Comparing American generals from different times and dissimilar wars, fighting radically different enemies, is an exercise one undertakes at his own peril.

Some would go further and say such a befooled adventure is an invitation to sustained verbal mockery.

Yet that challenge is exactly what the serious-minded and sober journalist Thomas Ricks undertakes in his deeply probing and carefully crafted book on American generalship since World War II.

This book is not the military equivalent of the standard NFL quarterback report card sportswriters bat out on a weekly basis. It is much more introspective, grounded in knowledge gathered over two decades. In the end, still it is nearly as subjective as Football Friday. It cries out for today’s military leaders to either object or applaud.

Somewhere into the 200th page or so, the reader realizes this is Ricks’ way of answering his own unwritten but underlying questions: What’s wrong with today’s Army leadership and how did it ever get this bad?

Ricks has received a good deal of talk-show attention over the past few months. He has shown himself to be a low-key, serious-minded journalist who knows his facts cold, and delivers them without an overabundance of flamboyance, which probably portends a brief talk-TV career.

But for anyone interested in the state of our military leadership and our ability to meet the challenges of a world superpower, Ricks’ book is essential reading.

He begins by constructing a model, the gold standard of successful generalship. He chooses the two generals who made up the most successful team to wear the uniforms of the U.S. Army in the 20th century, Gen. George C. Marshall and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Then, as the next 70 years unfold on his pages, Ricks asks the somewhat unfair question: What would Marshall and Eisenhower have done?

You will recall George Marshall was the mastermind of American strategy who viewed the world coldly and clearly throughout World War II. It is said President Franklin Roosevelt awoke each morning, knowing exactly what he wanted – it was not always the same as what he wanted yesterday morning – and it was Marshall who stepped the president along the path to eventual victory.

Of course, Eisenhower was the equally cold and calculating general who could convert Marshall’s ideas into concrete action plans and carry them out.

Ricks tells the story of these two men’s false starts, seemingly insurmountable difficulties with Allied commanders, and apprehensions over the uneven talents of their own generals from George Patton to Mark Clark to Omar Bradley to Terry Allen. And from this greatest of American war successes, our author creates a formula for successful military leadership in a democracy.

The formula goes something like this: Relieve the commander who does not achieve the desired results. Relieve him immediately. But be open to giving him another chance where his talents are better suited. A corollary is: Choose your commanders because they will be successful, not because they are your friends.

Second, be prepared to change your tactics, your whole plan, even your entire thinking about a war, to fit the war and the enemy. And when necessary, do it on the fly. The corollary here is: When the book doesn’t work, rewrite it.

Armed with these two basic ingredients, Ricks probes America’s military adventures since World War II. He often finds America’s generalship wanting.

In Korea, he says Douglas MacArthur and his cronies, while churning out favorable press releases, made numerous mistakes across the peninsula, costing thousands of Army and Marine lives. He details the Chosin Reservoir Campaign, where a forgotten Marine commander, O.P. Smith, despite MacArthur, saved the First Marine Division from slaughter.

Ricks claims Matthew Ridgeway turned around a “disintegrating Army” in Korea. A Marshall protégé, Ridgeway told Washington, upon taking command: “Weather terrible. Chinese ferocious. Morale stinko.”

In Vietnam, Ricks cites Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland as examples of military leaders who never came to grips with that war. Vietnam didn’t fit the West Point pattern. Ricks claims the military never understood what Vietnam was about, so they fell back on what they knew how to do, even when it became painfully obvious it wouldn’t work.

In Ricks’ world, it is the top commander’s duty to tell the president what needs to be done to achieve the desired political end. Westmoreland was not up to the task. He quotes one high-ranking subordinate: “[Gen. Westmoreland’s] capacity for handling cognitive complexity was severely limited.”

The rules of war were changing from everything they had been taught, and neither general had the capacity to adjust.

As we come closer to the present, Ricks, the former senior Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post and earlier, for the Wall Street Journal, becomes more opinionated.

He quotes a 1985 report: “Bold and creative officers could no longer survive in the Army [which is] led by generals who behave more like corporate officers than leaders.”

In the first Iraq War, Ricks accuses Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf of limited insight. While everyone at home thought we had won, Ricks asks: “What did we win?” In the end, Saddam Hussein still was in power and the Republican Guard still was intact.

In the second Iraq War, the author blames Gen. Tommy Franks for giving little serious thought about what to do after achieving military victory in Baghdad. What would George Marshall have done? In fact, Ricks discredits Franks for making a mess of two wars he didn’t comprehend, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

What the modern American wars have shown Ricks is that the Army is better at improving tactics than it is at improving strategy. The old adversaries are gone, non-state forces loom larger than ever, but the old boys’ club still rules West Point.

The later part of this book is highly judgmental and mostly critical of today’s Army. While many of Ricks’ conclusions are controversial and based on somewhat subjective arguments, the reader will be hard put to dispute his huge body of facts.

Agree or not, anyone who ever has worn a uniform or waited for a son or daughter to return home from harm’s way, will be interested in Ricks’ take on why today’s generals do not measure up to the team of Marshall and Eisenhower.


The Generals: American

Military Command From

World War II to Today

By Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Press

556 pages, $36

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.