

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