Ricks maintains that, subsequent to the tenure of Gen. George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff during World War II, the U.S. military has neglected to remove generals and other officers who fail -- and consequently, despite its vast armament and reputation, is an inefficient and ineffective institution.
From where I sit, the reason that good generalship seems to have disappeared in that period is so obvious as almost not to require mentioning: when generals are asked to fight illegitimate, misbegotten, immoral imperial wars, they are not going to be models of good leadership. If, in retrospect, the generals of World War II look "good," this is because they fought what is remembered as the "good war." Simplistic? Maybe, but this perspective makes sense of a lot. Ricks' account actually provides evidence for this point of view, if only obliquely.
In World War II, General Marshall used a quick hook on generals who weren't succeeding as a
If the masses of draftees were to continue to believe in the fight, they needed confidence that their leaders were accountable.
Ricks thinks general officers formed in the World War II mode changed the subsequent trajectories of military men in U.S. civilian politics, in a direction that has been good for democracy.
Yes, Alexander Haig and Wesley Clark took a beating. I was worried for awhile that we were seeing a politically ambitious general in David Petraeus -- who Ricks has largely approved of -- but that one seems to have blown his chance.
Ricks writes that by the Korean War, the Army had turned inward, to the detriment of the ordinary soldiers. We've largely forgotten what a terribly mismanaged horror that experience was for the draftees who fought and died in it. (I recommend David Halberstam's The Longest Winter to anyone interested; I don't know of any accounts from a Korean perspective.) Here's Ricks on Korea:
Not surprisingly, when Asians proved fierce opponents (to the surprise of many of these unprepared and racist officers,) U.S. citizens at home lost interest in providing cannon fodder to under-formed commanders.
Ricks thinks very poorly of U.S. generals in Vietnam (remember My Lai?), Gulf War I, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but I am not going to run through his catalogue of their failings here. I just want to highlight his conclusion which takes me back to my instinctive sense of why generals in World War II were successful -- and in subsequent wars they were not:
Democratic nations hold their military officers accountable; in decaying empires, the officers think the military exists from their benefit -- in the language of a post Vietnam report the author cites, for "Me, my ass and my career." If we expect to have better generals, we'll have to avoid dumb, illegitimate wars. We, the civilians, are responsible for that very difficult project.