Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Generals (Ricks, 2012)

I just finished Tom Ricks' The Generals, a work I've been meaning to review for some time.

Summary: Ricks conducts an analysis is U.S. Army generalship - specifically the selection, management, and retention of general officers - between WW2 and today and what he believes to have been a clear deterioration of the quality of these commanders and a failure of the U.S. Army's command management process over that time.

Contents: The volume is a fairly clear display of Ricks' strengths and weaknesses, but in my opinions his conclusions are less well-drawn, less useful for the civilian reader, and less practical as a plan for military reform.

For a work of nonfiction The Generals is quite readable; Ricks is a good writer of general military history. It contains some brief but well-drawn portraits and summaries of the careers of the general officers from WW2, Korea, Vietnam, and the "War on Terror" periods, including Marshall, Mark Clark, Patton, and Terry Allen from WW2; O.P Smith, MacArthur, and Ridgeway from Korea; Taylor, Westmoreland, and DePuy from Vietnam; and Powell, Schwartzkopf, Franks, Sanchez, and Petraeus from the past two decades. In each section Ricks uses the officers he profiles to illustrate what he considers the characteristics of flag officer policy in each period and the results in terms of combat effectiveness or the lack of same.

To summarize his overall thesis, he begins by positing that GEN Marshall crafted a system of flag officer selection and employment during the opening years of WW2 that was characterized by idiosyncratic promotion and placement of officers in command slots based on a rather personal assessment of their potential for command.

Of necessity this meant that Marshall and his subordinate theater commanders made some mistakes, and so the other essential component of this system was the early and ruthless relief of officers who were, or appeared to be, not competent at that level of command.

But because of the very nature of the appointments these reliefs were not particularly prejudicial (unless the general officer involved was clearly criminally incompetent or personally troubled) and involved at least one second chance for the officer relieved. Ricks takes the time to point out several men who were relieved, reassigned, and subsequently worked their way back up to command positions.

So by the end of WW2 the "Marshall System" consisted of a linked system of appointment-relief-reassignment conducted as a public process. Relief was - at least according to Ricks - not associated with punishment, not hidden from sight, and not considered a failure of either the individual or the system but rather the understanding that command was a privilege and the critical function of command was the efficient use of (and, where possible, preservation of) U.S. soldier lives.

Ricks then documents the transition from this to what he describes as the current system of U.S. GO management in which reliefs are almost impossible, intimately associated with failure both of the system and the relieved officer, and, consequently, problematic in that incompetent commanders are not quickly removed from the system.

This, in Ricks' view, is directly responsible for problems that the U.S. Army encountered in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

The work is well constructed, and arguments made with care, and in general I have no problem with Ricks' historical examples. The body of the work makes a good case for Ricks' thesis that the Marshall System has broken down and has been effectively replaced with a dysfunctional GO management process that promotes and places in command officers with severe military and geopolitical flaws.

However, I believe that The Generals also features a number of Ricks' weaknesses on prominent display as well.

He provides absolutely no context for his thesis; no other general officer systems outside the U.S. Army are detailed. He briefly discusses what he considers the differences between the U.S., British, and German armies of WW2 as organizations without any comparison between their differing methods of handling command assignments - which I assume there were. Such a comparison might be very useful.

He is inordinately impressed with the U.S. Army as an organization (which, while an opinion I share as a former GI, is not one that would seem helpful in the author of a work questioning Army policy). His intense focus on the Army, I think, also tends to minimize the role other institutions and branches of the U.S. Government and branches played in the evolution of the role of Army general officers and weakens his analysis.

As just a single example that occurred to me as I was reading his account of the increasing difficulty and complexity of the civil-military relationship during the Fifties (which he lays primarily at the feet of the "atomic military" and the problems the Army had with its role in the early nuclear age); he never once brings up the creation of the National Security Advisor position that effectively superseded the role GEN Marshall had played in WW2.

Certainly the interposition of a civilian appointee tasked with determining the scope, and even the details, or "national security" must have had some impact on the role of the Joint Chiefs, of the Army chief, and the commanders of Army theater-level organizations. But what that impact was, or whether there was any at all? Ricks has nothing to say on the subject.

Ricks doesn't deeply examine the role of military professionals in the pre-war debates leading to the the run-up to the post-WW2 interventions. He mentions, for example, that there might have been (and are) some teensy weensie problems with getting the citizens of a democratic republic to enthusiastically support a series of complex cabinet wars with difficult-to-articulate (at least if the speakers were being honest) objectives without discussing the effect this might have on the role, or ability, of general officers to influence the approach to or conduct of such wars.

Conclusions: Rick's draws the following conclusions:

1. That the current general officer corps of the U.S. Army has been crafted to be technically and tactically competent but is hopeless at anything more complex, being both too intimately entwined with civilian politics while at the same time poorly trained and educated about strategic and geopolitical issues and the current methods of training, promoting, and retaining generals should be changed.

2. That the civil-military relationship is deeply flawed, with both too much and too little interplay between the elected officials and the generals, and that a change in general officer management will improve this.

3. That the U.S. Army is, as a result, a superb instrument at the tactical-to-operational levels but deeply flawed for anything above that; i.e. that the U.S. Army can win battles but not wars, and that a change in GO management will improve this as well.

Recommendations: So far, so unexceptional. His final chapter containing the recommandations, however, sort of throws up its hands at ways to address this.

First, he recommends a return to the Marshall-style early relief-but-without-prejudice system. He then admits that in the small, insular world of the post-draft U.S. Army that this might not be possible, although he posits some potential moves to make this happen. My assessment would be even less optimistic. Ricks doesn't provide anything remotely like a way to develop a constituency inside or outside the Army that would drive this process. Marshall's revolution occurred at a unique moment in U.S. Army history. A revolution of similar magnitude - and that is what this would be - would need a similar setting.

Some of his other, relatively innocuous suggestions include personnel management changes such as the "360 review" concept (including juniors' as well as seniors' assessments in an officer evaluation report), extending the retirement age for senior officers (which is interesting, given Ricks' extensive documentation of Marshall's removal of an entire generation of senior officers in 1941 and '42 for being too elderly to command in the rapid pace of mechanized war), and revising officer education to produce general officers with the skills to think and plan strategically and improvise tactically in unexpected geopolitical situations. All worthy discussion-starting points in my opinion.

I consider that perhaps his least practical recommendation is his suggestion that unit rotations be halted or severely limited in counterinsurgency situations.

Given that this implies that U.S. soldiers would likely be locked into fighting against foreign rebellions for years the notion is beyond impossible both militarily (the probability of running out of troops is not inconceivable) and politically.

More troubling to me is Ricks practice throughout the work of avoiding questioning the usefulness of, or the role of the general officers in pointing out the likelihood of problems to, Great Power intervention in Third World rebellion suppression, more of which below.

Assessment: As a historical review and a potential discussion-starter I can cautiously recommend The Generals. It is eminently readable, and Ricks' work is not without value on the history of the U.S. Army's general officer policies and procedures.

As an actual prescription for constructive change in the U.S. Army, however, I consider this work severely limited.

First, it accepts without demur the formulation that an "increasingly chaotic" uni- or multi-polar world implies the need for U.S. military adventures in foreign domestic insurrections, rebellions, and disturbances.

Second, it implies that "better generals" can improve the likelihood that U.S. forces can successfully intervene in such conflicts. For example, although in his section on the Vietnam War Ricks mentions that the post-Tet success in counterinsurgency came largely as the result of the combination of the decimation of the COSVN guerrillas and the improvement of the ARVN - instead of any particular change in U.S. officer competence, and his section on Iraq specifies the employment of bribery of the Sunni muj and the success of Shia ethnic cleansing as the reason that the U.S. occupation "succeeded", he still considers these to have been be amenable to "better" U.S. generalship, a conclusion that I consider tenuous at best and unsupported at worst.

His formulation also elides the problem of the larger, mainly civilian/political formulations of "more rubble/less trouble" and "Muslims = terrorists" that seems to drive these open-ended interventions. Ricks seems as bound as his troubled generals to the tactical aspects of geopolitics, unwilling to accept that many foreign troubles contain too many unknown - and unknowable - strategic aspects for even the most widely read and deep-thinking general officer will be unable to predict.

Who, for example, would have been able to foresee that providing Western military aid to rebels against the Algerian, Tunisian, and Libyan dictatorships would have helped foment a rebellion in Mali that Western military assets are presently fighting? And would a U.S. general- even a well-informed strategic thinker - genuinely be willing to suggest that since the West has a great deal to actually create the conditions for this revolt that that the best response might be to wait and watch, doing as little as possible beyond providing whatever the local proxies might need to limit the success of most anti-Western of the rebels?

So while Ricks' The Generals suggests a link between in improvement in U.S. general officer policies and improved success in the "little wars" the U.S. has been fighting since the early Nineties, my thought would be - I wonder...if such improvement, had it been in place before Vietnam, before Iraq, today...have resulted in fewer such wars, instead?

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas Ricks (Penguin Books, 2012) ISBN-10: 1594204047 20.22 HC at


  1. FD Chief-

    Solid review . . .

    " . . . he never once brings up the creation of the National Security Advisor position that effectively superseded the role GEN Marshall had played in WW2.

    Certainly the interposition of a civilian appointee tasked with determining the scope, and even the details, or "national security" must have had some impact on the role of the Joint Chiefs, of the Army chief, and the commanders of Army theater-level organizations. But what that impact was, or whether there was any at all? Ricks has nothing to say on the subject."

    Nice. Difficult to estimate the long-term effect of that single "reform" on the formulation of national strategy . . .

  2. And yet Ricks is very clear in stating his opinion that the ability of the flag officers both at the Army and the joint level to influence strategic thinking declined significantly in the Fifties; in fact, he claims that it was at this period that the rift between the civilian administrations and the Pentagon really began.

    And yet there is not a single mention of the NSA or the changed relationship between the Army, the other services, and the civilian branches of government that met in the NSC after 1953.

    And the thing that concerns me is that Ricks is generally considered a "deep thinker", a genuine intellectual, on defense issues. And yet this seems like the best he can do...

  3. "Ricks seems as bound as his troubled generals to the tactical aspects of geopolitics, unwilling to accept that many foreign troubles contain too many unknown - and unknowable - strategic aspects for even the most widely read and deep-thinking general officer will be unable to predict."

    For years now the armed might of the US has been described as the world's "Police Force", a dollop of which here and there being a force for good and global stability.

    It's been a half century since Vietnam now, and it seems that that time period is the length of time needed to get at the truth, or as much of it as we can get. I ran into this book discussion just last night, Nick Turse, "Kill Anything That Moves:

    I think this book would be an effective counterpoint, or at least a fill-in-the-blank "rest of the story" to Rick's work. How changes in American military leadership, in view of the officers themselves and their civilian supervisors both, worked its way to the human level on the battleground.

    However much tragedy and atrocity occurred at the hands of our fellow citizens in SouthEast Asia, and continues to occur on present-day battlefields, there still are heroes who give us examples of what true humanity is like.

    On March 16, 1998, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Colburn attended a service at My Lai marking the 30th anniversary of the massacre.

    "Something terrible happened here 30 years ago today," Mr. Thompson was quoted as saying by CNN. "I cannot explain why it happened. I just wish our crew that day could have helped more people than we did."

    Mr. Thompson worked as a veterans' counselor in Louisiana after leaving military service. A list of his survivors was not immediately available.

    Through the years, he continued to speak out, having been invited to West Point and other military installations to tell of the moral and legal obligations of soldiers in wartime.

    He was presumably mindful of the ostracism he had faced and the long wait for that medal ceremony in Washington. As he told The Associated Press in 2004: "Don't do the right thing looking for a reward, because it might not come."


  4. Another item, I'm currently in the process of shedding books that I've read or that I don't foresee using again. I mentioned this one before, I'll send it along for the cost of mailing to anyone who's interested.

    An example of an American soldier in the service of a former enemy.

    Do look at the video clips, they are moving.


  5. Excellent review, Chief.

    I found, as we would say in the social data analysis business, Rick's work to be anecdotally "descriptive", based on a questionable "analytical model", poorly "predictive", and very flawed in identifying "causation", because he based too many of his "conclusions" on individuals, without controlling for "environmental" and "structural" factors. In short, there was much more contributing to the "quality" of the general officer corps in each of the periods he discussed than merely "hiring and firing" practices. I tend to think he was merely trying to prove an a priore thesis that the practice of relief of flag officers is the controlling variable, and using anecdotal evidence to prove his point. Not an uncommon failing. I agree with some of his assessments of individuals, but find his overall work to be much more “interesting reading” than any form of a “convincing argument”.

    Here’s just the tip of my critical iceberg:

    You point out one structural variable (National Security Advisor) not addressed. Another set of structural variables include the National Defense Act of 1947 (as amended), the "Goldwater-Nichols Reforms" and the successive and profoundly different "Officer Personnel Management Acts" in force from 1939 through today. Subsequent to WWII rapid ascent from LTC to MG or LTG in 2 or 3 years (several examples can be found), for example, was legally impossible.

    Comparing the "management" of General Officers in WWII to subsequent years simply on the basis of selected examples of maneuver commanders being relieved, ignores the equal number of equally or more ineffective Generals that were never relieved. Some of them filled key "staff" and/or Combat Support/Combat Service Support billets, and some filled Combat Command billets. Both the ETO And SWPA Commanders had some notoriously “obstructionist” and lack-luster key staff officers that hindered battlefield success (David Irving’s “The War Between the Generals” gives some good examples) who were not relieved, and Mark Clark, Geoffrey Keyes (II Corps) and MG Fred L. Walker (36th Div) , for example, all retained command after the disaster at the Rapido River.

    I would also offer that during WWII, it was comparatively easy, under existing law and regulation, to "relieve" a general and retain him for future use where his skills might be necessary than during Viet Nam and later. I remember a conversation with then COL Jack Vessey in 1970 about the "absolute disruption" the death of MG Keith Ware (CG 1st Inf Div) in 1968 caused to the G.O. "management" system. (see more Senior Officer Management in Part 3) I would note that many of these legal restrictions in all levels of officer personnel management grew out of the massive turbulence suffered during post war “demobilization” and “downsizing” following WWII AND Viet Nam. Does bg, for example, even know what the “Army of the United States” was?

    (To be continued)

  6. (Continued)

    What did Generals “do for a living” in WWII? As far as Division level assignments went, most “Federal“ Troop Unit Generals, manned, organized, equipped, trained and deployed units to the War Zone. National Guard Division Generals, did much the same, except that “mobilizing” tended to be more the case than “manning and organizing”. After deployment, they maneuvered their divisions to “close with and destroy the enemy”. You will find no one in the WWII Army leadership who thought that the skill set and personalities capable of successfully leading a Division through deployment was an indicator of success upon entry into combat. Some were ruled out before deployment, others in battle. Of the “90 Division Army”, about 90% were either created or “mobilized” into federal service after 1939. No subsequent period saw any similar need to “grow” significant numbers of combat generals, no less generals “growing” units from scratch.

    Lastly, Ricks bemoans the lack of “strategic minded generals” following WWII. I would be willing to say that "strategic thinkers", as a percentage of the WWII flag officer population, were few. Their job was to “close with and destroy the enemy”, or support those who do. And, the “structure” of the people who did do the “strategic thinking" in Washington during WWII was basically ad hoc, as the US had never really taken a strategic role in world affairs. I offer Adm. Leahy as an example. Following the War, we created formal, bureaucratic structures to do this.

    For the sake of brevity, I won’t address the strategic and tactical blunders of Viet Nam and later.

    So, IMHO, Ricks is comparing apples to hub caps and offering conclusions relevant to iPhones.

    Would you be so kind as to review, my “Review”, Chief and others who have read the book?

  7. (Part 3)

    An interesting and possibly illuminating anecdote:

    Back in 1970-71, when we were putting full colonels through flight school, one of my student COLs (COL B) was fresh out of the “Colonels’ Assignments Section” for one of the Combat Arms at DA. Veteran of WWII and Korea, a nice person, and with whom I developed a long lasting friendship. My Instructor Pilot “load” was two students per class, so we spent a lot of time in one-on-one situations. We were putting COLs through flight school because the inability of Aviation rated officers to get assignments in their Branch of Assignment (No Aviation Branch at the time) to meet Aviation unit requirements of Viet Nam was basically stalling them at LTC.

    At a welcome coffee for all the students of COL B’s class, I noticed that our Director of Training and COL B seemed to be acquainted, which posed no surprise, as COL B probably assigned the DOT to Ft Wolters. COL B was warm towards the DOT, but the DOT (who was an asshole anyway) was distant at best towards COL B. Being a CPT with no time in grade, I never inquired.

    About a month into COL B’s training, there was a flap between the DOT and several of us Flight Commanders over the pressure to let marginal students through flight training. “Just put them back a class and keep on trying until they make it through”, was the DOT’s direction. Meanwhile, we are getting letters from friends in RVN and reports from newly returned Aviators about the rising number of “dangerous” graduates.

    COL B and his wife were at my place for dinner when I got a call from a colleague about a truly worthless student that I had previously recommended for elimination who had just been reinstated into his flight – the student’s 4th “setback”. My response was heated, and when I returned to the patio, COL B asked if all was OK. I said something like, “That damn DOT is going to get some innocent people killed with his ‘everyone will graduate’ policies. And the idiot has been able to avoid RVN service, so he has no idea of what the impact of this is. Hopefully, someone at Branch will send him there before he retires so he can see what these lame excuses for Aviator are doing.” Realizing that my outburst was a bit over the top, I apologized for implying that COL B might be to blame.

    COL B suggested we “take a walk”, and shared the following in confidence with me.

    1. The DOT will never see RVN. He was one of many senior officers who are informally “tagged” at DA as unsuitable for Viet Nam, and some, not even for other serious “hot spots” such as Korea and Germany. They are assigned to “free competent soldiers to fight”. Sort of like the WAC, he joked.

    2. COLs have tenure until 30 years total service. General Officers have tenure to 30 years of service or 5 years after promotion to BG and MG, which ever comes later. The Army cannot “RIF” Regular Army Officers, and COLs and above (who are very rarely not RA) are not subject to two passovers and you are out. The Army has to deal with these legal provisions and the “tenured officers” they create.

    3. There are billets that are identified as relatively “safe” for these Sr Officers to occupy, and a school DOT is a common example, along with a host of other service school, installation and TDA assignments. Unfortunately, this puts a greater “deployment frequency” load on the rest of the Sr Officer population, but would I really want this DOT as my Aviation Group Commander or key staff officer in RVN?

    “The Army”, at least in 1960’s and the early 1970’s was aware of the limitations and constraints imposed by law and consequent regulation.

    It’s a lot more complex than Rich describes.

    BTW, I much later learned that the DOT was not enamored with COL B because the DOT wanted an RVN assignment in the hope it would give him an outside chance at BG, and COL B told him RVN wasn’t going to happen, but not exactly why. Just that he was “needed” at Ft Wolters.

  8. Al: Your comments do point out one of the things I noted about the Ricks work; that it resembled a lot of the stuff he writes for newspaper columns and magazine articles in that I came away thinking that it was (especially for a book-length "study") superficial in its actual understanding of the U.S. Army's officer culture. It read like one of those "cultural studies" of some Polynesian island written by a grad student with two semesters of cultural anthropology under her belt.

    At one point in the book I remember Ricks making the statement that amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics, but professional insiders (or something to that effect) talk personnel policy. But overall the work reads like an outsider's view of the inside; a lot of speculation and a grain or two of insight.

    One example of this in light of what you discuss is Rick's discussion of DePuy's tenure as CG of 1st ID in RVN. He mentions that DePuy was the most aggressive of the "Marshall-style" officer managers (along with a WW2-style "more rubble = less trouble/big-sweep style tactician) and was cautioned by his superior (I want to say GEN Peers, but I'm not sure and will look back at the book to check) that he was "using up all our good officers". Which makes no sense in the context of the forces available to MACV compared to the full strength of the USA...unless you bring up - as you did and Ricks did not - that "...many senior officers who are informally “tagged” at DA as unsuitable for Viet Nam, and some, not even for other serious “hot spots” such as Korea and Germany. They are assigned to “free competent soldiers to fight”."

    Frankly, I wouldn't have bothered with this except that Ricks is a fairly well-known and "well-respected" sort of public intellectual on Defense matters. He has become one of the guys that I suspect has partisans at DA and DoD as well as in the think-tank community who use him to try-fly and publicize ideas they like (and that Ricks likes - I don't think he's just a megaphone).

    So I know many people who have no military experience who will read this book and think "Damn! No WONDER we "lost" Iraq!" I see this as very similar to the Summers book "On Strategy" that tried to convince the public of the DolchstoBlegende version of the Vietnam War.

    Thanks for your comments; very illuminating, and very illustrative of the important difference between a "history" written by a participant and one crafted from a collection of primary sources.

  9. basil: Ricks does devote considerable time to the troubled Americal Division and the events surrounding the atrocities done that day at My Lai 4 and the surrounding areas, and, even more damning, the Army's failure to hold anyone above the platoon leader accountable when it was obvious to anyone with a functioning hindbrain that everyone up to the division CG was aware of what happened and conspired to cover it up.

  10. Chief,
    Nice review.
    I haven't read the book but permit me to make a few comments based on Chiefs comments.
    We should look at promotion boards and their make up before we even discuss the themes that Ricks posits. Then we need to look at RA/NG/USAR policies and differences.BY RA i meant active duty full time title 32 dudes.
    Look at the CW experience-weren't GO's canned frequently and this had nothing to do with Marshall. Didn't Grant and Pershing get enhanced promotions ahead of their contemporaries?
    Who usually ends up on promotion boards. Why did Mc Masters get 07 but Nagl didn't get squat?
    Who writes the guide lines for the Boards?
    How do J level jobs affect a career? Does a OER from a USMC Gen'l have as much weight in a career decision as does that of an Army GO(for an army o)?Does the Army trust a person that J levelled his entire career?
    Do senior civilians sit on promo boards?
    Are civilians ever in the rating scheme?
    These are considerations that affect promotion, and as Al posits training up a unit is different than commanding one in combat.Example-Mc Clellan in the CW and Cpt Sobel in ww2/506.
    To Chiefs cmt-why not require all o's to be prior service as was done in some European armies. He referred to this obliquely.
    ISTM that Ricks ONLY considered combat arms as worthy of his discourse since no examples were made of support type GO's.
    Again Chief-excellent job.
    I will try to read this at the earliest possible opportunity.

  11. jim: I don't recall Ricks including any real discussion of the actual mechanics of the selection process, and he probably should. One big difference I can see between the Army of the Forties and the Army that went to Vietnam was the construction of an "official" OER/board process.

    Ricks talks a lot about the Ted Whyte/organization-man/bureaucratization of the officer corps that began in the Fifties and culminated in the "managerial" officers of the Sixties and Seventies. But he doesn't go from there to the actual effect that had on the mechanics of selection.

    I think that has a lot to do with what Al pointed out - he wants this to be about how the "big problem" with U.S. commanding officers is that you can't relieve them anymore. To drag in the issues of how they're actually selected would muddy the waters for him, and I suspect that's why he doesn't want to bring that stuff up...

  12. jim

    Actually, board selection, at least of General Officers, began during WWI. Pershing was furious that McArthur was selected BG by the very first War Dept BG Board without his having specifically requested same. Called it was meddling in his "command of a war zone". The correspondence between Pershing and Army C of S, Peyton March, about this is offered by several respected scholars to refute the notion that MacA's mother's famous letter to Pershing influenced her son's promotion. But, of course, “Pinkie’s” letter makes for better legend.

    WWII was a "promotion process anomaly". The Army increased more than ten fold in manpower. Unlike a corporation, you can't hire experienced colonels and generals "off the street. Consequently, promotions were accelerated and less structured. Officers were regularly awarded "temporary rank" (without board action) 2 to 4 grades above their "permanent rank" (with board action). Some 27,000+ enlisted received "Battlefield Commissions". Hell, just about everyone was in the equivalent of a "probationary status" in the grade they held. These temporary promotions were held in the "Army of the United States" (AUS), which was legally and administrative quite separate from the "United States Army". Promotion authority up to LTC (AUS) was granted to commanders in the field, and to COL (AUS) to Theater Commanders. A quick phone call to DC could result in a flag officer (AUS) appointment. Obviously, a rapidly expanding Army, with needs for officers of all grades based on expansion, casualties and failure to perform, could not wait for a “board” to convene, so AUS promotion authority was used as a necessary expedient. Further, Ike needed no one’s external approval to move flag officers around within his Theater. There just wasn’t time.

    At the end of the War, the demobilization of the Army caused huge personnel management problems. What the hell do you do with many thousands more officers (in total quantity and numbers in "temporary grades") than the resulting significantly smaller Army is authorized? Temporary COLs returned to their permanent grades of CPT, while permanent MAJs & LTCs, who never received temporary promotions, remained MAJs & LTCs. The “boards” were not simply addressing who should be promoted, but how to “protect” the demonstrated best from significant demotion!

    As a result of the complications demobilization caused, Congress, in subsequent "corrective" legislation, prohibited the "administrative reduction in grade" of a commissioned officer from temporary to permanent rank with concurrent retention on active duty. Thus, if the Army were to downsize, grade distributions would be accomplished via "RIF" of officers holding temporary rank. Since the laws at the time resulted in all promotions to be into a "temporary" (AUS) state for a considerable period, we saw the infamous RIF of some 12,500 non-Regular Army CPTs & MAJs in the post Viet Nam draw down. Consequently, the law was again changed again to address this, and "The Army of the United States" ceased to exist in the mid 70's.

    In short, the Army’s flexibility in managing, hiring and firing all officers, not just flag officers, was significantly greater in WWII than any time since. Since we have not “mobilized” again since then, the care, feeding and management of all, not just senior, officers has been based upon post mobilization, peacetime law and regulations.

    Had Ricks done some “research” into what Marshall era commanders could legally do, versus what post WWII commanders could legally do, he would be offering a totally different picture. He would have noted, and investigated, the effect of significant military officer management legislation passed in 1954, just after the Korean War, which he identified as “The end of the Marshall System”.

    Thus, interesting anecdotes, unsupportable, inaccurate and irrelevant conclusions.

  13. Al,
    You are also describing the CW era Army.
    Rapid build up, militia being federalized and rank flowing.
    In that war they used brevets for the temporary rank much as you described.That's why we still call LTC Custer by the honorific of GEN'L.

  14. jim

    Appointment in the AUS, established IIRC in 1941, replaced "brevets". AUS appointments resulted in pay equal to rank worn and the rank carried the force of law and regulation, whereas "brevets" did not. There was a sort of similar animal in WWI, but I am not familiar with it, and not sure if it carried the full force of law.

    During WWII, AUS promotion authority through the rank of COL was delegated to field commanders. After WWII, that authority returned to DA through duly constituted promotion boards, who were still selecting for promotion in the AUS.

    The appointments to AUS rank pertained solely to personnel in active federal service and had no relationship to actual component (Regular, Reserve, or NG). In 1969, for example, the typical active duty AUS CPT was still a 2LT or 1LT in his "component". Even for grades where promotion boards were required after WWII (MAJ-COL, AUS), unless the officer was retiring, at which time he was retired in his AUS grade if held for a year, his advancement in "component grade" required further "competitive component" board consideration at a much later date than the date for AUS rank. Folks finally realized that it was an unnecessary and complicated paperwork drill, rooted in an expanding, fluid conscript wartime Army, and the AUS was "disbanded" in about 1974, and all personnel served in the grade of their component, and only that grade.

    What the AUS promotion provided, in say Viet Nam, was the ability for the Army to accelerate promotion to CPT to 2 years total time in active service without special legislation. Similar acceleration was possible to all other grades as well. It also created the glut of CPTs and MAJs in 1972, and the resulting RIFs.

    It's a long and complicated story with a lot of unintended consequences following the end of the true need for "flexibility". Much of Congress' legislative intervention over the years was to try to ensure that there was enough upward mobility options to entice "the best" to stick around during "peacetime". I'm sure you have read all the arguments, both pro and con, for "up or out" promotion policies and the like.

    As I said, Rick's failure to address the laws that shaped all promotions is a fundamental and overwhelming flaw in his premise.

  15. Pace jim, Al, the "Army of the United States" does sound like a little more sophisticated version of one of the emergency methods used during the Civil War. I'm thinking not exactly of a brevet but the difference between federal (RA) and volunteer commissions. My recollections is that an RA officer could be promoted a COL of volunteers. This was an actual rank, not a brevet, but was "for the duration" and, like the AUS, went away when the big army did.

    But, yeah, I thought Ricks did a very poor job setting his various sections in the context of their times. IMO WW2 was the great "one-of" of the 20th Century (as the Civil War was of the 19th); the Army's needs and their reaction to them so much different from what came before and after it, that to base your thesis on what happened in 1942 is like theorizing about solar radiation from an eclipse of the sun.

  16. Chief,
    No sweat-we're all on board here.
    I acknowledge and understand all that Al posits.
    I`t's solid history.

  17. What puzzles me, jim, is that it is indeed solid history, yet Ricks chose to overlook it in his alleged analysis of the "history" of how we lost the benefits of "The Marshall System".

    I agree with his scathing eval of Westmoreland and Tommy Franks, for example, but that's due to their poor protoplasm, not any "change in the system". Just as FDR chose George Marshall, Donald Rumsnamara chose Tommy Boy. FDR was looking for a first rate leader. Rummy was looking for a first rate sock puppet. If either "Civilian Master" had wanted the opposite, he could have and would have easily gotten that.

  18. Al: And I think that the thing that Ricks DOES get very wrong, both in what he wrote and what he didn't write, is the change in the political climate in D.C. that produced administrations that saw the appointment of general officers as a political consideration first and foremost.

    I mean, FDR had the instincts of a political predator that makes Dubya and his cronies look like preschoolers planning a Play-Doh fight. But I think he (and his people, like Hull, Stimson, and Knox) ALSO understood that there were gradations to politics as they collided with reality, and domestic priorities as they intersected foreign policy.

    AND I think that the relationship between the services and the civilians was different enough that the blatantly political appointments like Franks' weren't possible.

    I wonder; could it be that the memory of the "political generals" of the Civil War was a factor? My sense of the memory-hole in D.C. says no, but I think the people of 1940 were different in their general sense of the past than the people of 2001, so, maybe..?

    What I would say about the two officers you mention, Al, is that the "difference" is that had they done as poorly in 1943 as they did in 1968 and 2003, respectively they probably would have been relieved. But I suspect that might have been as much to do with the difference between the sort of war we were fighting as much as the "change in the system" you mention.

    A U.S. general that fucked up in '43 or '44 would show up like a fat boy in a 100-yard dash. The German Army would punish the hell out of him; they were just that good. And the Japanese, while not "good" tactically, would at least make his command pay in lives and time, as they did with Ralph Smith's 27th Division on Saipan (or, at least, that was the ostensible reason for Smith's relief).

    But the bottom line with Westy and Franks is that they didn't "lose". At least, at the time, it was hard to see how their tactical-to-operational plans were creating more problems than they solved.

    And that, in turn, goes back to one of my problems with this book. Ricks is all in on the idea of these "little wars", or at least mostly-in. He seems to think that if we'd just had the "right commanders" or at least the right system (the early-WW2-Marshall-type) that we could have "won" these things.

    But my take is that the real problem is that these things are damn deadly difficult for a foreign occupier to win, regardless of the quality of the commanders. The critical variable is the quality of the host nation government and military. If the nation you're trying to "stabilize" is fundamentally and critically fucked up goddamn Napoleon, Hannibal, Al the Great, and Dave Petraeus couldn't unfuck it.

    Mind you, they can win the old-fashioned Roman way, the way the Sri Lankans did against the LTTE.

    But a foreign occupier doesn't have that freedom, and a Western public would go berserk if a Western military handed the weapons to a local satrap who then proceeded to go totally medieval on his rebels.

    So, my take on one of the big "reasons" for writing this book is that Ricks is trying to make a case for a reform of the U.S. GO management system that will improve this country's performance in these little wars. But my other take is that - as Al says - the fundamental flaw in his a priori assumptions make much of what proceeds from them worthless or near as dammit.

    I think the real lesson of these goatscrews is that if you try to eat soup with a knife you'll cut you lips.

  19. Chief-

    Since the military, at least in theory, is nothing but an arm of national policy (e.g. - politics), one would have to be a fool not to include the "political climate" when "analyzing" the systemic acts of the military's highest leaders.

    As I said a few comments above, Ricks made no attempt to "control" for a variety of variables. He is not only "theorizing about solar radiation from an eclipse of the sun", but making causal conclusions about peoples' weight without taking in measures of height, girth and diet. I am mindful of my multivariate analysis prof pumping a shitpot full of climatological data into the computer and "proving" that malaria was "caused" by hot and humid conditions.

  20. That was kinda my take. Hard to speculate on motive, but I wonder if Ricks didn't write the book from his desired conclusion. If you want to make the case that "better generals" mean "more successful foreign-rebellion-suppression expeditions" you would kinda have to seem to stuff a whole lot of information down the memory hole.

    But maybe I'm too cynical.

  21. Well, perhaps we should create "The Society of Constructive Cynics".

  22. Certainly the political situation, with the world situation right after 1945 being that China was lost to Communism, the Joe McCarthy era and the rise of cults like the John Birch Society ( so named for a missionary who met his end in China at that time ) and Soviet Russia gaining nuclear weaponry. I'm reminded of Shinseki's career blooper when he gave his assessment of the force needed to do all that the Bushies wanted to do in Iraq. What they wanted from him was what Arlo Guthrie's recruit did in Alice's Restaurant, which to my mind is an interesting turnabout in tactics.

    Added to the political now is the financial aspect that Ike mentioned in his MIC talk. The political opportunity is still with us for the ambitious ego, but with the added attraction of money and power.

    No poor old sailors' or soldiers' home for the modern general out to pasture.

    The JBS has an interesting history, morphing into various versions over time as the need arises. Right now, very heavily into the 2nd amendment and Agenda 21 and shadowy gov't intrigues to impose a Communist-style dictatorship upon the unsuspecting citizens of America.

    No wonder or foreign policy is questionable, with a decent number of Congress people right out of the JBS mold.

    And West Point is taking notice, no bunch of slackers they.


  23. A bit of wisdom and bad spelling


  24. Well sure, here ya go

    Stone at least questions whether communism simply became Raison d’être for our military adventurism and continued military spending even as early as the mid 1960s. It is interesting to note that Stone refers to the taxes the rich had to pay during the cold war as “War Tax” and after the fall of the Soviet Union this was no longer seen as necessary. That even Clinton would squander and “Peace Dividend” by throwing even more money at the Pentagon. This becomes even more evident with the “War on Terror” supplementing the War on Communism, which begot the War on Drugs.


  25. Totally OT, but many thanks for the USMA link, bb. A long time VN helo driver friend just posted his regularly scheduled rant about those "damn Liberals" at DHS claiming that the "Right" posed a threat of terrorism. I responded with the following, along with the link.

    It is not just DHS that is using our tax dollars to accuse the "Right" of being a source of domestic terror. There is this small, tax supported, "elitist" college (only 4,000 students), that has made similar claims as well. Just can't trust those "Liberals"

  26. Chief: I wonder if Ricks didn't write the book from his desired conclusion. If you want to make the case that "better generals" mean "more successful foreign-rebellion-suppression expeditions" you would kinda have to seem to stuff a whole lot of information down the memory hole.

    I, too, am reluctant to ascribe motive. I would offer, however, that more than "foreign-rebellion-suppression", he is strongly alluding to "foreign policy formulation" failure, which is not the domain of "Generals".

    Also, Chief, you are spot on in referring to the Civil Way and WWII as "one off" military experiences. Trying to equate them in sweeping terms, to subsequent military operations is a joke.

  27. Thanks. I have some quibbles, but clearly a lot of thought went into this.
    Tom Ricks

  28. Tom -

    Good read regardless of the critiques here. For many years I have held some of the same conclusions that you posit in 'The Generals'. But my analysis was only derived over beer with other old vets, or from reading biographies which I realize are usually either puff pieces or hit jobs. In other words as Al would say I 'based too many ... "conclusions" on individuals, without controlling for "environmental" and "structural" factors.'

    Al and Chief above do make some good points though. Will you follow up? But I suspect you are already rolling on your next project. Can you give us a taste of what that will be?

  29. Very interesting discussion which I have been following. I don't have much to add, but to emphasize something that Chief has mentioned but not really gone into in detail. That is General Petraeus and his effectiveness as a "strategic general". From other reviews, it seems that Ricks has a high regard for Petraeus, but what exactly would be the reason for that?

    It seems to be nothing more than the old "surging to victory" meme that was sold to the US public when nobody could any longer deny that the Iraqi adventure had gone terminally south. Enter King David and the whole narrative shifted track, to one of "allowing the Petraeus plan to work" . . . The same crew of (mostly) neocon pundits who had wholeheartedly supported the war instantly changed tracks to supporting the "surge" which of course was "working". Critics like Andrew Bacevich and Gian Gentile who later showed there to be no substance to the argument, were ignored. Even today, after it has become painfully obvious to all but the blindest that Iran came out the big winner strategically in Bush's Iraq fandango, there are those who simply repeat automatically and mindlessly the surging to victory verses and assume it all to be truth.

    Hence strategic effect from a strategic theory perspective, but not that usually associated with a military leader, rather that usually associated with an ad campaign or TV hustler. Essentially information operations directed at the domestic population to provide political cover for political failure or some perceived fault. Obama was able to use Petreaus in the same way and then discard him quickly when he became a liability.

    In all Ricks's argument is very much in accord with the Washington Rules . . . which is probably a necessity in order to be taken seriously inside the beltway.

  30. Seydlitz -

    Have you read the Harry Summers book 'On Strategy' that is referenced in the comments above? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. Especially from a Clauswitzian perspective regarding Summers comments on:
    - lack of unity of command at higher levels;
    - focus on the wrong enemy (VC instead of NVA);
    - national will or lack thereof

    Perhaps this post is the wrong place for it, BUt if not here then maybe a future post??

    Chief and I must have read different books as I never saw anything regarding an attempt to sell the stab-in-the-back theory in Summers work. Yes he talked about National Will but only as a critique on the strategy and comparing it to the stronger national will of North Vietnam.

  31. mike: My takeaway from the Summers work was that I felt that his overall assessment was "We won in the field but were screwed over by our lack of will and command issues" instead of "We blundered into a civil war where the primary problem was that the side we favored was a dysfunctional coterie of post-colonial elites structurally unable or unwilling to adapt to a political structure that would have forced them to accept a loss of status and incompetent in executing a Roman solution while the other side was a ruthless dictatorship what even massive slaughter on Roman levels could not deter."

    So the stab-in-the-back was implied from his thesis; if we won every battle then the only reason we could have "lost" is because we were betrayed by our generals and the weak-willed American people.

    It's been some time since I read this work, though; if we're going to discuss it seriously I'll have to pull it out and re-read it.

  32. Thanks. I have some quibbles, but clearly a lot of thought went into this.
    Tom Ricks



    OK, if this really IS the Ricks that wrote The Generals - and I have to say that the Blogger profile this comment links to is spectacularly uninformative on that point - I can't just let this lay.

    I have no doubt that you have some issues with the critiques of your work here; I was highly critical and Al (Aviator47) has added some fairly barbed observations, as well.

    So here's an opportunity to clarify at least one major criticism of the work; why didn't you go a little more in-depth on the structural changes to GO selection between the end of WW2 and Vietnam. Al has a damn good point: "In short, there was much more contributing to the "quality" of the general officer corps in each of the periods he discussed than merely "hiring and firing" practices." Creation of the NSA/NSC structure, Key West, the huge difference between the massive ad-hoc nature of the WW2 expansion and the smaller, more insular nature of the Army of Korea and Vietnam...

    All of those had, or at least should have had, a very significant impact on Army GO selection, management, and relief. But The Generals contained very little discussion, and much of that superficial, of those issues and their impacts.

    So one would conclude that you don't agree that these were critical to the problem of Army GO effectiveness.

    And the concomitant questions would be; why so?

    Here's your forum to quibble with our quibbles! Swing away; after all, it's just bar talk and we can have a round and shoot some stick while we argue!

  33. mike-

    I haven't read Summers's book, but have a read much commentary on Summers.

    Here's a nice overview of the whole controversy from a Clausewitzian perspective:

    Personally, I think Summers used the trinity correctly, or rather the triad of people, military and "government" would apply to any specific war, whereas the Clausewitzian trinity of passion, chance and subordination to politics/policy is meant to cover all wars. In other words the material elements that Clausewitz associates with the trinity would be different in each war whereas the moral elements would be unchanging. The Clausewitzian trinity is the capstone of the general theory.

    FD Chief-

    The blogger profile caught my eye as well . . . could be any "tom", "dick" or even "harry" . . .

  34. Is that the real Tom R ? ..... Who Knows, if it is, he's slumming .....not in the intellectual sense, but in the sense that that this here binary enviro is way down at the heels in contrast to those on the Beltway Bob Beltway.

    As to his not addressing the vast number of issues that would have made his work more comprehensive an conclusive, consider:

    A few commentators had implied same on FP Ricks Defense, to which he replied ..... I did not want to write THAT book.

    Face it! It would be a monster series, if done properly, like Caro's on LBJ.

    Sides, All Y'all got enough mental horsepower in your Barbacks so's you can produce a Gibbonesque (substitute Simian of your choice) product that will fill in the missing spaces. Plus, you get to insult all of the motherfuckers (dead or alive), and the Motherships that hatched them for the situations, past, present, and future, which have/are/will made/make/will make the US of A to be seen as a hated, bumpkinoid, corrupt, inept, regressive in every measurement, would be indispensable nation of the Western World. You will notice that I did not even mention the military.

    When I left my last duty station. I was presented a pair of RayBans, along with a plaque which read "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades."

    PS Phil Carter is at COIN central now (CNAS). Hey Chief! See can he get you Nagl's autographed copy of "Cutting your fucking tongue off with a Soup Knife." also, One of the posters Chez Ricks compared Nagl to Boyd. Anyways someone here with more cachet should ask him to start another blog, and can we please get invitations as well as a target rich environment of drooling Putzes to abuse. Chief posted something back which had a link to an old Intel Dump story. At the time, I was using an alternate handle "Eduardo, El Galgo Rebelde. As I scanned the list of commentators, all of the likely suspects were firing away .... it was awesome, we definitively squared the T on the enemy.

  35. eddiez-

    Actually, Leavenworth produced a CGSC textbook when I was there (83-4) that covered the historical development of the structure and overall personnel policies of the Army (both by legislation and regulation) from Civil War to 1983, to include, without excessive "judgment", what I was referring to. It was the core text for a required history course, and was quite quite enlightening. It did give the reasons for why changes were made (e.g. - the dysfunction of the "Bureau System" in the Spanish American War, and the serious deficiencies of "militias" in addressing non-domestic military operations).

    It was one of those courses we thought would be a "yawner" when we saw it in the syllabus, was taught by permanent faculty PhD historians, and turned out to be surprisingly interesting in many ways. End result was that no one slept through the classes, and much discussion was stimulated.

    It was in that course that we learned of the "Pershing - Marsh Controversies", for example, where Pershing reeled against a central board selecting officers for BG against his desires, thus revealing his letter to Marsh that debunks the myth that "Pinky" McA's famous letter to Pershing influenced her son's promotion.

    But, more near and dear to my intellectual heart, the course covered the "cause and effect" relationships that were at the heart of the changes in law, regulation and practice over the decades. IIRC, there was a fair bit of sound analytical "scholarship" used and referenced in the course and textbook. Thus, some of the "analytical" deficiencies we identify in Rick's premises have been covered in the past, and should be still available, as they were at our disposal 30 years ago. As we were taught in grad school, first step is an exhaustive search review of the relevant research literature, lest one reinvent the wheel.

    To really understand and "explain" all this "generalship" business, you must operate at "echelons above the obvious". I'm not convinced Ricks ever approached that level.

    However, it's a good read in terms of anecdotal material. There is no doubt that "things" changed" and "results were different". IMHO, however, not a sufficient, disciplined or accurate identification of which "things" nor "results", no less "why".

  36. Chief -

    In my befuddled brain Summers' point in the anecdote of that famous conversation he had with Colonel Tu was about America's 20th century imitation of Pyrrhus of Epirus. It had nothing to do with backstabbing. His only words on betrayal that I recollect were regarding the leaving behind of hundreds of key South Viets that had been cleared for evacuation but were abandoned at the last minute.

    One of his main points was that we spent too much time with counterinsurgency against the VC in South Vietnam. I would have thought that would have made him top-shelf in your mind.

  37. mike and Chief,
    Isn't the similarity of VN/IRQ and AFGH the fact that there was NOTHING to win , and all we could do was lose?
    Who cares about the VC, the NVA, the Taliban, The Iraqi Sunnis, Shias or Kurds? None of these jokers are/were worth fighting a war over.
    Again we focus on the how rather than the why.
    The basis of all these wars were faulty hypothesis that we accepted as fact.In VN it was the domino effect and the wot it was the domino effect in reverse.

  38. jim - I am not defending any of those wars.

    Yes, you are right that we would probably have been better off if we had never engaged with the North Viets in the 60s. We certainly would not have lost an ocean of blood and wealth.

    Or maybe not? Who knows.

    My thoughts are that that war and the ones in Korea in the 50s, and Iraq and Afghanistan should not have been fought. As you say, none of those jokers were worth fighting a war over. But once those wars were started they were winnable with better leadership and better strategy IMHO.

  39. I am lost though on "...the wot it was the domino effect in reverse."

    How does that work?

  40. Chief, I am coming into this way late, so if someone already asked this in comments above and I missed it, I apologize.

    1. (officer question) Was there any discussion on Officer Professional Education prior to becoming a GO? Clearly, we can't expect a GO to begin to think like a GO the day he goes to GO charm school.

    2. (Psych major question) Was there any discussion about the tendency for military leaders to lean towards reductionist thinking, which is what the Cold War (and the scientific method) has led us to as the norm, but is becoming a hindrance in terms of strategic thinking in today's world?

    Basically, the theory is that senior government leaders in the US are having a hard time today because of the way we think. We are uncomfortable with complexity, and prefer to break complex issues into smaller, more manageable parts. This is fine, however, we then tend to focus on these parts, and ignore the interrelationships of these parts (a more holistic view). Any discussion or recommendations of how the very way GO's think and attack problems needs some reworking?

  41. bg-

    I'm going to make a serious "confession". It did not take long for me to conclude that the book was not a serious academic work, and from that point on, I treated it as "light reading" and read it as I would a John Sanford novel. I found nothing worth "earmarking the page" to return to as reference later on. That said, I woud say that the answer to your two questions is "No" and "No".

    More effort was placed in the "relief of Generals" than any other issue. He gave the "Marshal System" practice of relief, and then examples of generals he said should have been relieved in later years, either to get rid of them, or to "better develop" them.

    As to "reductionist thinking", it's hard to make any parallels between the WWII "full national mobilization" experience and the subsequent Army. The nature of the "cream that rises to the top" to get the former job done is vastly different from what can get the latter job done. I'm sure that most below Theater Commander Generals' thinking was far below the scope of what the service chiefs had to handle. If you are commanding a Corps or Field Army, how much time is available for wrestling with balancing the manpower and logistical demands of the rapidly expanding industrial base, the Merchant Marine, Coast Guard and three uniformed services? Neither "The System" nor "The Generals" can be blamed for this.

    If one wants to analyze the "quality" of "Generalship" in the post WWII years, then analyze the issues you address - in terms of the post-WWII years. The "aberrations" of WWII was not and cannot be duplicated in the post-WWII period.

  42. Thanks Al, my perspective is more focused on where we are going versus where we have been. That is why I ask those questions. How can we create better GO's. How can we better compete with non-Western strategists who seem to embrace complexity better than we do.

    I wonder what kind of wasta Ricks has in the Pentagon, often it is the well connected ones that can have a greater impact than those with great ideas but no wasta.

  43. bg-

    No matter how you slice it, the top two grades of flag rank are going to be heavily influenced by the desires of the civilian leadership. Rummy proved that 1 and 2 star billets could also be manipulated to cull the herd to his desires.

    I am "Old School Corps" about leadership personnel. It's not a matter of "creating", but "selecting", and that begins on Day One. I would offer two bits of wisdom that have stayed with me from early on:

    I think it was John LeJeune who said, "Not all Second Lieutenants will become Commandant, but all Commandants were once Second Lieutenants. We must pick the men we commission with that in mind."

    The Marine COL who swore me in in 1960 said, "The Crops' methods of personnel selection and training have never been meant to offer some impossible goal of insuring success. Rather, we seek to minimize the odds of failure - in the position to which assigned."

    It's a subtle notion, but something I never experienced on my watch in the Army, other than WO Flight School. We experienced a roughly 50% washout rate due to rigorous standards for flying ability, academic ability and military "comportment". A bit over a year later, the personnel demands of VN resulted in a mandatory 90+% graduation rate.

    In short, it's the basic quality of the people, not the "system" that is key to having better GOs. You can't systematize the "human element".

    Kinda like the notion that "America is great because anyone can become the President." To be honest, that idea scares me.

    Unfortunately, I'm not sure we can expose enough of the officer corps to the management and kinds of assignments that will not just broaden them, but allow selecting the less than stellar ones based on performance and demonstrated potential. The virtual "Trial by Ordeal" of the Marshall Years" was not necessarily "bureaucratically rational", but was definitely operationally successful. Ricks kind of nibbles around the edges of this, but doesn't fully sink his teeth into it, as he ignores, as stated often above, the "one-off" nature of the time.

    So, bg, I guess I am saying, in a round about way, we should be discussing what actions would provide for a crop of officers that would show the minimum potential for failure at the jobs we are discussing. How do we weed out or prevent the potential failures? That is a different concept than trying to ensure success, as it does not presuppose success can be "systematized".

  44. P.S. - Few mentored harder than I did during my career. However, my "selection criteria" stood separate from my willingness to groom and train. Every subordinate began with my utmost support, but I was always alert to having to deal with "The Impossible Mission" - and stop wasting resources trying to accomplish it. Perhaps a bit elitist, but it worked.

  45. mike,
    The theory in VN was that if rvn fell then so too would all of SE Asia, and that didn't happen.
    In IRQ the theory was that if we created a bastion of democracy then the entire region would follow suit.
    This i took the liberty to call the REVERSE DOMINO theory.
    That didn't happen either.

  46. Frankly, guys, my main takeaway from the Ricks work was "If he really thinks that "build better generals" is the solution to this endless farkling about in the lesser-paved portions of the Earth he's been huffing way too much Testor's."

    Al has the crux of the biscuit; these "little wars", as much and perhaps even more than the big, one-off oddities like WW2, are largely driven by the offbeat elements outside the battlefield; politics, economics, societal norms, prejudices, inequities and the perceptions of inequities, racial and tribal hatreds, the lack of civil institutions like the rule of law.

    Somebody (Talleyrand?) is supposed to have said something like "You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them." - that is, if the fundamentals of the polity you're trying to fight in or for or with are deeply, fundamentally fucked up no amount of military force short of the pure Roman will work, and that only in that you have to effectively depopulate your "ally". Otherwise the root causes that caused the rebellions will fester and the rebels will return once the bayonets have left.

    Alexander never solved Afghanistan, Napoleon never solved Spain, and Petraeus didn't solve Iraq. I think Rick's point was to try and make a case that George Marshall and the GOs he selected might have, and I think that's nonsensical on its face.

    mike: Now I'm going to HAVE to go back and read the Summers book. What I remember of it was that it had a raft of discussion about military "strategies" that read to me more like tactics, and very little that discussed the sort of deep dysfunction that the French left behind that meant that only a miracle and an utterly incompetent communist cadre could have saved. IMO there simply wasn't enough of anything; time, money, soldiers, civilians...Vietnam was as doomed by its past then as, perhaps, Mali is now.

    But I may be maligning the man. I need to re-read his work.

  47. Chief -

    You are certainly correct that Vietnam was doomed by its past. The inequalities there were ripe for overthrow. And perhaps Summers' what-ifs never would have worked either. Or perhaps they would have started WW3 as feared by many - or at least brought the Chinese PLA into the war. Or perhaps they would have just forestalled the final outcome. Summers' point is that it was not VC communist cadres, competent or incompetent, leveraging those dysfunctions that doomed Vietnam - it was NVA tanks.

    I saw nothing of using different tactics in my reading of his work. As I recall what he was saying was that the tactics were fine but the strategy was all wrong. To write a critical analysis of that war or any war based on Clauswitz's principles would require speaking of what Seydlitz calls the trinity which covers the the people and the government as well as the military. So perhaps his discussion on those subjects (people and government) are what burns up the critics of his work. I am not sure why they get so steamed. Without the people being for it there is absolutely no sense in fighting a war is what Summers said. Makes sense to my military mind.

  48. mike: Or perhaps they would have started WW3 as feared by many - or at least brought the Chinese PLA into the war.

    Yet, interestingly, China was all too willing to "normalize relations with the US" when Kissinger secretly went there, re-establishing friendly relations between the US and a historic foe of Viet Nam. I would offer that the Chinese knew there was no good future in getting mired in the affairs of the Vietnamese.

  49. Chief: I think Rick's point was to try and make a case that George Marshall and the GOs he selected might have, and I think that's nonsensical on its face.

    I think you hit the finger right on the nail, and that's why the whole thesis doesn't hunt, and wouldn't hunt if he did address all the variables we have discussed. But then, if you are trying to explain why we haven't "won" one since "The Big One", one approach is to try to hang it on "generalship". In a way, the Allies' "strategic objectives" of WWII were almost "created" by the Axis Powers, and were just fine tuned by the Allied Powers. That said, the execution by the US, in terms of total national mobilization, was quite excellent. But that was a "management" accomplishment. ;-)

  50. Al -

    By the time Kissinger went to China in 71 he was already a year into negotiations with the North Vietnamese. That had to have been known to Zhou and Mao. Besides by that time they were already P.O.ed at North Vietnam because of what they felt was Soviet interference in their sphere of influence. Also by that time, or at least by the time of Nixon's visit, the Vietnamization policy had brought home most if not all American ground troops. Zhou and Mao had to be aware of that also.

    Regarding strategy in "the Big One" I believe you are right on target. That amazing 'national mobilization' you mention was a huge part of the win, a bigger part in my mind than the generalship. And that includes the industrial mobilization, but then you probably meant that as part of the whole.

    As an aside though, many count the First Gulf War as a win. Only Bush Junior decided it was a loss and decided to go back in to get Saddam. We would be a lot better off with Saddam or one of his cronies still in charge in Iraq.

  51. Just a bit ago, I ran into this on "winning and losing"

    Wars That Aren’t Meant to Be Won

    David Swanson Saturday February 2, 2013 10:22 am

    In War Is A Lie I looked at pretended and real reasons for wars and found some of the real reasons to be quite irrational. It should not shock us then to discover that the primary goal in fighting a war is not always to win it. Some wars are fought without a desire to win, others without winning being the top priority, either for the top war makers or for the ordinary soldiers.

    In Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars Is More Important Than Winning Them, David Keen looks at wars around the world and discovers many in which winning is not an object. Many of the examples are civil wars, many of them in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, some of them dragging on for decades. Wars become sources of power, wealth, and prestige. Exploiting civilians can take precedence for both sides over combatting each other. So can exploiting international “aid” that flows as long as wars are raging, not to mention the international permission to commit crimes that is bestowed upon those fighting the communists or, more recently, the terrorists. Of course a “war on terror” is itself blatantly chosen as an unwinnable goal around which to design a permanent emergency. President Obama has just waived, again, sanctions on nations using child soldiers. Those child soldiers are on our side

    And this little ditty ( from the comments section ) on generalship


  52. oops

    The link


  53. mike-

    Sorry for not being more explicit. There was never a "loving relationship" between VN and China. Regardless of the state of affairs in 71, when Henry went to China, I doubt the Chinese were interested in, to use an old expression, "getting into a major land war in Asia", no less in support of Hanoi. There were bigger global fish to fry. Henry's visit only provided the excuse to make a formal turn on Hanoi.

    And, yes, by "total national mobilization", I meant both manpower and industrial, although the two were very intimately intertwined. For example, Marshall's "90 Division" decision was influenced significantly by the war industry staffing needs.

    A neighbor in my home town ran a specialty machine shop back when WWII broke out. He was an acquaintance of the head of the Bead Chain Company, and as the country mobilized, produced massive amounts of dog tag and aircraft timing chains for them. He said the ramp up was just about overnight, and involved tooling, raw materials, production lines, recruiting workers, etc, all the while still producing other machine parts for both consumer and war purposes. He would speak at our high school about just his little part of industrial mobilization, and it was fascinating. I don't remember the exact numbers, but the many, many miles of chain he produced as a licensed subcontractor was staggering. I looked at Bead Chain Co's web site, and they say they delivered 22 million dog tag chains alone. I am sure that included their subs, but still..........

  54. mike-

    When stationed at Ft Chaffee, AR in the early 80s, my Safety Officer was intrigued with an large, "abandoned" WWII era vehicle refueling complex near our airfield. That resulted his asking a friend at the Post Engineer office about it, which ended up with his friend digging out the original drawings for building the post back in 1941-42. That got a bunch of us on a "history of the post jag", and it was amazing. It took less than 16 months to build a complete military installation, sufficient to house two armored divisions. 1,000+ buildings, roads, utilities, railhead, upgrading the local electrical grid and the like. And that was in the very first days of "full industrial mobilization.

  55. Al -

    The Corps of Engineers was amazing during that time. They built camps for over five million men. They built hundreds of airfields. They built who knows how many ports, depots, railroads and hospitals both in CONUS and abroad. They built industrial plants for the production of aircraft, tanks, artillery and ammunition. They built the Burma Road, the ALCAN Highway, and much of the road network of the Persian Corridor plus tens of thousands of miles of roads in CONUS.

    Of course most of the grunt work in the States was done by civilians. But even in the States the Corps did the design and was the prime contractor and many of those projects were overseen by newly graduated, shavetail 2nd Lieutenants.

    Somervell and Clay deserve as much or more recognition than Ike and Patton in my book.

  56. mike: Somervell and Clay deserve as much or more recognition than Ike and Patton in my book.

    No disagreement here. As one of my early Aviation mentors put it, "Logistics and maintenance are seen as PFM (Pure F-inf Magic) by the bulk of the world. They just 'happen' and are only noticed when they fail."