Journalist Thomas Ricks

Originally aired on November 12, 2012

The Pulitzer Prize winner explains his new book, The Generals, and offers his thoughts on the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus.

Journalist Thomas Ricks is often called the "dean" of America's military correspondents. He's been on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams for national reporting—with The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal—and writes an award-winning daily blog for Foreign Policy magazine. He's also a senior fellow at the bipartisan think tank, Center for a New American Security. A best-selling author, Ricks' books include Fiasco, on the war in Iraq, its sequel, The Gamble, and, his latest, The Generals, a history of the decline of U.S. military leadership. The Massachusetts native grew up in New York and Afghanistan and is a Yale grad.


Tavis: First a quick programming note. Tomorrow night on this program we bring you our conversation with Frank Rich on the fallout from this year’s presidential election in the latest issue of “New York” magazine, in fact on newsstands today. Rich takes a critical look at what went wrong for the GOP and the prospects for moving forward. He calls the piece “Fantasy Land,” so that should be a good conversation tomorrow night.

Tonight, though, we wanted to share – I should say start this week with the story that’s shaken official Washington and beyond, for that matter: The sudden resignation of CIA director and one of this nation’s most respected military leaders, General David Petraeus.

Thomas Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author who covered the U.S. military for “The Washington Post” during much of the last decade. He is now a fellow at The Center for a New American Security” and author of the timely new text, “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.” Tom Ricks, good to have you back on this program.

Thomas Ricks: It’s great to be back.

Tavis: Let’s get the Petraeus stuff out of the way first, shall we?

Ricks: Sure.

Tavis: Then we’ll get into the book. I want to go straight to your blog of a couple of days ago, because you go right at it in the very first sentence: “The sudden departure of General David Petraeus from the CIA probably tells us more about the state of our nation than it does about Petraeus. President Barack Obama should not have accepted his resignation. We now seem to care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers.”

That is a mouthful in three sentences. I want to pick that apart one piece at a time, if I can. When you suggest that his resignation, or the departure of General Petraeus, says more about the nation than about him, by that you mean what?

Ricks: It worries me that we feel we can throw away good leaders so casually. General Petraeus, as you said, is one of the more prominent generals of our time – in fact, probably the only general that the American public has really known since World War II.

A lot of generals tried and failed in Iraq. Petraeus succeeded. So here we have a leader who has done well, yet we’re saying somehow, something that happened between him and another person, and private, consenting adults, nothing illegal, and we throw him out.

I just don’t think we have so many good leaders that we can afford to do that, and what’s more, we didn’t used to do it. Dwight Eisenhower in World War II carried on with his chauffer, a very good-looking, red-haired British woman named Kay Sommersby. He was not fired.

Imagine if they’d said six months before D-Day, “Ike, you’ve got to go home. You had an affair. Now sure, a couple of thousand soldiers might die at D-Day, but that’s the price you’ve got to pay.” That would be crazy. Yet that’s kind of what we’re doing these days.

I think President Obama should have said, Dave, you screwed up. You screwed up big time. You need to go home, make amends to your wife, do whatever you need to do, maybe get some of that Kobe Bryant jewelry. (Laughter) Do what you need to do to put your family and your life back together, but your punishment is no, you’re staying in your job, because we need you.

I think the country does need people like Petraeus, and I’m sorry that we threw him away, especially here’s a guy who did three years, three combat tours in Iraq, a year in Afghanistan, and he and his family have given an awful lot to this country since 9/11. Yet when the time came for us to be generous to him and his family, we were not. So I think it does say more about us than it says about him.

Tavis: When you then suggest that this suggests that we care more about the sex lives of our leaders than the real lives of our soldiers, that’s a pretty loaded statement.

Ricks: It worries me, because I think it does sort of speak to a moral recklessness that is of a piece with the way we fought these wars – the casual arrogance with which we fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That we can have 11 commanders in Afghanistan in 11 years.

If you ran a company like that, it would collapse. Yet we just rotate commanders through. These are things that affect the lives of soldiers. I think it’s partly because in this country we don’t know much about military effectiveness anymore.

When you talk to combat soldiers, they don’t care if their commander is gay, an alcoholic, even a racist, if he will keep them alive. That is the only priority for soldiers – let’s try to survive this thing. They really value a good leader. Yet we’re saying no, we actually don’t value combat effectiveness, we value your personal morality. That’s a new and different and worrisome thing for me.

Tavis: I guess the question, though, Tom, is why does it have to be either-or or not both-and? Why can’t I have a platoon leader who is not racist in the U.S. military and who is a good leader? Why can’t I have a general or the leader of the CIA who is a good leader and is honest about his personal life?

Put another way, if you can’t trust a man, as one soldier asked, and you quote him in your piece, as one soldier asked, if you can’t trust a general to tell you the truth about his marriage, about his personal life, how can you trust him to tell you the truth about anything else?

Ricks: Because we all have failings. We all fail in one way or another.

Tavis: But here’s the difference – we all fail in one way or another, and I’m not suggesting that leaders ought to be perfect, but the reason why they are leaders as opposed to laymen is because we hold them to a higher standard. So maybe if you’re going to be the kind of person that is dishonest about issue X, Y or Z, maybe you just shouldn’t be in a leadership position.

Ricks: I’m all for high standards.

Tavis: Okay.

Ricks: My problem is it’s not that I want perfect leaders; it’s that we tolerate mediocre leaders. This is really what I write about in the book.

Tavis: Sure.

Ricks: In World War II, George Marshall, who ran the Army then, gave you about 90 days as a commander to be successful, get killed, or get fired. Nowadays we expect mediocrity from our generals, and we get it. Nobody in Iraq got fired for anything.

So if we had perfect leaders, great. What we’re doing now, I think is just nuts. We accept mediocre leaders as long as they keep their pants on. It’s a little bit like our generals and our intelligence leaders are like university professors with tenure. You can be lousy at your job, but as long as you don’t embarrass the institution with a zipper problem, not a problem. But go out and be mediocre. I just think we have our priorities wrong.

Yes, you don’t want people who walk around as liars, but we really need to accept the news flash here that Dave Petraeus is a human being. We all fail at one time or another. We all need to make amends. Another famous leader said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Tavis: Let me ask you, I want to play for a second with this concept, because I think there is something – I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate heretofore, at least in this conversation.

But now let me come to our side of the ledger, because I think there’s something here. Let me start by asking what do you think would have happened once this story broke if the president had said General Petraeus came to me and he told me about it? I don’t condone what he did. He made a mistake. That’s between he and his wife.

He needs to go deal with that, and unless and until I get proof that what he did outside of his marriage in any way threatened U.S. security, I am not accepting his resignation. Now, I can see somebody making that argument. That’s basically what you said. What might have happened had the president done that?

Ricks: I think that’s what the president should have done.

Tavis: But how would it have been responded to in the media, though, by the American public?

Ricks: I don’t think it needed to be public. Now, it might have leaked out at one point or another. I know the reason you don’t want to go telling Capitol Hill to so soon. You know that Petraeus has had an affair, he’s confirmed it. But you don’t know what the consequences are.

I don’t think you want the executive branch running to Congress every time you find out somebody’s had an affair. Congress wouldn’t get anything done.

Tavis: (Laughs) Because half of them are having affairs. That’s another conversation, but yeah, yeah.

Ricks: Yeah, and also, talk about double standards here.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.

Ricks: Is every congressman who ever had an affair going to resign his position? I don’t think so. So I think Obama could have handled it quietly, and that’s the way they used to do it back when J. Edgar Hoover kind of blackmailed people with it. Okay, we have the file here – go forth and sin no more. When it comes time to appropriate the budget for the FBI we’ll be happy to have your vote.

Tavis: But at some point the story was going to become public. I guess what I’m trying to get at is when the story became public, if the president said what I suggested he might have said, how might it have been responded to?

Ricks: I think that’s what the president could say. It was a private, personal matter. I’ve dealt with it, and let’s have a little civility in this country. I think people would have understood it.

Tavis: Which raises the next question for me then – what’s your sense of and what are your sources telling you about who was pushing him. I’ve read this a number of times; I just don’t know where it came from, that he was encouraged to get out in front of the story and resign. Who was telling him to do that?

Ricks: I don’t know, because it actually seems to have created a mini firestorm. I kind of think the media is vastly overreacting here.

Tavis: Right.

Ricks: I do love the conspiracy theories. The Obama administration wanted this out so it would hide the big Benghazi stuff. I don’t buy any of it. I think Petraeus has a bit of the Samurai warrior in him. I have done something dishonorable, and now I must make amends, and so I must take the consequences.

I think Obama said, “Yeah, you’re going to suffer the consequences. You go and deal with it on your own time, Dave, and now get back to work.” I think he could have said that, and I think the American people would have accepted it. I think it would have shown a little national maturity. Why are we so interested in what happens in people’s bedrooms and not what happens in their offices?

Tavis: So speaking of Congress, so now Dianne Feinstein from California, powerful senator, head of the committee, is saying they’re going to have hearings. So is that necessary? How much uglier is this story going to get before we finally get past it?

Ricks: I actually think it’ll blow over fairly soon. Something new will come along to titillate the national interest. I just think it’s a national tragedy that a guy who has given so much has his name dragged through the mud so publicly and so humiliatingly now.

Tavis: Are these Senate hearings necessary?

Ricks: I think you do want to hold hearings on Benghazi eventually. I don’t think that there is any sort of smoking gun there. I think the whole Benghazi thing is just the Republican equivalent of powerful marijuana. They just love it and they can’t let go of it.

I have friends in Libya right now. Yeah, it’s a dangerous place, got it. But I’ve also tried to figure out combat situations several times in my life. It’s very difficult to figure out what happened at what time and what you could have done about it. There’s a whole lot of second-guessing going on, and that’s another thing I think we should remember on Veteran’s Day – that there was nothing in the world more difficult, more stressful, and more confusing than combat.

Tavis: What’s the political fallout going to be from this for the Obama administration, if any?

Ricks: I don’t think it’ll have much political effect unless President Obama bobbles the ball again. I think he was surprised to have this happen. I am told he did not immediately accept the resignation. He really wanted to think about it, wasn’t sure it had to happen.

I would have loved for him to really make this a teachable moment for his administration and for the rest of the country. If it had to come out, put it out and decently move on. Instead, we’re kind of mired in the personal affairs of a man who has done so much for this country over the last 10 years.

Tavis: Since you have known him for so long, final question on this, what’s your sense, at least, of what this means for his future? The word is that he was on the short list, as in at the top of the list, to be the next president of Princeton, and obviously there are any number of other opportunities that a guy of his stature and accomplishment had in front of him. But what’s your sense of how he might navigate beyond this moment?

Ricks: He is a bright, determined, ambitious guy. I think he’ll bounce back. Also, we have a way of sort of wringing our hands over scandals, and then a couple of years later the guy has a TV show or something, like Governor Eliot Spitzer.

So I think Petraeus will move on and do something else. I do think this kind of might disqualify him, though, from becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and there has been precedent for that, for taking a retired four-star officer and bringing him back on active duty and making him chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I don’t think Petraeus would really want to be president, I do think he wanted to be chairman of the joint chiefs, try to reshift the military and then spend his last 20 years of life being president of Princeton.

Whether either of those will happen now I don’t know, but you have certainly not seen the last of Petraeus.

Tavis: One other quick additional question about this – given how well, you know how well you’ve covered the military, what’s your sense of how a story like this plays with the soldiers, especially those with boots on the ground who served under his command?

Because we’re talking about how this is playing out inside the Beltway, and for that matter across the nation, since you’re on the West Coast tonight. But how do you think this plays with, this story about Petraeus plays with soldiers?

Ricks: It worries me a little bit; the lesson the military will take away from this – the incorrect lesson. Petraeus, among other things, talked to a lot of reporters. He was an outlier in the military in that way. He had three strikes on him: Princeton Ph.D., liked talking to reporters and journalists, had a successful first tour in Iraq that made all the other generals look back.

So he wasn’t well liked by his peer group, and I think the lesson the other generals will take away, see, this is what happens when you cozy up to the media, when you talk to too many reporters, when you have somebody writing your biography. It comes back and bites you.

I don’t think that is the lesson. What I saw with General Petraeus in Iraq during the surge was his consciousness that the media is a big megaphone to get the word out, and that part of the job of a general is to let people know what you’re doing and to be clear, both to your subordinate soldiers, to the ranks, and also to the public, Iraqi public, American public. He worked hard at that and he talked to reporters as part of that.

If there’s a hit on other generals, it’s they’re very shy of the media and I think don’t live up to their duty of explaining themselves. They do not represent the U.S. Army. They represent our country. We give them our children and our money, and they are responsible to us. They should speak to us, and the way that they do that is through the Congress and through the media.

Tavis: Let me circle back to this book now. The new book from Thomas Ricks is called “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.” If I can segue from the Petraeus thing to the book by asking this question – is part of our problem, or put another way, is there a danger in us lionizing and almost deifying generals?

Ricks: Yes, it is a problem if we make them seem more than human. They are human. They go through quite a crucible. To be a commander in wartime is one of the most difficult possible things, because you need great intellectual energy and great physical energy.

But honestly, we haven’t lionized generals in this country in a long time. Petraeus is really the first guy since World War II the public has known. The irony to me is –

Tavis: But Norman Schwarzkopf was pretty well known.

Ricks: He was, you’re right, and Colin Powell, too.

Tavis: Yeah, and Colin Powell.

Ricks: One of the surprises to me in writing this book is the people we lionize as the greatest generation, which is the soldiers of World War II, especially the company commanders, platoon leaders, battalion commanders, they were the people who became the generals of Vietnam who we rightly demonized.

So the greatest generation, disaster of Vietnam – they are the same men. The difference is in World War II there was accountability, and if there’s one word that this book is about, it’s accountability and the loss of it in the military.

In World War II, success was rewarded, failure was punished and replacements got promoted upward. Nobody knows who Lloyd Fredendall is today, the first American commander in the African-European theater for us in the Army in World War II. He was fired. He was fired and a bunch of other generals were fired. About a total of 20 senior generals were fired in World War II, and they were replaced by names that we now know, like James Gavin, Matthew Ridgeway and Dwight Eisenhower.

In 1940, not long before the war began, Dwight Eisenhower was a lieutenant colonel on the West Coast, the executive officer of an infantry regiment. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, picked him out and said, “That’s the type of guy I need,” and began promoting these guys very quickly.

We don’t have leadership in the military these days that says, “What’s the job I have, who do I need to fill it, and how do I hold them accountable?” So instead, we just have a parade of generals going through Iraq, kind of veering toward mediocrity, not doing much, and then coming home feeling entitled to a promotion.

Hey, I had an insurgency blow up in my face. “Where’s My Fourth Star” is the book that Ricardo Sanchez wrote. So that’s not a nutshell, but I think that’s what’s happened in the military over the last 50 years.

Tavis: What would you say is at the epicenter of this turnover – my word, not yours – when you referenced earlier 11 commanders, 11 years? What’s the source of that constant turnover?

Ricks: I think the root source is something that really does worry me. When you have a nation, a democracy, a great nation and a great democracy that fights wars and doesn’t pay attention to them, I think that’s immoral. We have 99 percent of the nation paying no attention to our wars. We have 1 percent fighting these wars again and again and again, three, five, seven combat rotations.

Exhibit A might be David Petraeus. Three combat tours in Iraq, one combat tour in African American, a bout with cancer. In his past life he’s also been shot through the chest and had a terrible parachuting accident that smashed his pelvis.

This guy gave at the office, yet when it’s time for us to be generous to him, to repay his generosity to the country, we came up short.

Tavis: But Tom, the reason why, and I hope you won’t argue with me on this; maybe you will, but one of the reasons clearly why we don’t pay attention to these wars, one – let me just make my argument and you tell me where I’m wrong here.

In no particular order, number one, the White House doesn’t want us to pay attention. Bush famously wouldn’t let us see bodies coming back to Dover, et cetera, et cetera, so he was a part of that. The Obama administration has continued that policy. So one, the White House, not interested in us really paying too much attention to these wars, number one.

Number two, they’re interminably long. They go on and on and on. Number three, you have a president who puts up a banner that says “mission accomplished,” and the mission really ain’t been accomplished, the media is complicit by not pushing back on the administration for letting us see what war really is, the hell that it really is.

I could go on and on and on. So you’re right, Americans don’t always pay attention, but there are reasons that are in part political, in part corporate media based, that keep us from paying attention to these wars.

Ricks: I agree with the analysis and I think it’s morally worrisome. I’m basically an Obama fan; I think more of an Obama fan than you might be. But when I see him with national security, what I see is a president who desperately does not want to become a war president.

Remember the education president, George Bush? That got blown up by a war. Bush became a war president. Obama ran and was elected on a domestic agenda, and he wants to be the guy who got us out of Iraq and got us out of Afghanistan and it didn’t destroy his domestic agenda.

I think his nightmare is Lyndon Banes Johnson. LBJ had this great domestic agenda and actually did a lot of great things domestically, yet was ruined as a president by the Vietnam War. I was talking to some military officers about this the other day, and I said, “You need to understand when you walk into the Oval Office, President Obama looks up and he sees William Westmoreland, the Vietnam general, walking in. You are his worst nightmare.”

I’m here to ruin your presidency and get you mired in some endless war. So I think it is a hard problem. The media doesn’t want to pay attention. We just had a presidential general where the war in Afghanistan hardly was mentioned. I would be appalled if I were a parent who had a kid in Afghanistan and in an election campaign, nobody would talk about it.

What does that say about us, that we’re putting our kids out there and kind of fighting inattentively? I think it says we’re not taking our wars very seriously, that we are fighting them with what a friend of mine, Andrew Wrexham, who actually served in Afghanistan, called a “casual arrogance.”

If you’re going to go to war, pay some damn attention, and actually, that’s one reason I favor a draft. Military parents talk about skin in the game. The sense of not having skin in the game in this country really does bother me, and I don’t like the idea of a draft, but if that’s the price of reconnecting the people to the wars fought in their name, we might need to pay that price.

Tavis: That’s a sobering thought on Veterans Day.

Ricks: It is.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me ask this as the exit question. One of the things I was fascinated by in the text is, at least to my mind, the notion that it’s hard to tell who’s succeeding and failing anyway, given how messy these wars are. So when you say we’ve got to hold them accountable, I’m all for accountability, back to your point about you may be a bigger Obama fan than I am.

My job and yours, I think, as well, is to hold these leaders accountable. Doesn’t mean I’m not a fan, it just means as a fan, I think I have a right to hold you accountable.

So having said that, I don’t know how to do that, though, with military generals when all this stuff is so messy.

Ricks: You’re right. In World War II it was easier. How many miles is it to Berlin? How many German tanks did we blow up today? With these small, messier wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, it is harder to know what success looks like, and it is harder for generals to kind of claim success and nobody to be able to say no, it’s not.

Especially when you rotate people through. It’s very easy to say I had a successful year; the guy after me blew it. That’s one reason I’d like to see commanders just stay out there for the duration, kind of like we did in World War II.

But that said, there are ways of seeing whether you’re successful. It is clear to me, at least, that General Petraeus was more successful in Iraq than the three generals who came before him. He took prudent risk. He got different things done. He had the nerve to put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll – 100,000 fighters, 30 million bucks a month.

They didn’t surrender, they kept their weapons, they kept their organizations, they kept the areas of operation, but they stopped killing Americans. To me, that’s a bargain. He got us out of Iraq. That is success.

So while it is harder, if we pay attention and if we as a country understood the military better, we can measure success. I actually fear, because as a Congress don’t understand the military, as a people don’t understand the military, the media doesn’t understand the military, so it’s hard to hold them accountable.

So because we can’t judge professional competence, we judge people for their sex lives, which I think is crazy.

Tavis: We thank all of our military veterans on this Veterans Day for their service, and we’ve been honored tonight, on Veterans Day, to have in this chair Thomas E. Ricks, author of “The New York Times” best seller “Fiasco.” The new text is called “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.” Tom, good to have you on. Thanks for your work.

Ricks: This was great. Thank you.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm