When I was younger, I was obsessed with the military. Wars, both fantastical and real, captured my imagination and, like many boys my age, I played endlessly with those iconic plastic army men. With their little hardened pools of green at their feet, I stood them up against each other and played at war in my head. Why did I do this? I think it was for the same reason that our society, and humans in general, have always been so attracted to war and stories of it. When everyday life can be a struggle against amorphous and everchanging frustrations, war seems to offer a clear enemy that can be defeated. War lets you play out the simple concept of good versus evil. War lets you be the hero.
I think this is a big part of why World War II and the American role in it is so sacred in education and in how we view ourselves as a country. The Nazi regime was just so ugly that, even though Americans also perpetrated atrocities (you don’t hear so much about those), we’re able to hold ourselves as the moral exemplars who swept in to save the world. Films and shows depicting the sacrifice of our brave soldiers are unending. Those who fought in it are “the greatest generation.” And we continue to idealize the time period as one where patriotism was easy and courage in abundance.
How Does Our Country Wage War?
Now, I’m not trying to say that all that I mention above is undeserved, but I bring it up to point out how much we define ourselves as a nation through war and how we wage it. The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today tackles this from the perspective of our highest ranked military leaders. How did the generals of World War II wage war, and how does that differ from today? Thomas E. Ricks pushes to explain this by having almost every chapter devoted to a new general. This kept me constantly engaged and interested, as I got to learn about a new personality and approach to leadership with every new chapter.
Ricks’ main argument here is that we don’t fire generals as much as we used to. He points out that, during World War II, a huge part of why we were successful was because we were willing to shift leaders around when they weren’t doing well. Getting “fired” did not mean you’d be discharged dishonorably. 99% of the time you would simply be moved to another unit or position, given another chance to prove yourself in action and work your way back up. This state of affairs made it so that generals could experiment more freely with less fear. You wanted to do your best for your troops and for your country, and you intrinsically knew that making a mistake would not be a career-ending move.
Similarly, having a sharp individualistic streak during World War II was permitted, tolerated, and oftentimes even encouraged. George Patton is the clearest example of this: a general who is famed for his fierce personality, controversial public statements, and drive for endless offensive maneuvers. Ricks notes that Eisenhower was wise to let Patton and other individualist commanders have free reign to do what they were best at in their respective theaters of war. It was interesting to see how, the moment the war came to a close, Eisenhower immediately removed Patton from command. Sadly, this was indicative of things to come. No war since has allowed generals to feel as free to try new things on their own or to be as fearless when it comes to innovation on the battlefield.
The Army Stagnates
Ricks calls attention to what happened to Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War as a prominent reason as to why military leadership changed so sharply post-World War II. MacArthur was a selfish firebrand, a general who believed he’d be president one day. He was a general who failed repeatedly in the Korean War and yet viewed Truman as the naïve idiot who did not know what he was doing. After clashing for years, Truman finally and understandably fired MacArthur. The unexpected result was a new expectation that the military would not manage itself and that generals would only be fired by civilian leaders. Quality in leadership declined substantially as a fear of being permanently removed made generals less willing to try new things.
The military in general (particularly the Army) also proved surprisingly resistant to change in how to wage war. When dealing with Vietnam, there was a stubborn mentality that massive firepower and one or two engagements with the bulk of the enemy’s forces would end the war decisively, just as it did in WWII. This was, needless to say, just not a perspective that could be backed up by facts on the ground. The North Vietnamese fought guerilla style, never stayed around for the artillery strikes, and operated as an insurgency in the south. Nevertheless, search and destroy was the order of the day, so the Army would repeatedly send forces north to go looking for a fight while the North Vietnamese simply avoided them, sneaking around to raid villages the Army had vacated behind them.
The Marines Innovate
One of the more interesting stories I took from The Generals was Ricks noting that the Marines were far more effective at changing their leadership and styles to match the times. While the Army went off on increasingly larger and louder incursions into the Vietnamese jungles, the Marines stayed put and adopted an “oil spill” strategy. They kept their forces in villages, built up support & trust, trained South Vietnamese troops to take their place, and then expanded outward like an “oil spill” to repeat the process in villages further away. The idea is that eventually they would have done this for every population center, permitted America to leave, mission accomplished, with South Vietnam able to effectively defend themselves without American help.
This was an effective counter-insurgency strategy, but one that was ultimately rejected by civilian leadership. The Army would show the administration maps of vast swathes of “conquered territory” and, when the Marines could not do the same with their relatively small collection of secured villages, it was judged that their way was ineffective and a waste of time. They were eventually made subservient to the directives of the Army and the Vietnam War eventually ended in American defeat.
Confusion in Iraq
Ricks holds the Gulf War and the more recent Iraq War to the same standard, pointing out marked differences between the conducts of generals in World II to the ones we had for those conflicts. The Gulf War featured an increasing disconnect between the public and the military that is still felt to this day. The mostly volunteer army was successful then but, given how a mere 1% of America participated or had family that served in both wars, there was an increasing disconnect.
Objectives became problematic as well, with the military doing a fantastic job in the Gulf War, but to what end? War should be about achieving political aims, but the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces and then immediately withdrawing accomplished next to nothing. This was seen during the Iraq War as well, as the Bush administration sought a free-market democracy in Iraq but the military worked only toward providing basic stability wherever they were stationed. The end result was confusion about aims, miscommunication about goals, and a military that, though tactically brilliant enough to let us stay in Iraq, was too strategically ignorant over time to make much out of it.
The Effect of Rotations
All in all, I was skeptical of Ricks’ argument at first, but grew to believe it as being quite accurate the more time I spent with this fascinating book. Being willing to fire officers and generals seems paramount. During the Iraq War, an officer who drowned two Iraqis and attempted to cover it up (Sassaman) was not fired. It might also surprise you to hear that the commander of the awful Abu Ghraib prison was not fired. The perception for both examples was that their rotations were coming to an end soon, so why go through an arduous process to have them removed?
Ricks brings heavy criticism to bear on this issue of relatively short rotations of military personnel. This has caused enormous problems from the Vietnam War onward, with troops & officers simply doing their time and protecting their own instead of making pushes to end whatever conflict they are in. By the time you become a veteran, you are often replaced by someone with far less experience. And, as outlined in the previous paragraph, it has become more common to simply wait out incompetent officers instead of trying to replace them, which is a clearly awful side effect of rotating out our troops.
Ricks’ ideas for reform here are many and seem absolutely required. It has to be okay to fire generals, redirect them to areas where their skills might be more useful, and to keep ideas fresh. Rotations should be extended and troops instead transferred around to more and less dangerous areas to help stave off PTSD and exhaustion. In an ideal world, we need more engagement across the board with our military so wars aren’t being waged only by that 1% of volunteers and simply honored with lip service by the rest.
When changes like these are made, we end up with a more effective military that is linked more closely with civilian interests. That would be a level of unity we haven’t seen since World War II and is one that would make our democracy stronger at home and abroad. As the famed Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” If we must wage war, we need to make sure that our warriors and the ideas of those who represent us politically are more closely aligned. We need to make sure that we are ALL on the same page. Otherwise, why the hell else are we fighting?