The Generals: American Military Command from WW II to Today

Thomas E. Ricks

New York: The Penguin Press, 2012


                What could a survey of the US Army’s treatment of general officers have to say to a pastor? What could compare Sunday after Sunday to leading men and women into battle, sending troops into danger that could cost them their lives?

                Ricks, a long time veteran of covering US military affairs, presents a deeply historical yet analytical look at how general officers in the US Army have been trained and how some of them were relieved, forced into retirement, or transferred into less noticeable roles across the Army landscape. Ricks focuses on the Army because it is still the dominant service in our nation’s military strategy. The Air Force, established in 1947 is too young to have a strongly developed tradition of generalship. The Navy and Marine Corps follow a distinctly different tradition in handling commanders. The Army has a clear and distinct history, particularly since WW II.

                No 20th century history of the US Army could be understood apart from General George C. Marshall, the chief of staff, US Army from September 1, 1939- 1945. He shaped much of America’s military strategy from the firing of Admiral Kimmel and Army Lt. Gen. Short after the December 7th bombing of Pearl Harbor. Marshall was responsible for the rise of a relatively obscure officer named Eisenhower, who was appointed as commander in chief of the allied forces that ultimately landed in France in 1944.

                One lesson observed during the Marshall era: incompetence was quickly dealt with but second chances were offered freely. Ricks points out that  at least five men were relieved of command during WW II but each of them was given a chance to redeem himself by leading troops again into combat.

                The MacArthur Era, also known as the Korean war years, saw a much different way of generals being treated. MacArthur tended to promote those who were loyal to him. MacArthur had a radically different way of dealing with the civilian command structure of the US military establishment- he pretty much ignored them doing as he pleased. President Truman finally was forced to take action and relieve MacArthur of his command during the Korean era.

                The generals of the Vietnam era also had challenging relationships with civilian authorities such as the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, and, of course, the President.  Ricks’ chapter on that era is titled, ‘The Collapse of Generalship in the 1960’s.” The picture he paints of Army leadership here in the states and in Vietnam is an ugly one. He connects the events at My Lai and the ultimate withdrawal from the conflict in Vietnam with the failure of generalship as well as the breakdown of effective communication between Army leaders and political leaders.

                During the post Vietnam years the army seemed to drift between training generals to be strategic thinkers or training generals how to be better managers. Ricks’ survey of that period (1968-1990) is an interesting reflection on some of the many challenges of that era.

                Since 1991 the army has been more or less engaged in several ongoing conflicts notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again Ricks is able to compare and contrast American generals an their widely divergent philosophies and the conduct of the military actions in those fields. Ricks reminds his readers that it is one thing to plan an invasion and a completely different thing to plan an occupation and a withdrawal. Generals tend to be great at planning large scale military operations such as invasions and not so good at long term actions- as is evident in the continuing debate over America’s military presence in both countries.

                Finally Ricks offers a several part solution by reflecting on what advice George Marshall might give today’s generals. First, Marshall might tell generals to keep their social distance from their political leaders, yet he would insist on being heard by those leaders. Second, Marshall might recommend that generals be more adaptive and flexible than ever before. We don’t face the Red Army who threaten to march over Eastern and Western Europe as they did in the 1950’s through the late 1980’s. Third, Ricks thinks Marshall would insist on training generals to think strategically instead of tactically. This bias of Ricks is clear throughout the entire book- and I think it is one worth reflecting on for pastors and other ministry leaders (more in a moment). Further, Marshall might recommend that we relieve commanders quickly but that we build in second chances. Ricks concludes his recommendations by writing, “abide by the belief that the lives of soldiers are more important that the career of officers – and that winning wars is more important than either” (461).

                So, what does a study of generalship have to do with a pastor or ministry leader? You could argue that we are in a spiritual war, and that the stakes are still life and death. I think however, a better argument can be made for the following suggestions:

                We need to know history. As a parent of two millennials and as a community member deeply involved in the public school setting in my community I am appalled at the lack of teaching regarding history in our schools. Second, we as pastors are often very well trained in tactics but not so schooled in strategies. Conferences abound on how to do small groups, how to improve worship teams, how to plan your messages for a year and so on. Many of the ads I receive for conferences still promise that if my team and I attend our church will grow like the host church grew.

                Over the decades of pastoring I have attended a few of those conferences, come home with the newest tactics and immediately implemented tactics for which the people I serve and the community in which I live are simply not applicable. Instead I need to spend more time thinking deeply about strategic issues. One observation that Ricks made that bears repeating:

“training tends to prepare one for known problems, while education better prepares one for the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unexpected.” (419-420).


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October 7, 2013 · 3:52 pm

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