The Generals by Thomas Ricks

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This book is so full of compelling anecdotes, character studies, and surprising, valuable lessons of leadership that I kind of can’t believe I got to it before Malcolm Gladwell or David Brooks or somebody scavenged it for good stories.

Generaling

Consider how hard it would be to get fifteen of your friends to leave for a road trip at the same time.  How much coordination and communication it would take, how likely it was to get fucked up.

Now imagine trying to move 156,000 people across the English Channel, and you have to keep it a surprise, and on the other side there are 50,350 people waiting to try and kill you.

The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War. Dominic D'Andrea, commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation

The Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War. Dominic D’Andrea, commissioned by the National Guard Heritage Foundation

Even at a lower scale, say a brigade, a brigadier general might oversee say 4,500 people and hundreds of vehicles.  Those people must be clothed, fed, housed, their medical problems attended to.  Then they have to be armed, trained, given ammo.  You have to find the enemy, kill them, evacuate the wounded, stay in communication, and keep a calm head as many people are trying to kill you and the situation is changing rapidly and constantly.

32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, on floor in front of podium, accepts reports from battalion command sergeants major as the brigade forms at the start of the Feb. 17 send-off ceremony at the Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Family members and public officials bade farewell to some 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and augmenting units, Wisconsin Army National Guard, in the ceremony. The unit is bound for pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, followed by a deployment of approximately 10 months for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.

32nd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Ed Hansen, on floor in front of podium, accepts reports from battalion command sergeants major as the brigade forms at the start of the Feb. 17 send-off ceremony at the Dane County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Madison, Wis. Family members and public officials bade farewell to some 3,200 members of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and augmenting units, Wisconsin Army National Guard, in the ceremony. The unit is bound for pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, followed by a deployment of approximately 10 months for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Larry Sommers.

Being a general is a challenging job, I guess is my point.

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U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, talk on board a C-17 while flying to Baghdad, Dec. 15, 2011.  Source.

I saw this post about Gen. Mattis, possible future Secretary of Defense, on Tom Ricks blog:

A SecDef nominee at war?: What I wrote about General Mattis in ‘The Generals’

The story was so compelling that I immediately ordered Mr. Ricks’ book:

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A fantastic read.  Eye-opening, shocking, opinionated, compelling.

The way that Marc Norman’s book on screenwriting works as a history of Hollywood:

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The Generals works as a kind of history of the US since World War II.   I’d list it with 1491: New Revelations On The Americas Before Columbus as a book I think every citizen should read.

The observation that drives The Generals is this: commanding troops in combat is insanely difficult.  Many generals will fail.  Officers who performed well at lower ranks might completely collapse.

During World War II, generals who failed to perform were swiftly relieved of command.  (Often, they were given second chances, and many stepped up).

Since World War II, swift relief of underperforming generals has not been the case.  The results for American military effectiveness have been devastating.  Much of this book describes catastrophe and disaster, as I guess war is even under the best of circumstances and the finest leadership.

Ricks is such a good writer, so engaging and compelling.  He knows to include stuff like this:

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Ricks describes the catastrophes that result from bad military leadership.  How about this, in Korea?:

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What kind of effect did this leadership have, in Vietnam?:

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He discusses the relationship of presidents and their generals:

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Here is LBJ, years later, describing his nightmares:

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Ricks can be blunt:

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Hard lessons the Marines had learned:

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Symbolically, There’s a Warning Signal Against Them as Marines Move Down the Main Line to Seoul From RG: 127 General Photograph File of the U.S. Marine Corps National Archives Identifier: 5891316 Local Identifier: 127-N-A3206

A hero in the book is O. P. Smith

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who led the Marines’ reverse advance at the Chosin Resevoir, when it was so cold men’s toes were falling off from frostbite inside their boots:

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The story of what they accomplished is incredible, worth a book itself.  Here’s Ricks talking about the book and Smith.

A continued challenge for generals is to understand the strategic circumstances they are operating under, and the political limitations that constrain them.

 

031206-F-2828D-373 Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld walks with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez after arriving at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2003. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to meet with members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, senior military leaders and the troops deployed there. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

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Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld walks with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez after arriving at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq on Dec. 6, 2003. Rumsfeld is in Iraq to meet with members of the Coalition Provisional Authority, senior military leaders and the troops deployed there. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force. (Released) source

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Recommend this book.  One of the best works of military history I’ve ever read, and a sobering reflection on leadership, strategy, and the United States.


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