Friday, February 22, 2013

Ricks' Three (or Four) Books on Military Leadership

I've now finished the other half of Thomas Ricks The General: American Military Command from World War II to Today, and I have a bit of the yim yams.  It's still a valuable and instructive product but it's an almost entirely different book from the first half. No: it's more like three books, huddled uneasily under an attempt at a single overarching framework.

Remember the takeaway from the first half: George Marshall fired generals.  Great guy, George Marshall.  This is a story line that dominates the early chapters of Ricks' book, and one I find largely persuasive, if somewhat overdone and perhaps undercontexualized.

As if to provide a unifying theme for the whole, he keeps returning to the second half (was I wrong to sniff the pheremones of his agent here, who tells him he needs a single dominating soundbite?).  Anyway--the point is still relevant and plausible but increasingly it tends to obscure rather than to clarify three  (possibly four) other topic of greater saliency.  One might be tagged "bureaucracy" or "careerism," where we encounter more and more men who take the army as a job, not a calling--folks who are masters of get-along go-along, and of kiss-up, if not necessarily kick down.  Two is a glaring and calamitous deficiency in military doctrine--its failure to teach its officers anything about the political context and its blood cousin grand strategy.  This is the deficiency that gave us generals like Norman Schwartzkopf and Tommy Franks who might have been superb at running a platoon or even a battalion, possibly a division--but who had no conception how to think about the larger framework in which they were enjoined to operate.  Three would be what you might call "the civil-military conversation"--the way generals and presidents come to understand each other, their intentions and capacities.   It's the subject of at least one superb book in its own right=-Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, which Ricks cites with warm approval.

Laced into the middle of these is one spectacular and I think little-known narrative--the account of the rehabilitation of the Army after Vietnam in the hands of the (largely unknown, I suspect) General William E.DePuy.  DePuy is responsible for the two most important changes in the Army after Vietnam, one indispensible and one disastrous. "Indispensable" was the rehabilitation of th Army as a functioning instution--weeding out the thugs and the incompetents, initiating an effective program of training and generally restoring the Army's self-respect.  "Disastrous" was the Army's commitment to fight, as it were, the last war--to build its battle model around the idea of a ground war in Poland.  It's a fascinating story, heartening and horrifying all at once, and has a lot (though this is complicated) to do with the army we have today.

That's a lot for one book, or even for two or three, though I doubt Ricks could have found as broad an audience for two or three.  As it stands, Ricks doesn't always control his material, and he too often leaves you (perhaps ironically) aching for more probing on particular points.    Still for all such deficiencies, it's one of the best books on the (rather short) list of books that I've actually read about modern warfare.

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