Tracing Military Failures, Holding 'The Generals' Accountable
In The Generals, Thomas Ricks argues that the failures in America's recent wars can be directly traced to failures of those in command.
Ricks examines U.S. military leadership from World War Two to the present day, and concludes that the mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan can be traced to the Army's inability to come to terms with all the lessons of Vietnam.
Over the course of decades, he says, the U.S. Army became an institution that operated to the benefit of its officers, encouraged caution and corporate careerism, and confused tactical success with the strategy needed to win. Most important: the Army forgot the necessity to fire generals who failed.
As part of our series on books we missed in 2012, Ricks talks with NPR's Neal Conan about how a lack of accountability has shaped the military.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Each December we try to catch up with a few of the important books we missed earlier in the year, and we begin with "The Generals," Thomas Ricks' examination of U.S. military leadership from World War II to the present day, a book that traces mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Army's inability to come to terms with all the lessons of Vietnam.
Over the course of decades, he argues that the U.S. Army became an institution that operated to the benefit of its officers, encouraged caution and corporate careerism, and confused tactical success with the strategy needed to win. Most importantly, he says, the Army forgot the necessity to fire generals who failed.
We want to hear from people in uniform today. Do you trust your officers to make decisions about what's effective for what wins, or what's effective for their careers? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Thomas Ricks joins us here in Studio 3A. He's the author of "The Generals," contributing editor to Foreign Policy magazine and a fellow at the Center for New American Security. Good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION, Tom.
THOMAS RICKS: Thank you.
CONAN: And wanted to ask you about the Army that won the war in 1991, in the first Gulf War, and Americans' shock that that Army that triumphed in the desert performed so badly with - after the occupation of Iraq.
RICKS: It's the same Army, trained in much the same way. It's the post-Vietnam Army. The Army after Vietnam was a disaster in the '70s. And they had a magnificent rebuilding. They re-equipped the force, they changed the way they trained the force to much more realistic, tough training, and they, most importantly, got a new way of getting people. They moved to a draft from an all-volunteer force.
In the '80s, the Army really put together a tactically efficient force, a field force, small units, infantry, well-trained cohesive units that knew its job. The Army rebuilding was magnificent after Vietnam, but it was insufficient. They took this new body, this muscular, tough new force, and essentially put the old head on top of it.
Arguably the worst thing we did in Vietnam was the quality of our generals, generals who - guys who really didn't think about what they were doing, were unable to adapt or adjust. And the Army didn't address this. They didn't go back and say how do we train, how do we educate our generals.
So you had a force totally focused on winning the first battle. And you actually used the term won the 1991 war. I don't think we won that war. I think we began that war. We began a 20-year-long war with Iraq. Norman Schwarzkopf botched the ending of the war, along with his civilian leaders.
And Saddam Hussein, by the way, we found out later, believed he won the '91 war. When your enemy thinks he's won, that means it's not really a determinative outcome.
CONAN: Saddam was not always attached that closely to reality, but I'll grant your point. And certainly that it was the start of a 20-year war was accurate because we then enforced the long no-fly zones, first over southern Iraq - northern Iraq, then over southern Iraq, and there were various bouts of cruise missile firings at Iraq and then finally the invasion of Iraq.
RICKS: But the comparisons you draw between Norman Schwarzkopf, seen as a tactical success in the first Gulf War, and Tommy Franks, seen as an utter disaster in Iraq.
Well, except remember - both won the first battle. The difference was that Tommy Franks really believed he'd won the whole war. Schwarzkopf kind of did too. And by the way, Saddam Hussein was perhaps given to flights of fancy but knew when he had to lie and when he didn't. He really thought: I have taken on the American superpower and their British and Saudi friends, and I've survived.
That was unique in the modern Arab world to do that. And so he arguably said, yeah, I'm alive after the Americans gave me a thumping. That's a victory in the Arab world. He stood - rode high. Now, he had to lie about things like having weapons, chemical weapons and biological weapons because he lived in a tough neighborhood.
CONAN: He was trying to impress the Iranians, to prevent them from re-engaging in the conflict that he had started some years before that.
RICKS: In which he had used chemical weapons profusely.
CONAN: And only survived on the battlefield because of it. So there was a reason a lot of people thought he would never give them up, and well, that led to another set of problems. But anyway, as we look at the Army and its generalship, you point to Vietnam and the opportunity that the Army had that you say it utterly failed after the My Lai Massacre, after the investigation into the My Lai Massacre, after so many people looked at this and said wait a minute, this was not Lieutenant Calley, this was not Captain Medina, this went up the chain of command and it was not just the Americal Division.
RICKS: Yeah, the division commander himself looked to be complicit in the destruction of documents and the cover-up of what happened at My Lai. Yet the Army, faced with this, let the guy off the hook. General Koster, the commander of the Americal Division in Vietnam, arguably brought more dishonor upon the Army than any general since Benedict Arnold.
Yet he wasn't court-martialed, he was demoted one grade, to a brigadier general, and he was allowed to stay in the Army for another year or so. I think it really was a moral failure on the part of the Army, which redeemed itself, I think, only because its internal investigation was so tough and so acute.
The guy leading the investigation, General Ray Pierce, kind of became one of my heroes as I wrote the book, and I think he kind of redeemed the soul of the Army with that tough investigation.
CONAN: Yet the tough investigation was not made public, and therefore it was not enforced on anyone else in the Army. The investigations in My Lai, well, General Koster's not being punished; why should anybody else be punished above the level of Lieutenant Calley? So all of this went - there was no accountability.
RICKS: Yeah, and it's the lack of accountability, the dwindling of accountability, that is the core theme of the book, that in World War II there was real accountability for generals. In Korea there was less. In Vietnam accountability collapsed. And we never really restored that.
Now, I'm a military traditionalist. I believe in military traditions, that they're there for a reason, and relief of failing generals is a longtime tradition in the American military going back to the Revolution and the Civil War and World War I.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from R(ph) in Oklahoma: I left the military a few years ago after 10 years of service, partly because it felt to me like a lot of officers were more concerned with their OER and promotion prospects than they were with the well-being of their soldiers and properly accomplishing a mission. I'd rather remain anonymous.
RICKS: The OER is the Officer Evaluation Report, basically your annual performance review. And yeah, a lot of young officers get out of the military these days for that reason, that they feel it's not a meritocracy. They feel that good work is not rewarded and poor work is not punished and that it's much more a matter of who you know than how good you are at what you do.
CONAN: At the same time, there was, at the time I covered the Pentagon, the so-called zero defect problem. Any bad mark on your performance evaluation meant that you were not going to be promoted because the Army was in a shrinking period like we're going to have over the next 10 years. And that, you write, was a - anybody who was innovative, anybody who challenged anything got a bad mark on their record - well, that meant they were out.
RICKS: Well, the funny thing is, zero defects doesn't mean you're out necessarily, it just means you won't get promoted. Zero defects is a big excuse in the Army for not doing anything. And it occurs when people are not given the ability to do their own jobs, to succeed or fail on their own terms.
RICKS: And you wind up being micro-managed by people above you because they don't know you well enough, they don't trust you, and people are coming and going constantly. If you leave people in responsible positions for long periods of time and just say get the job done, we'll check in with you later, which is very much the way it was in World War II, you get a very different set of incentives towards success and prudent risk-taking.
CONAN: You also pointed out that several of those officers who were sacked during the Second World War, including Terry Allen(ph) - we mentioned him at the top of the program - given a second chance.
RICKS: Terry Allen really is one of my heroes. He's just a tough, hell-for-leather old cavalryman. He was shot through the jaw in World War I, and when he got mad during World War II, occasionally there would be a whistling sound as the air blew out of the side of his mouth. And a hard drinker, occasionally had to crawl to his Jeep at the end of the night.
But George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, liked him for his aggressiveness, for the way he encouraged his soldiers and got them together with high spirit.
CONAN: Pioneer in night training.
RICKS: Yeah, and Allen bailed us out on the Sicily bridgehead, as we were landing in Sicily in the summer of 1943. The Germans' counterattacked. They were just one kilometer, six-tenths of a mile, from the beach when he suddenly launched a counterattack and surprised the Germans.
Later on he wins the culminating battle of the Sicily campaign in August of 1943. For his troubles, at the end of this battle he was fired by Omar Bradley. Now, George Marshall liked him well enough, and George Marshall said this is good guy, and he almost immediately gave him another division that he was allowed - that Allen was allowed to take back into combat the following year.
CONAN: And interestingly, that first division that he was fired from, the Big Red One, continued to operate as one of the most efficient and renowned divisions in American history.
RICKS: It's interesting. The Big Red One is actually a theme that runs through this book. George Marshall was in that division in World War I; Terry Allen, I write about, in World War II. William DePuy commanded it in Vietnam, interestingly; he's the guy who invented the term search and destroy. And then actually I was embedded with the First Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004. So it has a long, distinguished history, and I write about a lot of it in this book.
CONAN: And it is astonishing to realize that many of the officers, and you mentioned General DePuy, you start out with him in Normandy, in the invasion of D-Day, and he is then after Vietnam, we think of as two wars later - indeed it is two wars later - but many decades later he is the architect of the Army that is rebuilt after the debacle of Vietnam.
RICKS: And it even extends, DePuy's career even extends down to the Gulf War. The force that went into the Gulf War under Schwarzkopf was basically the force that DePuy created. And in one of his last public acts he testified before Congress about how he though the Gulf War would go, and he predicted the Highway of Death.
He said it'll be very similar to the Falaise Gap that you saw in Normandy, at the end of the Normandy campaign in the summer of '44. One of the things I wanted to do in this book is something historians generally don't do. Historians seem to me to drill down into one subject, one event, one person. I wanted to do kind of a longitudinal history of the modern Army, partly because it struck me how personalities surface in wars again and again.
So Colonel Matthew Ridgway in 1939 helps George Marshall plan the revamping of the U.S. Army. Ridgway commands in Korea in 1951 and turns the war around. Ridgway gets in an argument with President Eisenhower about the future of the Army during the 1950s and kind of leaves the Army in a huff.
You get several guys like this that run through our history for decades, and that's one thing I try to capture here.
CONAN: Interestingly a lot of controversy over the number of Germans allowed to slip through the noose of the Falaise Gap in 1944 and a lot of controversy of the number of Republican Guards allowed to slip through - out of the Highway of Death before it closed in Iraq in 1991.
Our guest is Tom Ricks. He's the author most recently of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." We'd like to hear from those of you in uniform. What about your officers? Do you trust them to do the right thing, to do whatever it takes to win or to do whatever's good for their careers? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's December, which means we're going back for a few of the best books we missed during our air - over our air over the course of the year. Today Thomas Ricks. His book "The Generals" begins with a look at World War II and the 90th Division in Normandy. Ricks uses the turnaround of the inexperienced, unorganized division as an illustration of how the swift relief of some officers cleared the way for others with more competence.
That policy of fast relief helped the 90th improve radically, going from a problem division to one of the best in the European Theater. More about how that policy of fast relief worked in World War II in an excerpt from "The Generals" at our website; that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we'd like to hear from those of you in uniform or who served earlier. Do you trust officers to do what's best to win, or do you trust them to do what's best for their careers? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's start with Kevin, Kevin's with us from Oswego in New York.
KEVIN: Yes, I was just wondering about the comment that was made about General Schwarzkopf missing the boat at the end of the first Iraq War. There was a U.N. mandate to throw the Iraqis out of Kuwait, which he fulfilled. They went in with the Powell Doctrine of maximum force, a clear mission and a clear exit strategy, and they fulfilled that mission.
I really do not understand your author's criticism of General Schwarzkopf in the first Gulf War, and I'm interested in hearing it.
RICKS: Sure. To elaborate on the point I was making about Saddam Hussein - after we invaded Iraq, we captured the tapes of his cabinet meetings. In one of his cabinet meetings at the end of the war he's saying, I don't know why, but the Americans have given me a ceasefire. They have stopped fighting. The Republican Guard, his best force, is getting out.
He said, I don't know what's going on here, but you know, this looks pretty good. And indeed in the Arab world this was seen by Saddam Hussein and by others as a victory for Saddam Hussein. The war ended rather prematurely. We did not accomplish the mission that we assumed would lead to the fall of Saddam Hussein. We did not protect the Shiites of the South, who rose up and assumed we would help them out.
Schwarzkopf allowed attack helicopters to be flown by the Iraqi military, and those helicopters flew down the alleys of the cities of southern Iraq and mowed down Shiites and killed them. So the invasion of Iraq, without any plan over how to end it, with only assumptions about how it would end, wound up not with a termination of the war but rather the beginning of a 20-year-long war.
CONAN: And Kevin, were you there?
CONAN: What was your experience?
KEVIN: My understanding is that we were there to throw Saddam out of Kuwait. That was a U.N. mandate. That was our only mission. If we had marched into Baghdad, we would have had the same debacle, if not worse, that we had the last time we marched into Baghdad, expecting rose petals to be thrown on the streets as we marched in.
RICKS: I think there were other options available besides all or nothing. Some of these were discussed after the end of the war here but too late, planning for, for example, taking the oil fields of the South and holding them in stewardship for the U.N. and for the Iraqi people, which would cut off a lot of money from Saddam Hussein.
Protect - and doing what we ultimately did, which is to institute no-fly zones in both the North and the South to protect the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. We could have taken steps like that earlier, before Iraqis were being slaughtered by him.
CONAN: There was also another point, the nearly forgotten battle of Khafji, opening skirmish of the first Gulf War. You say that Norman Schwarzkopf drew the wrong - didn't draw the right lessons from that.
RICKS: No, there's a good argument that Schwarzkopf failed to understand what happened at Khafji, partly because it was an action of the U.S. Marines and Saudi Arabian forces. What it revealed was that Iraqi forces were entirely unprepared to deal with American combined forces on the ground and in the air, and the Iraqi convoys were just chewed up by American air power, both fixed-wing and helicopters.
And the Iraqi commanders reported back they had never seen anything like this. One Iraqi battalion commander said he suffered more damage in half an hour from the Americans than he had in eight years against Iran.
CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much for the call.
KEVIN: Sure thing.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Chris(ph), and Chris is with us from Campbellville - Campbell, Kentucky.
CHRIS: Thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead.
CHRIS: I'm going to firmly agree with your previous caller and disagree with your author that is on your show today.
CONAN: Go ahead.
CHRIS: I am also a veteran of that - the first Gulf War, and once against it's hard for the generals, either era, my son also served in Iraq last year. It's very difficult, if nearly impossible, to command a force from a general level when you're dealing with a vague instruction from a commander-in-chief versus the clear and distinct mission that we had during that - once again, as he stated, was both congressional and U.N. mandated.
Now at that point you're turning(ph) the commanders as they were in Vietnam with basically doing what the president wants you to do. And so the fault, I think, for any lessons that were not learned clearly lies upon the commander-in-chief and his view, not with generals that are following the orders that were given to them.
RICKS: I'd agree with that. I would say the preponderance of blame both in 1991 and 2003 must rest with the civilian leadership. In the second Bush administration, I think people really do agree now that the Bush administration made huge mistakes in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
That said, I think Schwarzkopf could have done a lot better. Like a lot of generals of his time, his era, he was so focused on winning the first battle that he did not really think much about winning the war, about war termination. He showed up at Safwan to negotiate the ceasefire without a good political advisor and I believe without even any advisors from the Air Force.
This was simply not clear thinking about how the war was supposed to end, and I don't think he had decent plans for it.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Chris.
CONAN: I'm sorry. Go ahead.
CHRIS: Our mission was to liberate the people of Kuwait, which we very swiftly did. There as - you know, that was not a goal that was authorized by Congress using their war powers. It was not authorized by anyone in the United Nations to specifically topple Saddam Hussein.
Now, I don't see how you can consider that a failure when the objectives that we were mandated were achieved.
RICKS: I would say it's a failure because we didn't get out of the area. We wound up stuck for another 15 years - eight, seven - how many years? From 1991 until 2011, so...
CONAN: Almost 20 years.
RICKS: Almost 20 years of day - every day. We flew every few years as many no-fly missions as were flown in the entire 1991 war. More cruise missiles were fired in the Desert Fox raids of, I think, '97 than were fired in the 1991 war. So we were pretty actively at war with Iraq for the following 20 years. I don't think you can say you've won a war if A) the enemy doesn't think he's lost, and B) you're still fighting.
CONAN: Let's go next to William, and William's on the line with us from Cincinnati.
WILLIAM: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I was in the military for about 12 years total, four years in the regular Army and eight years in the National Guard, did three years total. I spent a lot of time, had a good time with it. One of the things that I wanted to talk about, your author describes himself as a traditionalist - really military traditions, you said that you're real big on that.
One thing that I noticed after 9/11 that was a little bit disturbing from my point view, and I'll name the name of General Shinseki, it seemed to me like he started changing all these things that didn't need change, that weren't worth the effort put into it, and all this money was thrown at the military after 9/11.
And it was like he had a free - well, he had a bank account with no limit, basically. The next thing you know, they're changing uniforms, they're changing head gear, and it wasn't really even an improvement. It was almost like it was to make a statement, like I'm in charge. And I was kind of wondering what your thoughts were on that.
RICKS: First of all, I basically agree with you that General Shinseki's initiative to move to the black beret was a crazy thing to be doing at that point. But here again I would go also to the civilian problem. We have not had a president since 9/11 encourage American youth to join the military. I can't remember one public statement: Hey kids, go join the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and so on.
So I think part of this is an inattention from the top. The second - you're right about the amount of money thrown at the military. It's astonishing. There really was an unlimited bank account, a blank check given to the military since 9/11. We have a military, an entire generation of officers now, who have no idea of how to operate effectively, efficiently and economically, how to achieve 90 percent of the effect by spending only half as much money.
And I really worry about morale in the Army when austerity really sets in, because the defense budget is going to go way down.
CONAN: You also pointed out in your book, after Pearl Harbor a lot of people are held accountable. You can still get arguments about whether Admiral Kimmel and General Short were responsible for the deficiencies of Pearl Harbor. But in any case, they got fired, and so did a bunch of other people. After 9/11, nobody got fired.
RICKS: Yeah. After 9/11, nobody got fired. Now 9/11 is not primarily a military problem, though the Air Force clearly had some problems, and the 9/11 Commission believed that they were lied to by Air Force officials. Yeah, but nobody in the intelligence community gets fired either. No civilian leaders get fired. And clearly there were big signals, red blinking lights about the 9/11 planning that were missed. So the lack of accountability there is kind of shocking, probably the most important event in our country in many decades and nobody seemed to be at fault.
CONAN: And going back to that - the lessons that you draw, going back to the Second World War and those generals who were repeatedly replaced. And this was - I forget the percentage, but a huge number of division commanders - these are major generals - got fired during the war, and obviously they created room for their more creative and - well, for younger officers to rise and be tested.
RICKS: One of my favorite trivia questions, and I actually was speaking at Fort Leavenworth the other day to 900 majors. I said, does anybody near - here know who Major General James Chaney is, C-H-A-N-E-Y? Nobody knew. The answer: Major General James Chaney was Dwight Eisenhower's predecessor as the American commander in England. George Marshall fired him, and Chaney wound up commanding a boot camp in Wichita Falls.
You're right. Of the 155 men who commanded in combat, divisions in combat in the Army in World War II, 16 were fired, so 16 out of 155 fired for combat ineffectiveness. Of those, I believe five were given other divisions in combat later in the war. So it's a really dynamic system, a Darwinian system.
And you're right. People like Lloyd Fredendall or James Chaney are moved out, and nobody remembers them now. And that's why we know names of promising younger officers: Matthew Ridgway, Dwight Eisenhower, Jim Gavin. They rose up.
CONAN: Here's an email from Dan(ph) in Orem, Utah: In such brooks as - books as Steve Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers" and Rick Atkinson's "An Army at Dawn," one can read about mixed bags of generals, their feuds and idiotic commands issued far from the front: Fredendall, who you just mentioned, building an underground bunker palace in the middle of the North African desert; Monty - of course General Montgomery, the British commander - planning his grand invasion of Holland; nutty antics of Patton - George Patton, of course - and at least one suicidal charge, Eisenhower holding Patton back at the Rhine. Are today's generals really any worse?
RICKS: Yes, I would say so. Patton was a successful general. Patton may have been nuts, but he was a combat-effective general, and that's why he was preserved specifically for the pursuit. Terry Allen, a successful general. So I think, yeah. In World War II, you had about 90 days: be successful or get removed and see somebody else come up. The 90th Division had three division commanders in the summer of 1944. The last one was really successful.
CONAN: You talk about, getting back to the first Gulf War, a bitter argument between Norman Schwarzkopf and one of his corps commanders, General Frank - not the Tommy Franks, the other one - and that said, you know, anybody else who did that during the Second World War would have been fired. Really? In the course of a four-day ground battle?
RICKS: I think it would have been possible. People got relieved very quickly. One of my favorite moments - I don't think I included it in the book - Jim Gavin, who is sometimes critical of relieves, turns to a battalion commander in Normandy and says: Cross that causeway. And the battalion commander says: I don't feel so good. Gavin turns to the executive office - officer of the battalion and says: You have the battalion.
That's how quickly you could get fired in World War II. He had lost the confidence. Gavin lost his confidence in that battalion commander. So I think, yeah. I think because you have this Darwinian process in - of accountability in World War II, successful generals were promoted and unsuccessful ones were moved out.
CONAN: Our guest is Thomas E. Ricks, author of "The Generals Military - American Military Command from World War II to Today." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Ken(ph), and Ken's on the line with us from Lincolnton in North Carolina.
KEN: Hey. How are you doing today, sir?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
KEN: I was calling in to talk about the transition the Army recently made from the brigade or from the combat brigade to a brigade combat team and how that's affected support soldiers. The soldiers now don't have a battalion commander. Say if you are an MI soldier, your battalion commander might be an engineer or even a military police officer, and he has no experience in your field.
And that transition is what a lot of support soldiers fall directly under an infantry brigade commander. They really have no military intelligence - or whatever support they are - leadership to turn to if they have questions, if they need some development. And I think that's contributed to the lack of efficiency in current military leadership today.
RICKS: Ken, have you seen this in deployed units in Afghanistan or Iraq?
KEN: Yeah. My first unit deployment, I was actually in a combat brigade, and my last unit deployment, I was in a brigade combat team. So my first unit deployment, my battalion commander had done the exact same thing as I had done before. My last unit deployment as an MI soldier, I had an engineer and a personnel guy, an admin guy.
RICKS: I think nothing can be more dismaying in the field than to have a commander who doesn't understand what you're doing. Now there's going to be commanders, especially as you rise up in echelons, who are not out of your specialty, but they should make a special effort to understand what you're doing. If that's not happening, I think that's a hit on leadership.
KEN: I agree, and it really affects the younger officers as well because whereas, before, a new captain would have an MI battalion commander or a brigade commander to look up to, now he has to report directly to an infantry officer. And if he does disagree with the way things are being done, a captain is not going to be able to convince a hardheaded colonel that this is the way MI soldiers should be employed. And it's contributed to ineffectiveness in leadership and at the lower levels for the officers.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ken.
KEN: Thank you. Have a good day.
CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Elizabeth(ph) in San Francisco: My brother-in-law was in the 173rd in Vietnam. He tells a harrowing story of how his commanding officer split the company in half, demanded that half the platoon take a hill. The recon guy said the Viet Cong were in the tunnels. They would be annihilated. Nevertheless, the commander stated: You either take the hill or we will shoot you here. My brother-in-law was on the cleanup committee and carried his dead brethren down the hill after the slaughter and the Viet Cong had disappeared. That's when he knew the commander was more interested in another stripe than his own boys.
RICKS: Yeah. I think you hear stories like this with soldiers in every war but especially for Vietnam. William DePuy, as a general in Vietnam, observed that we see to run the Vietnam War for the benefit of our Army officer corps. So for example, they have rotation of both enlisted soldiers and officers. But enlisted soldiers do one year in frontline combat units. Officers do just six months. Ostensibly, the purpose was to give enough officers seasoning. But really it became just ticket punching and it was unfair to the soldier. One thing a soldier deserves when you send him to war is to give him as good as leadership as you can. Not everybody's going to be a great leader, but give him as effective a leadership as you can. When you put a green commander in a unit, you increase the chances of those soldiers dying. We know statistically that commanders in their first few months of combat leadership are more likely to lose their soldiers than commanders with more experience.
CONAN: More with Tom Ricks after a short break. And if you served in the Armed Forces, do you trust your superiors to make decisions about what works to win or what secures their careers? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News
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CONAN: Today, our guest is Tom Ricks. He's the author of "The Generals," one of the important books that came out earlier in 2012. We missed talking about it when it was published a few months ago. We're taking the time today. If you served in the U.S. military, we want to talk with you too. Do you trust your higher ups to make decisions about how to win or about how to protect their careers? 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we've been talking about a lot of the generals saying this and otherwise in recent American history. I want to ask you about a lieutenant colonel that you write and about the future of the U.S. Army and that's Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, deputy commander of H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment, who spoke to soldiers attending a Purple Heart ceremony.
RICKS: He went to this Purple Heart ceremony and then he went back and was thinking about it. He ended up writing an essay about the failures of leadership, of generalship in the American Army in Iraq. And Paul Yingling, in that essay, concluded that a private who loses his rifle is punished more nowadays than a general who loses his part of a war. For his pains, Yingling got a lot of grief from Army generals. He was promoted to colonel by the skin of this teeth. He was denied entry to the Army War College, interestingly, where his writings are used to teach. But, apparently he was good enough to be to have read there but not to be student there. So he's retired from the Army now, and plans to teach high school in Colorado.
The thing about Yingling that I like and I think that makes it so important is not just his observation, it's also his characteristic. He was speaking truth to power. And this was another great tradition in American Army going back to George Marshall. If I could say there was one primary characteristic that George Marshall brought to being an American Army officer, it was his habit. His sense that it was his duty to speak truth to power. He did so in World War I, when as captain he grabbed General Pershing, the American commander, by the arm and demanded to be heard out. People thought he ended his career then. He did so in 1938 when he was a brigadier general and he was in the oval office and President Roosevelt kind of manipulatively said, isn't that right, George? About a military decision.
And Marshall, number one, made it clear that his name with General Marshall, not George. And number two, he said no, I disagree. And everybody in the room was shocked. Who was this brigadier general disagreeing with this president? But Roosevelt knew that he needed somebody like that as they were going into war and it's the reason that George Marshall became Army chief of staff, a very important position then. And he presided over the creation of the modern American military superpower.
When he took over the Army on Sept. 1, 1939,the Army had about 185,000 people. When he stepped down six years later, the Army had 8.25 million people. He created, as the chief of that, the modern American superpower. And he did it primarily through this habit, I think, of speaking truth to power and holding officers ruthlessly accountable to be successful.
CONAN: Getting back to Lieutenant Colonel Yingling, you tell another story. This is a higher ranking general Richard Cody, the vice chief of staff of the Army speaking to a group of captains at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when one inquired about the Yingling, article, the essay he had, well, boldly published under his own name rather than anonymously, and General Cody responded by asking the assembled captains for their opinion to the Army's generals.
RICKS: Well, also, General Cody's attitude was he can't criticize us till he's walked a model in our shoes which means you can't be criticize a general unless you've been a general. That's like saying you're only going to get cancer treatment from an oncologist who's had cancer. I think that's nuts.
CONAN: Let's get some more callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Sean's(ph) on the line with us from St. Louis.
SEAN: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I served five years in the United States Marine Corps in aviation. And I can agree and disagree with your speaker or you guest, rather. The very first year I was in - I spent my first year in training, but my very first unit upon arriving there, it was clear that the commanding officer, it was the C-130 squadron - and all he wanted to do was push flight hours, push flight hours, break records so he look better to the Air Group Command.
And then about a year in there was a change of command, and we got a new lieutenant coronel commanding. And we saw a dramatic shift in the focus. He cut our flight hours in half. You know, under the first commanding officer we were doing 12 hours on, 12 hours off. And the new commanding officer made it very clear that his top priority was morale.
And so, I mean I think what he was really gunning for was his job is firstly to accomplish the mission, secondly to look after those under his command, and thirdly was his career. And the entire unit really responded to this. And this was during the crisis - like the mudslides and whatnot and the tsunamis that were happening over near Japan, Indonesia. And we were able to rapidly respond to that because all of us were ready to put in the 12 hours on, 12 hours off for this new commanding officer that clearly show he cared about us above his own career.
RICKS: I think this is really important. And people who have been in the military understand this, the difference between good leaders and bad leaders. It worries me though as a nation that we have lost hold of that. This 1 percent war. One percent has fought our wars for the last 10 years. We have a media, a public, a Congress, that don't understand the basic anecdote that our caller just described, that wouldn't really immediately graph the meaning of that. And it's a great story because the second guy actually gets the productivity the first guy wanted but he understood you got it by being a good leader, not by just driving people until they drop.
SEAN: Yes, sir.
CONAN: It is also interesting that the military, as you say, in current political parlance, is revered, yet only citizens these days tend to remove military generals.
RICKS: Yeah. And it bothers me that we don't have a Congress or an executive branch that really seems capable of pushing our generals below the very top level and in fact kind of appoints people who are kind of pliable, manipulatable, to be our four-star officers. I actually think our current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, is not as easily pushed around as some of our chairmans of the Joint Chief - like Richard Myers and Peter Pace.
But you need an executive branch, a president who welcomes officers with a spine, who can talk back candidly. You really want robust, tough, candid, honest, trusting discussions between the president and his senior military leaders. And we don't always get it partly because we don't have an executive branch or a legislative branch that know how to do that. We also don't have generals who understand that that's part of their duty and know how to do it as well. So I think there's a failure on both sides. But yeah, the bottom line is, as the caller indicates, one way to support the troops is to give them good leaders. They deserve it.
CONAN: Sean, thanks very much.
SEAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Rolando. Rolando is with us from Yuma, Arizona.
ROLANDO: Good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
ROLANDO: Just like Sean, I was actually five years in Marine Corps, in aviation as well. I was an avionics Marine. And just like he mentioned, there's a careful balance between troop welfare and mission accomplishment that these officers and senior enlisted have to kind of walk. Unfortunately for me, the squad that I came from, morale was at an all time low. We routinely - the entire time I was there we routinely worked 12, 13-hour days to get these flight hours logged in for the CO and for, you know, the rest of the senior leadership. And as a result, everyone's personal qualifications were down.
Any kind of personal problems that anyone had to take care of throughout the day were, you know, relegated to tertiary and, you know, they weren't even addressed all. Somebody's wife is, you know, giving birth, you know, they have to take annual leave or they weren't allowed to attend to, you know, emergencies, family emergencies. Just, you know, we were there, essentially held prisoner for 13 hours. Just tending to this aircraft.
And you bring it up to your leadership that its affecting morale and it's also, you know, as such is affecting, you know, the maintenance of the aircraft because people start to cut corners. People start to not, you know, care, take the most pride in their work. And it's because they feel like their leadership just doesn't care.
RICKS: Because they feel specifically like their leadership cares more about their own careers than they do about the people they are leading.
ROLANDO: And the thing is, you know, I don't want to make a blanket statement and say that, you know, I don't trust all officers and all senior enlisted. There are few I've met that go out of their way to make sure that the mission is accomplished, and more importantly the troops are look after and make sure we'll have enough time to, you know, little things - have enough time to eat, have enough time to attend to their wives and husbands.
But, you know, most leadership I've come across, they don't care about that. They came up in a Marine Corps where they weren't allowed, well, to do anything but come in to work. And you know, the result is, you know, rampant high divorce rates and all that stuff.
RICKS: Yeah. I think we should be pleased here that we're condemning all military leaders, and certainly I'm not. We have some terrific generals, like General Mattis, a four-star general now at Central Command. General Dubik, recently retired Army Lieutenant General. Just a really bright guy, and unusually rather than going into the defense industry like a lot of generals did, upon retiring as three-star general, he went to Johns Hopkins University to do a Ph.D. in philosophy.
ROLANDO: I will say, like - a big problem is that a lot of senior enlisted and officers as well, that no one is really allowed to think for themselves. And that's a big problem. Everyone is just kind of passing a message down from higher headquarters.
RICKS: Well, it's called micromanagement. And it's the opposite of what you want; you want leaders confident enough in their subordinates to give them the mission and then to get out of their hair, which is kind of the George Marshall style in World War II, which is here's the mission, you figure out how to do it. And by the way, the lives and the morale of your men is more important than your own. Explicitly in World War II, George Marshall ran the U.S. military on the view that the most important thing was the country, the second most important thing was the service, the third most important thing were the enlisted people and last on the least were the careers of officers, because that was the meaning of true sacrifice and duty.
CONAN: Rolando, thanks very much for the call.
ROLANDO: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: We're talking with Tom Ricks about his book "The Generals." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Chris on the line, Chris with us from Lemoore in California.
CHRIS: Yes. Good morning or afternoon, Mr. Ricks. How are you?
RICKS: Good. Thank you.
CHRIS: I have two points. First point is a lot of very good commanding generals were - or admirals, whichever, were prior enlisted. And they did that very thing. They looked out after their troops. And the second point is that, not only as an active-duty person but a reservist, there were two drawdowns before Iraq and before the Gulf War and Desert Storm. And during those drawdowns, they took middle management, both from enlisted and officers, that depleted those who would have gone on to higher command or advised higher command, who had combat experience.
And this, I think, is what you're skirting around and the main point of why our armed services are showing just such a failure. It is the young people who are coming along who are showing the spirit and the effort of tactics and new things that are really bringing our armed forces together and are having combat experience. And hopefully they will stay with the armed forces to give this needed experience.
RICKS: It's a good point. What you want in your junior officers is adaptive people, people who can look at a problem and figure out a way to deal with it. You want officers who are not just trained but educated. Training prepares you for the known. Education prepares you for the unknown, for the chaotic, difficult sort of wars we see these days. I worry, though, that the adaptive officers tend to leave, because I don't see a meritocracy. A study at Harvard's Kennedy School concluded this about a year ago, that the younger, better officers were getting out because they were frustrated.
It was not the lack of money. It was not all the combat deployments. They simply felt that successful work was not recognized or rewarded and that unsuccessful work was allowed to slip by. And so they decide to get out and try something else in life because they wanted a challenge. The problem is, you wind up with generals who are not adaptive. If they've only been trained, they've not been educated, they're unable to think critically, you wind up with generals like Tommy Franks, who were basically jumped-up battalion commanders who didn't understand that the first job of the general is to think, to consider the situation he faces.
Tommy Franks outsourced that. He thought he could have colonels who could do the thinking for him. This was a dereliction of duty. He didn't understand that the job of a four-star officer, the very senior leader, is to connect military action to political consequences, to outcomes. That's the job at that level. He thought it was somebody else's job. Phase four. What happens after I get to Baghdad?
So what you want is that younger, adaptive, critically thinking officer not to leave, to be encouraged to rise up and to be the general of tomorrow. The generals who will lead our military in 20 years are already in uniform.
CHRIS: I agree with you. My cousin was aide-de-camp to Eisenhower just before the big attack. And Eisenhower is my hero. He showed all those - he exhibited all those characteristics.
RICKS: Eisenhower really became a hero of mine as I wrote this book. I didn't know him that well. I really came to admire him. I actually came to think that he might be one of our most underrated generals, which is odd to say because he's so well-known. But when you look at the job he did as a Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, imagine somebody else in that job like Patton. If you put Patton on that job, we would have been at war with England by 1944.
CONAN: And Montgomery would be dead.
RICKS: Yeah, he would've strangled him. But he was - he - Eisenhower did such a good job that he almost made it look easy, and I think we don't appreciate what a difficult time he had with it.
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much.
CHRIS: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: Wanted to end with this email that we have from Howard. His email address describes him as a lieutenant colonel who works across the river: There are still many good leaders at all levels within the military. The politics do impact the role of the general in a different manner than during World War II. The Internet has made it difficult to win any war. Many of your listeners are pointing out that the leadership is accomplishing what they were told to do within the limits of the political objective.
I retire from the Army in 20 days after 24 years of service. The key point is that all leaders must remember that they serve the American people and not themselves. It is their duty to accomplish the mission while taking care of the resources for service members entrusted to them. I've worked with some great leaders and suffered under some poor ones. I've always felt that I owed as much loyalty down the chain of command as I do up the chain of command. Thank you for addressing the topic. Firing our officers and/or federal service civilian employees is overly difficult.
RICKS: Well, first of all, Colonel, thank you for your 24 years of service. I'm sorry to see you going, especially with your view that loyalty downward is important. I think it's a quality you see in some of our best generals, because you speak truth to power to the people above you partly as a way of representing the people below you. So I wish we had more officers with that point of view. At the same time, if he's still on active duty, what's he doing listening to the radio in the middle of the afternoon?
CONAN: Maybe he's on the night shift and just getting up.
RICKS: OK. All right.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Tom Ricks. We appreciate your time as always.
RICKS: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.
CONAN: It's "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." Tomorrow, we're having a conversation about flu. The early season has arrived, and we'll be talking with the head of the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, about why 30,000 a year - people every year die from this disease. Join us for that. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.