Welcome Thomas E. Ricks (CNAS.org) and Host Susan Glasser (Foreign Policy)

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

There are two key words to keep in mind when reading Thomas Ricks’s important and eminently readable new book, “The Generals”: accountability and relief. Accountability is what set Ricks out on his investigation of America’s military leaders from World War II to the present, as in the missing accountability of our generals for the failures of the post-9/11 decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. And relief is what Ricks believes has been too often missing, as in the old-fashioned sense of the word and one that is hardly ever used anymore, certainly by the U.S. military: firing.

In arguing for a whole lot more of both accountability and relief, Ricks has managed to write not only an impassioned plea for the return of a culture of leadership and strategic decision makers to America’s warrior class, but also a page-turning history of long-forgotten chapters in U.S. military annals from World War II and the Korean war to more recent misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq.

Full disclosure: Ricks writes an award-winning blog about national security, “The Best Defense,” on the website I edit, ForeignPolicy.com, and has long been my indispensable guide to all things military. His two previous books on Iraq, “Fiasco” and “The Gamble” are must-reading for anyone seeking to understand that ill-conceived conflict.

In a way this new book picks up where those leave off: With the question of how and in what ways we should hold our military leaders to account for the failures of that war, beyond the blame apportioned to the civilian leaders like President George W. Bush, who got us into the fight in the first place. And this where Ricks’s fascinating historical study offers important insights, from the development of a military bureaucracy that seems to reward time-serving rather than accomplishment (think of the one-year tours in Vietnam – or the fact that the U.S. has had 11 top commanders in the past 11 years fighting in Afghanistan) to the dangers of top officers who refuse to challenge the higher-ups (in stark contrast to the book’s early hero, Gen. George C. Marshall, who keeps his place as FDR’s top military official throughout World War II in part because of his willingness to speak truth to power).

Of course, the book is also incredibly well-timed to shape thinking on the latest scandal to hit the military: the career-ending affair of David Petraeus, the celebrated general who led the Bush surge in Iraq and later served as Barack Obama’s top Afghan commander before retiring to become his CIA chief. Ricks, long an admirer of the brainy Petraeus and his effort to force a resistant military to relearn the tactics of counterinsurgency warfare, includes a final chapter in the book on Petraeus, one which, pre-scandal, dwells more on the question of whether Petraeus managed to leave a lasting legacy on the change-resistant military establishment or not. If anything, the scandal over Petraeus’s affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell tends to reinforce Ricks’s main point, which is that getting caught with your pants down is pretty much the only way to get a general fired these days.

This portrait of our military leadership in decline is a timely call to think about lessons learned. Now that President Obama has been re-elected, having ended the war in Iraq and determined to bring the long-running conflict in Afghanistan to a close by 2014, it’s the right time to ask some of the questions raised by this book: What is the role of America’s military leadership at a time when the United States has taken an ever-more-militarized approach to the rest of the world? Do we want a professional warrior class, separate from the rest of the country, that lives in a cocoon of apparently self-perpetuating privilege, one where results matter little and ballooning budgets come with surprisingly few strings attached?

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

110 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Thomas E. Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today”

BevW November 24th, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Tom, Welcome back to the Lake.

Susan, Welcome to the Lake.

BevW November 24th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

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Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 1:52 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Hello,
And great to be here. Fire when ready.
Best,
Tom Ricks

dakine01 November 24th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Good afternoon Tom and welcome back to FDL this afternoon.

Susan welcome to Firedoglake.

Tom, I have not read your book but do have a question based on a blog post of my own from a couple of years ago, that is, do you think that at least part of the problem can also be attributed to the “rank inflation” that has occurred, with there being nearly as many general/flag officers in the military today as there were during WWII yet the enlisted force is only a fraction of the size it was during WWII?

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Mr. Ricks,

Welcome to firedoglake book salon.

I’ve been following your work since reading Fiasco, soon after it came out. I read at your blog fairly often. Your studies on generalship have been part of your legacy for a long time, and I’m looking forward to reading your book on generalship.

I’m troubled that your writings don’t show much appreciation of how environmentally destructive our American-Israeli culture of permanent war and war worship truly are. Not only do they create multi-generational environmental degradation (Agent Orange in the Mekong watershed and aquifers, DU in Falluja, the disgustingly unnecessary Jiyah power station spill, for examples), the enormous expenses and distraction all-the-time-war create keep us from dealing with more important issues like infrastructure degradation at nuclear power plants, the growing leakage of nuclear wastes at places like Hanford and Savannah River, and the vulnerability of trillions of dollars of global infrastructure in coastal and riverine areas subject to climate change devastation.

Is it time for the human race to be more concerned about the battles to save a habitable planet, than to be concerned about what sort of ineffective professional culture our generals have painted themselves into?

Thanks.

ps – I’m enjoying Paul Kennedy’s book too.

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 2:03 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Thanks and welcome to everyone… Here’s a first question to kick things off: Tom, do you think our generals have a culture of impunity these days? What about the incredible privileges they are surrounded by, the personal cook for the chairman of the Joints Chiefs, etc–does that have negative consequences when it comes to making crucial war-fighting decisions?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Not really. I think the problem is lack of accountability.

But I do think if you had a real system of accountability that looked at whether people succeeded or failed, you’d likely have fewer generals. Under George Marshall, the Army expected about 10% of its generals to fail in combat. Today, everyone is above average, which is fine for Lake Woebegone, but not for winning wars.

I’d be curious to see what you think after you read the book–that is whether it alters your views at all.

Best,
Tom

eCAHNomics November 24th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

How many AQ and other terrorists has the U.S. and its feudal Middle Eastern allies (aka feudal gas stations) sent to fight President Assad, what is it costing (we had some accounting for the U.S. terrorist war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, $20+/- billion, prolly underestimate)?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:05 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 4

Answer is below–not sure why it didn’t appear right after yours.
Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:06 pm
In response to EdwardTeller @ 5

Yes, and I think our grandchildren will wonder why we didn’t all focus on global warming.

That said, if we had better generals, we might have shorter wars.

Best,
Tom

Knut November 24th, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Welcome to the Lake, Mr. Ricks. Could you start us out by defining or explaining what you mean by accountability, and how it works in the military? Who makes the judgement?

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

So Tom, if we had fired more generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, how would that have shortened the wars?

dakine01 November 24th, 2012 at 2:10 pm
In response to Thomas E. Ricks @ 7

Well, FWIW, I mentioned the “Lake Woebegone Effect” in the comments of the diary so great minds do etc, etc, etc.

Second question, how does it feel to be the go to “expert” on generals and their lives? I noticed you got quoted in multiple sources the past couple of weeks after the “Petraeus Scandal” broke.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:11 pm
In response to Knut @ 11

Omar Bradley once warned his immediate subordinates that if they didn’t fire their own subordinate commanders who failed, he would fire the immediate commanders themselves.

That’s accountability. Reinforce success, terminate failure, and promise promising young people. If you don’t remove failures, you are tolerating incompetence, and that does no one any favors, including the incompetents. And you wind up with a mediocre organization.

Who should do the firing? Anyone who has command over someone who is failing.

Best,
Tom

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

You have a substantial following in the upper echelon defense community, not only among the uniformed, but as this event illustrates, among high-ranking executives in the weapon industries. Do you try to use your bully pulpit to push your view that we should “focus on global warming”?

eCAHNomics November 24th, 2012 at 2:12 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 12

Corollary Qs

How many generals & admirals have been cashiered in past year, how does that correspond to “normal” year both in terms of #s and seniority?

How many were fired in the USAF after rogue B-52 loaded with nuke missiles?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:13 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 12

I think you would have had a more serious war effort. When you have 11 commanders in 11 years in Afghanistan, as we have, that shows what my friend Andrew Exum calls “casual arrogance.” The war belongs to no one. Everyone does a year, goes home, and says their year was successful. Just keep you head down and your nose clean, and go home.

IN World War II, by contrast, people were in it for the duration. The road home went through Berlin. That encouraged everyone to lean forward, to take prudent risks.

Best,
Tom

Phoenix Woman November 24th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Speaking of better generals, I notice that the reaction to the downfall of David Petraeus by America’s pundit class has been tremendous sorrow — a marked difference from the panting schadenfreudic glee that animated the pundits’ narratives of Bill Clinton’s and John Edwards’ similarly-zipper-related falls from grace. Would this in any way be connected to his being the likely GOP frontrunner (and perhaps the only truly viable GOP candidate) for president in 2016?

Arbusto November 24th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

I wonder if you’ve reevaluated your approval of Petreaus as a General after his failure to train Iraqi troops, the loss of 190,000 AK47′s under his watch, the pogram he enabled the Shai to initiate against the Sunni or his failed pacification program in Afghanistan?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:14 pm
In response to EdwardTeller @ 15

I think I do:

https://www.google.com/search?q=global+warming&sitesearch=ricks.foreignpolicy.com

But I also recognize I am not an expert on global warming, so try to limit my comments on it to stuff related to security. Otherwise I wind up like some Hollywood movie star holding forth on politics, which generally makes them look like idiots.

Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:15 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 18

No, I don’t think so. I don’t Petraeus ever would have run for president. I do think he wanted to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Best,
Tom

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Thanks Tom, I think that’s such an important point–reinforcing the notion that instead of fighting in Afghanistan for 11 years, it has been 11 one-year wars… no wonder it’s become the longest war in U.S. history.

Are there any heroes from your investigations of recent U.S. military leadership–i hear a lot of people asking that in the wake of Petraeus’s fall… who can we admire anymore?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:15 pm
In response to Arbusto @ 19

Yes, I think that was his worst of three tours in Iraq.
Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:17 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 6

I don’t think so. I think that the perks more reflect the kind of people who now hold those jobs.

My solution is WWGMD? That is, every general should ask him or her self, What Would George Marshall Do?

He didn’t vote. He didn’t endorse presidential candidates in retirement. He didn’t take a job in the defense industry. He wouldn’t even write his WWII memoirs, which likely would have made him a rich man.

Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:19 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 13

The media frenzy on generalship bothered me, because it brought home to me that as a nation we care more about the sex lives of our generals than we do the real lives of our soldiers.

But my wife says I am wrong. She says this is just a modern version of “Antony and Cleopatra”–a general brought down by a femme fatale. On the other hand, I think that play is one of Shakespeare’s worst.

Best,
Tom

Knut November 24th, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Thanks. I’m wondering, though whether short of gross incompetence of which I’m sure there is plenty, it is as easy to identify failures in today’s neither fish nor fowl kind of warfare, where medocre commanders who are not grossly incompetent can always plead special circumstances. Are you saying that there are no special circumstances, and it is just tough shit for a commander if he’s caught in one? Not that I’m against that policy. You want commanders who are lucky as well as good, since they might be lucky because they are good.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:25 pm
In response to Knut @ 26

Yes, I think it is more difficult in small, messy, unpopular wars to know what success looks like. That said, it is possible.

For example, in the Korean War, the first six months went very poorly, because MacArthur, Walton Walker and Ned Almond led poorly. Then Ridgway came in and within about 3 months the war looked very different.

Likewise, in Iraq, I would say that Tommy R. Franks and Ricardo Sanchez failed. I think George Casey did a bit better. But I would argue that Petraeus was the first of our commanding generals there to understand the war, figure out how to address it, and take some risks in doing so. He set the conditions that enabled the U.S. military to withdraw, which I would say was not a victory, but was a success. He didn’t do so well in Afghanistan, which I have heard called his “fat Elvis” period. I think by the time he left there, he was very tired, and should not have gone directly into the CIA job.

Best,
Tom

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I see your point.

Is there more concern among our “generals” about the non-security aspects of climate change than what the public is generally aware? Or about the environmental consequences of the deployment of certain weapons, particularly DU ammunition. The Israelis, for instance have expressed concern about infertility among soldiers exposed to such ammo over long periods of time.

BevW November 24th, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Comparing the generals of WWII to the present generals – what is the major difference in training / education that provides the stark difference in how they command (to be successful)? Professional soldiers vs citizen soldiers?

DonS November 24th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

With the military now, in my observation, being more than ever the spokespersons for (or occasionally against) administration policy, is there a greater expansion into the votex of politics? If you think this is so, is there a correlation with the nature of our recent “wars” and military actions being more outgrowths of politics and policy than actual reactions to hot threats?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to BevW @ 29

I think in World War II, our generals were better educated. Today many of our generals are not really educated, they are trained.

The difference is that you train for the known, but educate for the unknown. You train on how to fire a machine gun or organize a tank attack. But you educate people so they can think critically about a complicated, chaotic situation, and figure out what the facts are, then which are the important facts, then what to do to alter the situation, and then to issue orders to thousands of people and see that they are implemented. This is the essence of generalship. Many of our generals are not able to do it.

For example, in Iraq, in 2003-04, rather than realize that “round-em-up” our tactics were not working, they kept on doing them, because that was what they knew how to do.

Best,
Tom

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to DonS @ 30

Tom — picking up on this point, how do you assess the relationship these days between civilian leaders and military leaders? Is Iraq really the fault of bad generalship, or of political decisions by Bush, Rumsfeld et al.?

eCAHNomics November 24th, 2012 at 2:33 pm

I’ll note for the record that my Qs at 8 & 16 were not answered.

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

I’m wondering if we are not asking more of our generals than the conflicts allow. (Not all of course, even I thought Franks was incompetent.) I mean what exactly was the missions in Iraq or Afpak (other than get binLaden which Frank screwed up.)? That seems to be political direction that the generals try to fill in as they go.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:34 pm
In response to DonS @ 30

As Clausewitz, the great Prussian philosopher of war, tells us, war is inherently political. That is, one fights to achieve political goals.

So my worry is not that our generals are “too political,” but rather that they are insufficiently so. I don’t mean domestic, partisan politics. I mean fighting to achieve an outcome. I worry that too many of our generals (Schwarzkopf in 1991, Franks in 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq) know how to fight the first battle but know what to do after that. Indeed, Franks seemed to think it was someone’s else job to think about that.

Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:35 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 33

Dude! I am typing as fast as I can. And so I tend to avoid questions to which I have no good answers.

Best,
Tom

eCAHNomics November 24th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

As I thought. Just noting it.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:39 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 32

Clearly, the Bush Administration made huge mistakes in Iraq, such as invading it.

That said, I think we have let those mistakes obscure the mistakes the military has made. And so we have left the military off the hook in thinking about those mistakes. Even now, I hear officers tell me that they did everything right but the civilians screwed it up. That wasn’t true about the Vietnam War, and it isn’t true about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, if there is one telling difference between the generals of World War II and those of Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan, it was that Marshall and many of his peers considered it their duty to speak truth to power. I don’t see that nowadays. If our generals had spoken truth to George Bush and Dick Cheney (i.e., “Mr. President, what do you think the strategic consequences might be for Iran of removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq?”) than things might have gone a bit differently. Hard to know. We never will.

Best,
Tom

CTuttle November 24th, 2012 at 2:40 pm

…He didn’t vote. He didn’t endorse presidential candidates in retirement. He didn’t take a job in the defense industry. He wouldn’t even write his WWII memoirs…

Why do so many Flag Officers end up in the MIC, I’ve seen one report state an 87% or so…? What about that extensive list you’d featured recently, surporting Romney…? Also why are so many Officers/Seals/etc. writing their memoirs…?

Btw, what is your take on the sudden spate of Gen/Adm resignations/firings…?

Aloha, Tom and Susan, I’m a fan of FP and read much of what y’all write…!

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

To what extent do you think that the Bush-era wink-wink, nudge-nudge toward torture, the policy of indefinite detention, and the declaration that the Geneva Conventions are “quaint” added to the idea that accountability is also quaint?

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

What about Obama as a commander in chief? Has he followed the same path? He was very quick to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan, and has been reported to be quite unhappy with the initial recommendations he got from the Pentagon for troop levels there, suggesting he felt boxed in to consider a surge of more troops into that country when what he wanted to do was pull out (though the surge is what he ultimately decided on)…

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:44 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 34

Are we asking too much of our generals?

There is no question that generalship is tough. It requires enormous intellectual and physical energy. Not everyone can do it. That is why George Marshall in removed as “deadwood” some 600 officers before World War II began, and then expected a certain percentage to fail during the war.

Also, I think that in today’s environment, when the public, media, Congress and executive branch have little personal experience of military life, and don’t understand combat effectiveness, that it is even tougher to be a general.

That said, I think we should push our generals. We all want to support the troops, but fail to understand that one good way to do that is help them get good leadership. Today’s wars aren’t World War II. But a soldier blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan is every bit as dead as one machine-gunned on Omaha Beach.

Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:45 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 39

Thanks! I think Susan is a great editor. They should have picked her to run the Washington Post. But I doubt she would have accepted.
Best,
Tom

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Got that. But the conditions of engagement are unclear these days. Back WW 2 you could pretty much do whatever you wanted to do to win. Now there is a big concern about public opinion and civilian deaths. Top that off with ” what exactly would you like me to do Sir” and you could have some of them between a rock and hard place. Not trying to defend them, since for the most part I am in full agreement with you.

DWBartoo November 24th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Thank you for joining us this evening, Tom.

Do you think, given what you have just said about education, that today’s military leadership is serving the best interests of this society, and by that I do not mean the Military Industrial Congressional Complex, or what General Butler called “the Racket”. My concerns are whether the military is more concerned with serving THEIR egos and “interests” … or the actual, the genuine security interests of “the people”? And I say this with the perspective of suggesting that the real problems we face, as a society, as a species, are no longer “solvable” through organized mayhem or the use of assassination by drones, that what is really required of leadership, both political and military is the recognition that hegemony, as in “empire”, does not actually serve the genuine interests and well-being of actual human beings, that it is an outmoded and destructive use of resources and a distraction from from what the species must now confront, in terms of the environment and in terms of longer-term human survival.

DW

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:47 pm
In response to Peterr @ 40

I dunno about accountability and the slide into making torture official American policy. I was surprised that so few generals objected publicly and said, Hey, this is not what we do.

Thinking aloud, I would say the connection is that both are indicative of a general slide into conformism among our military leaders, and a reluctance to speak truth to power.

Best,
Tom

DonS November 24th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Fully endorse your “truth to power” observation about WWII vs Vietnam/Iraq/Afghanistan era. A lot of critics seem to dismiss parallels and mistakes of Vietnam from the Iraq/Afghanistan scenarios, either in the aspects of faulty premises for going to war or inability to adequately prosecute the war and cut losses. Do you? Or do you see massive screw ups?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:48 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 41

Good question. I once heard a wise man say that Obama just doesn’t want to be a war president, and so is unlikely to invest the time and energy into national security that would be required to really learn about military affairs.

But he could go a long way just by insisting that his subordinates be candid–and welcoming it when they tell him he is wrong (so long as they do so internally).

Best,
Tom

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

I think that is an excellent example. The generals should have pushed back against torture. Seems they are more interested in the shiny medals on their chests.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:51 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 45

I don’t want to be a one-note johnny, but this is a sharp difference between WWII and now. Back then, Marshall insisted that the interests of the nation and of the enlisted soldier had to come before those of the officer corps. But as I note in the book, William DePuy (a great soldier) concluded that the Army fought Vietnam for the benefit of its officer corps, with policies such as six-month combat rotations for officers. We know statistically speaking that having green commanders gets more soldiers killed. Yet the Army did it, and we let it.
Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:53 pm
In response to DonS @ 47

Vietnam and Iraq? Please see the second half of my book!
Best,
Tom

DonS November 24th, 2012 at 2:54 pm

Yeah, sorry, I should have said I hadn’t read it ;-(

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 2:54 pm

But a soldier blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan is every bit as dead as one machine-gunned on Omaha Beach.

And so many survive now to live on who would have died at Omaha Beach, let alone at Spottsylvania.

I teach large classes in college, and have for a while. At UAA in Alaska, before 9/11, over 15% of my students were serving military, almost 10% recently discharged Vets. Then the call-ups began, then the wars began, and there were almost no serving military, and fewer Vets (can you say “stop-loss”?).

Now they are surging back, and many are very damaged goods, physically or mentally. Some are a lot tougher than others, but it is wrenching, for instance, watching a 6’3″ former infantryman who just wants to be a music teacher deal with the physical pain of three IED events and the emptiness of dead buddies.

Most of them think that every general they ever met was worthless or worse.

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Tom, does your book get into how the generals dealt with both racial integration of the armed forces in the 50s and 60s, and the evolving polices regarding gays and lesbians in the military more recently?

[As an outsider to the military, I was somewhat surprised by the line that "the military will fall apart if we let gays serve openly" that came from some military members (some anonymous active duty and other retired folks who spoke publicly) prior to the elimination of DADT. I figured that while there might be opposition to the policy change, the military would end up saluting and carrying on -- about what seems to have happened.]

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I just remembered that the last time I was on the Lake I talked about the music I listened to while writing the book.

The difference is striking. While writing ‘Fiasco’ I listened almost exclusively to Beethoven piano music, especially the works for solo piano. But for ‘The Gamble’ I listened to a lot of Ellington, Basie and other music for the 1940s and 1950s. For ‘The Generals’ I slid back a bit into the 1930s and then into the 1920s–through Chick Webb and Jimmy Lunceford and finally back to Jelly Roll Morton. I love his voice, too.

Best,
Tom

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 2:57 pm
In response to EdwardTeller @ 53

That reminds me of a comment from Col. Yingling that Tom often quotes–to the effect that a private in the U.S. army in Iraq would get in more trouble for losing his rifle than a general officer for mucking up the war…

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 2:58 pm

How do our commanders in Afpak feel about their troop and support levels? How do they interact with contract soldiers?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 2:58 pm
In response to Peterr @ 54

No, it hardly deals much with either. Race only comes up in Marshall’s mishandling of the issue in World War II and Ned Almond’s persisting racism in the Korean War.

The issue of gays barely comes up. But you are right that all the warnings about how having openly gay soldiers would destroy the military turned out to be so much horseshit.

Best,
Tom

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 2:59 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 57

That second question is one that never came up during WWII and Korea.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:02 pm
In response to Peterr @ 59

I actually think that the widespread use of “security contractors” (which we used to call mercenaries) is another indication of a lack of professionalism among our generals.

What makes a genuine professional (doctor, lawyer, academician, clergy, military officer) is that you are aren’t supposed to do it for the money. Mercenaries do soldier for the money. They also are not pledged to defend the national interest. Their presence “pollutes” the battlefield and confuses bystanders.

Best,
Tom

CTuttle November 24th, 2012 at 3:04 pm

…to the effect that a private in the U.S. army in Iraq would get in more trouble for losing his rifle than a general officer for mucking up the war…

*heh* ‘F*ck Up, Move Up’…! Speaking of which, how many other Generals have there been that obtained all 4 stars in 8 years, like Betrayus did (’99-’07)…?

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I worry that too many of our generals (Schwarzkopf in 1991, Franks in 2001 in Afghanistan and 2003 in Iraq) know how to fight the first battle but know what to do after that. Indeed, Franks seemed to think it was someone’s else job to think about that.

Or his bosses (Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld) were convinced that after the first battle, we would be welcomed with open arms and all would be peachy, and any general who said otherwise would cease to be a general.

Or, of course, both may be true.

BevW November 24th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

What percentage of the “forces” in Afghanistan are contractor/mercenary? Who is in charge of them / contractually? Military? State Dept? Other?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:09 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 61

How many generals made 4 stars in 8 years? Well, all of them in World War II. Ike went from lieutenant colonel to 4 stars in about 4, if I
recall correctly.
Best,
Tom

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

As an academic and a clergy, let me second your observation most heartily.

And “confusing bystanders” is — or ought to be — quite concerning, especially if those bystanders are in the position of either joining your coalition or joining your enemy.

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to Peterr @ 62

I begin to think it is easy to blame someosne else, your boss or the subcontractor at the depot. So who is to blame for that?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to BevW @ 63

Numbers are hard to come by. The first thing is to distinguish trigger-pulling contractors from others, such as truck drivers.

I haven’t been able to nail down the total number of security contractors killed in Iraq. We know it was more than 300. But numbers on non-American KIAs are not kept well, and are incomplete.

Best,
Tom

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 56

It has been that way since before I served during the Vietnam War.

On Christmas Eve 1966, the warrant officer pilots in the aviation company I was attached to stole the company HQ pictures of the chain of command, and burned them in a drunken bonfire party. The next day the CO, whose internal intel wasn’t that good, forced enlisted men and NCOs to go onto permanent guard duty on the new set of chain-of-command pics, 24×7, until whoever did it came forward. It never occurred to the CO or XO that officers might behave done the deed. We never turned them in, and the CO tired of the guard duty after four weeks or so.

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Tom–what do you think the long-term effect of the post-9/11 wars will be on the U.S. military? Will we be more reluctant to engage in new small wars, at least in the short term?

CTuttle November 24th, 2012 at 3:12 pm
In response to Peterr @ 62

I’ve yet to see that proverbial ‘Govt-in-a-box’ ever happen…! Marjah would be a textbook example…!

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Why do we have so many subcontractors, or at least what seems a lot? How many are there?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:13 pm
In response to EdwardTeller @ 68

Great, and telling, anecdote.
Best,
Tom

CTuttle November 24th, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I had meant to ask post-WWII, Tom…?

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 66

Campaign financing rules. Contractors get jobs in repayment for legalized bribes. It often leads to disaster.

dakine01 November 24th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 69

Will we be more reluctant to engage in new small wars, at least in the short term?

Many of us thought that lesson had been learned after Korea and Vietnam

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 69

It all depends on what lessons they take away from it. So far, they are taking few lessons. That is what makes me worry that we will wind up with a military that resembles the Royal Navy of 1938–big, powerful and irrelevant.

So I thin the best thing we could do for the military right now is cut its budget by a significant percentage. For the last 10 years, we have had a flood of money flowing into the military, and so we have a generation of officers who have no idea of how to operate economically. As a British official once said, We have run out of money, so now we must think.

Best,
Tom

bluedot12 November 24th, 2012 at 3:16 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 69

I think they have made us a far more militaristic society. Small example, but at local hockey games we now have a former soldier stand in during the anthem to wild applause. Not sure I really like that.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 73

Well, that may be part of the problem–that is, bad people aren’t pushed out and good people don’t rise fast enough.

A big part of the problem is rotating leaders in and out. I think when we have a good leader, especially in wartime, we should keep him in place or promote him, if possible. I can’t imagine “rotating” Ike home in the spring of 1944–”You’ve done a great job getting the force ready, but it is now someone else’s turn to command.” But we were more serious back then. Now 1 percent of the nation fights, and the other 99 percent ignores our wars.

Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 75

Yep. We seem to learn that lesson every 20 years or so.
Best,
Tom

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 3:19 pm

So you’re not supportive of the Romney campaign idea that we need to rebuild the U.S. navy and add dramatically to the numbers of ships in our fleet, which, he loved to point out, is at the lowest number since World War I (not accounting of course for the dramatic changes in what KIND of ships we have)?

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 3:20 pm

Your assessment of Doug Feith aligns with mine, and probably with most people commenting at this book salon.

LTC Karen Kwiatkowski was highly critical, during her last job at the Pentagon, of how Feith opened up his OSP doors to Israeli generals, without any security measures in place. To your knowledge, does that happen elsewhere in the Pentagon, or at DoD?

I know you’ve been falsely taken to task for telling the truth about this kind of stuff before, so I won’t be surprised if you pass on answering.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:22 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 80

Nah. I was always surprised that a fiscal conservative would think that the answer to the military was to throw money at it.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:22 pm
In response to EdwardTeller @ 81

I am not gonna surprise you!
Best,
Tom

DonS November 24th, 2012 at 3:24 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 69

Tom, Devil’s advocate says: but, after 911 (and for how long) isn’t cutting the military budget significantly not patriotic?

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 3:25 pm

At least they laid down four aircraft carriers in the 1937 program with armoured flight decks. Ridiculously, though, the aircraft embarked into 1942 were mostly stringbags.

Generals are better at fighting the last war than the next one.

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Tom, after all the research you did for this book, what would your work lead you to say about the qualities needed for a Secretary of Defense, Director of National Intelligence, or CIA director? What is the role of civilian leadership in creating/re-creating a healthier culture of military leadership?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:27 pm
In response to DonS @ 84

Yes, but only for people who don’t understand the military.

What we need is not necessarily a huge budget, but an effective military. Unfortunately we no longer have a Congress that appreciates the distinction.

The media and the public too. Which may be one reason we are more interested what generals do in their bedrooms than what they do in the professional execution of their duties.

Best,
Tom

BevW November 24th, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Have you seen any evidence of the effects of the lowering of standards in the recruitment of soldiers – and how does this effect what the generals have to work with?

Matt Kennard was on the Book Salon previously with his book, Irregular Army.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:31 pm
In response to Peterr @ 86

I loved studying FDR’s relationship with Marshall. They were not close. Marshall did not like to socialize with FDR, and in fact did not go to his the president’s home in Hyde Park, NY, until he had to go to FDR’s funeral. When FDR addressed Marshall as “George,” Marshall made it clear that he preferred to be called “General Marshall.”

Marshall was not the only candidate to be named Army chief of staff in 1939. It could have been Hugh Drum. But FDR had noticed Marshall’s habit of speaking truth to power, and knew he needed that.

That is the quality we need now, and the sort of person we need running the Pentagon and CIA. And we also need a president who appreciates that sort of bluntness. I think Obama is a pretty good president, but I don’t think he always appreciates getting the unvarnished views of his generals. He can insist on getting options from them, but should not be put out if they express preferences for what they think is the best course.

Best,
Tom

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Thanks Tom–your admiration for Marshall comes through in the book. Are there other models of military leaders we should look to? Other generals you discovered in your research who set a good example? thanks, Susan

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to BevW @ 88

Clearly there was some lowering of standards of recruitment a few years back, at the height of the Iraq mess.

But the lowering of standards for generals has been a long, slow process. I think American generalship hit rock bottom during the Vietnam War. After that war, there was a great rebuilding of the Army. It got new weaponry. It revamped training and made it more realistic. Most importantly, it moved from a draft to a recruited force. But the one big problem that was not addressed was generalship. They left that the same.

Best,
Tom

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:35 pm

I like what you say, but given your comments @87 about Congress, I wonder how well a candidate who speaks truth to power would do in a confirmation hearing.

EdwardTeller November 24th, 2012 at 3:37 pm

Great book salon. Thanks, Tom. Gotta go chop wood before dark.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:37 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 90

My favorites, after Marshall:

–Matthew Ridgway, in Korea, for turning the war around.

–Ray Peers, for redeeming the Army’s soul with his tough, unblinking investigation of the My Lai murders of 1968.

–William DePuy, for his thoughtful rebuilding of the Army in the 1970s–and John Cushman, for trying to get DePuy to expand the concept of rebuilding to include helping officers think better.

–David Petraeus, even now, for operating differently in Iraq, taking some risks in 2007, and setting the conditions that enabled the American military to withdraw. Yes, I know he didn’t end the war.

Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:38 pm
In response to Peterr @ 92

You are right. I don’t think Congress would appreciate it. Look at the hot water General Mattis has gotten into for simply speaking bluntly.

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

How about your favorite Secretaries of Defense?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Hey,
I think we have just about run out of questions. Last chance!
Best,
Tom

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:45 pm
In response to Peterr @ 96

This one will surprise you: I think the three best defense secretaries I’ve covered are:

Dick Cheney*
William Perry
Robert Gates

(*–Note: As defense secretary. He didn’t do so well as VP.)

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:45 pm

I’m waiting to see how Elizabeth Warren is welcomed. She irritated more than a few of the Powers That Be in Washington for her bluntness, and now she’s a member of the Senate.

Welcome news, I think, for blunt speakers everywhere.

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:46 pm
In response to Peterr @ 99

The Senate will do its best to beat that out of her. If it can’t, I think they will ostracize her.

Whether or not you like John McCain, he does tend to speak his mind. And I think the other members of the Senate hate that in him.

Best,
Tom

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:46 pm

OK, I’m officially surprised. Perry and Gates I can see, but what about Dick Cheney’s SecDef years puts him on your list?

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:47 pm
In response to Peterr @ 101

The commonality of all three is the sense that there was an adult in charge, and that the military was given good civilian oversight.
Best,
Tom

RevBev November 24th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Do you see any relief from the ongoing orgy for wars/militarism? Is there any protest that you can see that would be effective? I think we have been at war from more of my adult life + some before that.

BevW November 24th, 2012 at 3:51 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Tom, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, and how we need more accountability for our Generals.

Susan, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Tom’s website and book (The Generals)

Susan’s website (Foreign Policy)

Thanks all, Have a great weekend.

Tomorrow: Susan Clark, Woden Teachout / Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community and Bringing Decision Making Back Home; Hosted by Riki Ott

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:51 pm
In response to RevBev @ 103

I hope so. I am sick of wars. And I don’t understand why some people are so hot to intervene in Syria.

I am going to sign off now, unless is a final question coming in.

Best,
Tom

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 3:51 pm

We haven’t mentioned drones yet much in this conversation. But I wonder, tom, whether the rise of this new kind of war has emboldened civilian leaders to engage in more war not less…

Thomas E. Ricks November 24th, 2012 at 3:52 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 106

Yes! It is fire-and-forget foreign policy, of a piece with a nation that sends 1 percent to fights its wars and lets the rest ignore them.

And with that depressing thought, good night to all. And thanks to you, Bev and FDL.

Susan Glasser November 24th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
In response to Susan Glasser @ 106

Feel free to skip mine.. Thanks to all! And do read tom’s great book…

Peterr November 24th, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Thanks, Tom.

CTuttle November 24th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Mahalo Nui Loa, Tom, Susan, and Bev, for the excellent Book Salon…!

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