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Today’s Generals Are Well-Trained, But Ill-Prepared for Battle

December 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
During World War II, only 10 percent of trained generals were approved for active duty. Now, journalist Tom Ricks says, "Mediocrity is an accepted core value in the performance of generals." Ray Suarez talks to Ricks about his new book, "The Generals," which examines the history of U.S. military commanders.

RAY SUAREZ: Tom Ricks, welcome to the program.

THOMAS RICKS, author of “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today”: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: I think, reading as a non-military expert, but an interested party, I think the most surprising thing was that so many men who were not really up to the task became generals in the first place. How did that happen?

THOMAS RICKS: Well, George Marshall’s during World War II when he was chief of staff of the Army was that generalship is one of the hardest things there is in the world to do.

You have to be intellectually and physically engaged, and there’s enormous stress. And it burns people out. So, his attitude was a good number of people are simply going to fail at it.

This is notLake Wobegon, where everybody is above average. And so, during World War II, 155 men commanded Army divisions in combat. Of those 155, 16 were relieved for combat ineffectiveness.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s about 10 percent.

THOMAS RICKS: Yes. Compare it to today, when nobody gets fired for anything and mediocrity is an accepted core value in the performance of generals.

RAY SUAREZ: Is being a general something that we don’t really know how good you’re going to be at until you have to lead combat troops in the field and win a war?

THOMAS RICKS: Partly, because every war is different. And people need to adjust and understand it.

I think they were much better in World War II at adjusting than they are now. Also, in World War II, everybody knew that the road home was through Berlin, which is to say you all had an incentive to take a risk because it would get the war over.

Nowadays, when you just mindlessly rotate generals through, nobody has a strong incentive to get out front and take risks and succeed. You do your one-year rotation and you go home.

Hence, we have had 11 commanders in Afghanistan in 11 years.

RAY SUAREZ: You concentrate on the Army. And it’s the largest service that. That only makes sense. Has the Army been tough with itself, honest with itself about what it takes to train and teach a general?

THOMAS RICKS: I don’t think it has.

After Vietnam, we get this magnificent rebuilding of the Army. The Army was really destroyed by the Vietnam War. And you come out in the 1980s and ’90s with a force that has been re-equipped, retrained in new and different and better ways, and has really recruited differently to it, because they didn’t have a draft anymore.

They had to actually go out and get an all-volunteer force.

The one thing they didn’t do in repairing the Army was change the approach to generalship, which is a tragedy, because, in Vietnam, we really saw the collapse of generalship, morally and strategically.

They really didn’t understand the war they were fighting. They didn’t fight it very well.

So, nowadays, you have a bunch of generals who are really not very well-prepared. They’re trained, but they’re not really educated. You train for the known, how to shoot a machine gun, how to prepare a tank attack. But you educate for the unknown, for the critical, ambiguous, the complex battlefields you find.

And you have to figure out what’s going on here, what’s important about it, what’s trivial. How do I devise a response? What’s a solution? And how do I implement it through the actions of thousands of subordinates?

That’s what generalship is all about. But today’s generals frequently aren’t very good at it, Tommy Franks being exhibit-A — didn’t understand the war he was fighting, thought that taking the enemy’s capital meant the war was over, when in fact in both Iraq and Afghanistan, it is when the war really began.

RAY SUAREZ: But you give us chapter and verse of examples of people who really needed to be fired, and, eventually, they were. And it really turned things around.

I mean, some theaters, it was really essential. Give us some examples.

THOMAS RICKS: One of the great examples that I like is Matthew Ridgway in Korea. It’s a small, unpopular, largely forgotten war now.

Ridgway goes in late in 1950 and, in three or four months, really turns the war around, reinvigorates the American operation, gets a bunch of new commanders in.

RAY SUAREZ: You tell a story of an Army that transitions from a time when generals can and do get fired — I mean, Abraham Lincoln went through a lot of them — to an Army that’s very, very reluctant to do so, will look for almost any other option besides doing so.

What about the future? Are we reexamining now? Are the young intellectuals, the lieutenant colonels and colonels who will be tomorrow’s generals, saying, we have to fix this?

THOMAS RICKS: I think a lot of them leave the military because they don’t see it being fixed. They don’t see a meritocracy. They don’t see success being rewarded and failure being punished.

They see a rather mediocre institution that is very comfortable with mediocre performances.

In today’s Army, being a general is like being a university professor. You have tenure. And you can do a lousy job as long as you keep your pants on. If you embarrass the institution, they will bounce you. But you can do a lousy job and just meander on with no criticism.

RAY SUAREZ: So, where in your story and the way we make generals in the modern Army does David Petraeus fit?

He’s come under all this scrutiny in the past two weeks about his behavior in and out of uniform. What’s the system that created him and how will he be treated now?

THOMAS RICKS: I think the most important thing to note about David Petraeus is he wasn’t well-liked inside the U.S. Army. He was kind of thrice cursed.

He was seen as an intellectual with a Ph.D. from Princeton. He was seen as liking Washington, enjoyed talking to reporters and politicians. And he had a successful first tour in Iraq and made everybody else kind of look bad. So, that’s — in the Army, that’s three strikes.

I think — I really worry that the lessons that other Army generals will take away from the Petraeus downfall is, see, he was too smart for his own good. He should have just kept his mouth shut, kept the media at arm’s length, and he’d be like the rest of us.

One — Petraeus has been criticized a lot recently, and all these critics have been coming out of the woodwork. He, I think, understood that one job of a senior general is to engage the media, to use that megaphone to explain to the American people what is going on in a war, because they should be responsible to the American people.

George Marshall understood this in World War II. I don’t think today’s generals do. They seem to be more concerned about their peer group than — you know, other generals, than they are about their responsibility to the nation or to the enlisted men.

And I think what happened is, we confuse supporting the troops with not criticizing generals. In fact, you want to support the troops, give them good leadership. And one way to do that is to ask tough questions of generals.

But we have a media, a public and a Congress that really aren’t capable of this anymore. And so we have politicians just sort of mindlessly saying, oh, I will do whatever the generals tell me to do. And we have generals who are not educated to do that, unable to think critically and develop strategic solutions.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.”

Tom Ricks, thanks a lot.

THOMAS RICKS: You’re welcome.