Center for Strategic Communication

Gen. George Casey, left, the retired Iraq commander turned Army chief of staff, is one of the villains of Tom Ricks’ new history of the modern Army, The Generals. Photo: U.S. Army

The U.S. Army only seems impressive. Yes, it’s got plenty of tactically competent and physically heroic enlisted soldiers and low-ranking officers. But its generals are, on the whole, crappy, according to a new book that’s sure to spark teeth-gnashing within the Army.

That book is The Generals, the third book about the post-9/11 military by Tom Ricks, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the Washington Post’s former chief military correspondent. Scheduled to be released on Tuesday, The Generals is a surprisingly scathing historical look into the unmaking of American generalship over six decades, culminating in what Ricks perceives as catastrophic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The basic problem is that no one gets fired. Ricks points back to a system that the revered General George Marshall put into place during World War II: unsuccessful officers — defined very, very liberally — were rapidly sacked, especially on the front lines of Europe. Just as importantly, though, getting relieved of command didn’t end a general’s career. Brig. Gen. “Hanging Sam” Williams, was removed as the assistant commander of the 90th Infantry Division in western France in 1944 for lacking “optimism and a calming nature” in the view of his superior. Six years later, Williams commanded the 25th Infantry Division in Korea and retired as a three-star. Marshall’s approach simultaneously held generals accountable for battlefield failures while avoiding a zero-defect culture that stifled experimentation.

Over the course of six decades, Ricks demonstrates at length, the Army abandoned Marshall’s system. It led to a culture of generalship where generals protected the Army from humiliation — including, in an infamous case, Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster covering up the massacre of civilians at My Lai — more than they focused on winning wars. On the eve of Vietnam, “becoming a general was now akin to winning a tenured professorship,” Ricks writes, “liable to be removed not for professional failure but only for embarrassing one’s institution with moral lapses.”

It’s not an airtight case. Ricks is sometimes at pains to explain why good generals who probably should have been fired under Marshall weren’t (George Patton) or why adaptive generals later on weren’t driven out of the Army (David Petraeus). And it’s overstated to blame dumb wars on dumb generals. But the fact is, the Army almost never fires generals for cause, unlike the Navy, to the point where a lieutenant colonel famously wrote in frustration during the Iraq war that a private who loses a rifle is more likely to be disciplined than a general who loses a war.

Ricks explains how it got to be that way. And it’s something the Army has to reckon with as it deals with its future now that its decade of perpetual warfare is ending, and ending inconclusively. He spoke with Danger Room right before The Generals dropped its bomb on the Army.

Danger Room: So how poor are today’s Army generals? What percentage of them would you say need to be fired outright? Is the public wrong for seeing the Army as an uber-competent institution, a learning organization and a meritocracy?

Tom Ricks: The U.S. Army is a great institution — tactically. Our soldiers today are well-trained, well-motivated, cohesive, and fairly well equipped.

But training is for the known. For the unknown, education is required. You need to teach your senior leaders how to address problems full of uncertainty and ambiguity, and from them, fashion a strategy. And then be able to tell whether it is working, and to adjust if it isn’t.

Gen. George C. Marshall, right, fired a ton of WWII-era generals — but also gave them second and third chances. Tom Ricks praises that forgotten system for cultivating the excellence of generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower, left. Photo: U.S. Army

Our generals today are not particularly well-educated in strategy. Exhibit A is Tommy Franks, who thought it was a good idea to push Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda from Afghanistan into Pakistan, a larger country that also possesses nuclear weapons. Franks also thought that he had won when he took the enemy’s capital in Afghanistan and Iraq — when in fact that is when the wars really began.

When generals don’t know what to do strategically, they tend to regress back down to what they know, which is tactical. That’s one reason why in Vietnam you saw colonels and generals hovering over company commanders giving orders. It is also why our generals were so slow to adapt in Iraq. By the time they became operationally effective, it was 2007, and we had been fighting in Iraq for nearly four years, longer than we had during all of World War II.

What percentage of them need to be fired? All those who fail. That is how George Marshall ran the Army during World War II. Failures were sacked, which is why no one knows nowadays who Lloyd Fredendall was. Successful generals were promoted — which is why why we know names of younger officers of the time such as Eisenhower, Ridgway and Gavin. This was a tough-minded, Darwinian system that reinforced success. Mediocre wasn’t enough back then. It is now, apparently. Back in World War II, a certain percentage of generals were expected to be fired. It was seen as a sign that the system was working as expected.

DR: How would George Marshall’s system of relieving failing generals and placing them in remedial positions work today? Wouldn’t a relief inevitably be seen as an irredeemable black mark?

‘All those who fail need to be fired.’

TR: Relief today is indeed a black mark. The system only works if relief is so frequent that it isn’t seen as a career-ender. Of the 155 men who commanded Army divisions in combat during World War II, 16 were fired. Of those, five were given other divisions to command in combat later in the war. Many others who were fired got good staff jobs, or trained divisions back home.

That said, Marshall was pretty hardnosed about this. He didn’t run the Army for the benefit of its officers. In a war for democracy, he wrote, the needs of the enlisted came first. He believed that the Army owed its soldiers competent leadership. That was not the case with the Army in Vietnam, where officers were rotated in quickly to get some time in combat command and then rotated out.