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?
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