Book Review | The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks

Rumor has it that Utah Superintendent Brad Smith had recommended to his staff at the Utah Office of Education Thomas E. Ricks’ The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to TodayI had no idea if it was true, or why, but with Smith’s reputation for a disruptive leader and the apparent waves he was making to Utah education, I decided it was worth picking up the book to see if it shed any light on his philosophy.

I’m glad I did. After finishing it in late August, I find myself recommending Thomas Ricks’ survey and analysis of US generals from World War II to the present to others, especially those with a leadership or policy making role.

Rumor has it that Utah Superintendent Brad Smith recommended USOE staff read The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks.
Rumor has it that Utah Superintendent Brad Smith recommended USOE staff read The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks.

With an eye to examining why history has been so kind to the men who led the US Army during that war, but less so to those who followed,The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today is as much a book about leadership and organizational behavior as it is about the commanders of the US military during war-time. It may fall among the light-weight category of military histories, but Rick’s look at the history of US generals since World War II is still a compelling look at leadership. Ricks sets out to examine the gap between performance and accountability among the upper echelons of the US Army, and answer the question about why it has grown in the seven decades since World War II.

The Generals is divided into five sections examining World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Interwar Era, and the recent wars in the Middle East (Gulf I and II and Afghanistan). Within each, Ricks further organizes around the generals of the era, starting with General George Marshall, the unsung father of the modern US Army (and something of the Platonic ideal general, to hear Ricks conception of the man). Marshall is both willing to relieve generals who are flawed, underperform, or just straight-up can’t cut it, but is something of a savvy manager of these generals, moving them to other posts out-of-the-way of the action rather than drumming them out of the service.

To demonstrate this, Ricks’ runs through a series of the biggest names in US military history, using them to demonstrate his point. Here you find MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton, as well as less popular names like Mark Clark and Terry de la Mesa Allen. The effect is that The Generals reads a bit like an overview , and with as many events and personalities as Ricks is covering, I suppose that’s the most that can expected. At times, his evidence comes off more conclusive than evidentiary, and the level of detail increases the closer Ricks’ narrative comes to the present with the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan War. As such, the book is probably better as an examination of leadership, especially for the lay reader, than as an in-depth contribution to the academic examination of history (though Ricks certainly takes time to recognize, mention, and even argue with others in the field that have intersected with his work).

For me, one of those lay readers more in the ‘history buff’ category than the academic, it’s a fun and thought-provoking read. It challenges our concepts about what drives change and success, with lessons for organizations beyond the scope of Ricks’ subjects. Ricks grasps the nuances of his subject, if not always the depth of knowledge that a master of the field might display, and knows how to highlight points that matter without becoming distracted by minutia or allowing his argument to become weighed down by the mass of history he is examining.

In spite of its length, The Generals is a fast read, which is a tribute to Ricks’ ability to tell the story and it’s worth the time to read for anyone interested in the period, the US military, or American history.

Again, I don’t know if Smith really was recommending The Generals. But if he isn’t, perhaps he should. There is much we can learn about leadership from the ebbs and flows, wins and losses, and successes and failures of America’s military leaders.

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