I don’t usually do book reviews, I read mostly academic or legal type publications that no one with a life reads by choice. I make it a point to set aside time 2 or 3 times a week to do what I call my “Grudge Reading.”
I’ll peruse SCOTUS cases, Advance Sheets or read some academic work that I think might help me in a future article. It’s my time to push through all that tedious stuff that could make a lifelong crankster go narcoleptic on you.
When I picked up The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today – by Thomas E. Ricks1, it was as part the research phase of an upcoming article. I expected it to be exactly what it appeared to be… a monster 600-page journal of tactics, statistics, and tedious sets of data – any time a book has 100-plus pages of footnotes, you can expect some dry reading.
What I found was a comprehensive and slightly disturbing picture of US military leadership over the last 75 years and a collection of answers to questions I had mulled over forever.
How many times have you tried to deconstruct Gen. George Marshall’s choices for command in WW2 in an effort to figure out why he chose Eisenhower?
A more idiotic choice didn’t exist.
But I guess that is the difference between a Military Genius and someone who just writes about them. If it had been my decision… I would have made the obvious choice, Patton – and we would have lost the war.
Marshall commanded a young, poorly equipped, poorly trained, inexperienced Army and he knew was about to get sucked into the most deadly global conflict in the history of human warfare.
Most people don’t realize that the United States only took part in the last 6 months of WW1. Experienced general officers were scarcer than honest politicians and a General Officer with combat Eexperience was even scarcer.
The enemy was waltzing across 3 continents with impunity.
Our European allies had all either capitulated, been occupied by the enemy or were on the verge of surrender. Marshall needed a Commanding General who could turn the war around.
A tactician with a boatload of combat experience. Someone who could lead what was left of the Allies and cobble the combined armies into a formidable force.
In 1939, when Marshall selected him, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a newly promoted Brigadier. A desk jockey with zero combat experience – a guy who was badgering Gen. Patton for a chance at command.
What was Marshall thinking?
Ricks paints a clear picture of what Marshall was thinking. The clarity of Marshall’s decision to bypass Patton and MacArthur in favor of Eisenhower is painfully obvious if one understand the command view.
Ricks focuses on the personalities and command styles of the men who made the decisions that won and lost battles, but it is the reasons behind the decisions that are so revealing.
After all what is effective command? Giving orders? Maybe giving orders that people will follow out of obligation or legality? Giving orders is a tool of command, not the measure of it. Effective command is simply the ability to make the right decisions on the fly.
Command is the quality that took a runaway orphan, too lazy to work
in the coal mines, and landed him, after just 12 years in service,
as the Commanding General of the most formidable Division in the world – The 82nd Abn.
The Generals is a searchlight into the reasoning and wisdom that led to unorthodoxies in individual command theory from Marshall’s reasoning in selecting Eisenhower for Supreme Allied Commander all the way to “Stormin Norman’s” handling of invading Iraq and every major success or screw up in-between.
These are the little things that have been the tightrope walk between victory and defeat.
Thomas Ricks delves into the changes in command theory over the decades by clearly illuminating each significant commander’s style, logic and how he dealt with both success and failure. He goes on to narrate the devolution and recovery cycle of US military command ideology and implementation ever since.
I know how hard it can be to take a technical narration and present in a way that it flows for the reader – Ricks has it down to an art.
The Generals makes the bizarre logic behind some of the most effective command decisions focus and sharpen. His narration is both entertaining and challenging but it goes a step farther and doubles as a blueprint for effective corporate leadership.
This book swiftly migrated from my grudge reading list to recreational reading. My wife did finally ban me from reading it while she was also reading… seems it is aggravating to have me interrupt her every 30 mins with, “Hey… did you know…?”
This is a book that should be in the library of every commissioned officer and corporate executive. The command theories and various executions of them is a blue print of both how to succeed and how to fail… and how to deal with either.
The Art of War presents the wisdom behind effective command decisions – The Why of Command.
The Generals gives you practical application of good command or management – The How of Command.
1-The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today – by Thomas E. Ricks , Penguin (2012)Available in E-book, Audio and Hardcopy priced from about $9.99 to 45.99.