Tom Ricks and The Generals: Why the US succeeded in WWII but not Since

Tom Ricks, award-winning military journalist, gives the Nimitz Lecture on why the US military succeeded in WW II but had so much trouble in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The book version is out shortly,

Tom Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

See also Ricks’s invaluable blog

9 Responses

  1. I am struck by the way American generals present themselves on American TV. They are constantly complaining about IEDs, green on blue attacks, or some other insurgent tactic. They seem quite annoyed that the Iraqis and Afghans are not playing the game right: “they should stand up and fight!” (Don’t they teach history at West Point?)

    When each new strategy is announced; “take and hold”, “government in a box”, “train them so they can take over” anyone (even me) can come up with an effective counter strategy. It is as if these guys cannot think how each new strategy will play out. It is as if the new strategy is conditioned on what will sound good back home.

    American generals act like they are children playing at war. They get frustrated when these “backward people” prove that they are smarter and more dedicated than we are.

    I worry that the enormous size of the American military has engendered complacency at the top. You do not need to be smart if you have enormous fire power. It also causes you to see fire power as the solution to every problem.

    A wise and courageous military leader would recognize the current situation in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East as un-winnable and recommend withdrawal. A thoughtful leader realizes that you don’t win them all. I don’t think that such wisdom will be coming from any American general or political leader anytime soon.

    • Sounds like they don’t read Sun Tzu on the art of war. I did, and found it very useful when I was a union negotiator:-)

    • Look up the “Millenium Challenge 2002″. Your description of American generals is absolutely correct. The exceptional generals, who don’t behave like spoilt children — such as Paul Van Riper, or if you prefer Wesley Clark — have all been forced out by now, mostly by the Bush administration. Obama made no effort to bring them back.

  2. A small, perhaps some might assert, petty point, more about the “West”. Ricks at about 10:20 remarks in words to the effect that “September 1, 1939″ is when “World War II really begins”. The Chinese might fairly object to selecting that date for their “WWII” beginning as September 18, 1931 with the Mukden incident. The comment [quibble some might say] is to the effect that the West isn’t the center and the West timeline isn’t the world’s time.

  3. What makes you a status-quo power is that, having won wars to get to the top, you want only those kind of wars to exist, forever. It should be taken as a given that anyone opposing them will try to evolve war in a new direction to reverse that. But to do that is to tell your citizens that you lied when you said they could win an empire and then maintain it with little or no effort.

  4. Thanks Dr. Cole for mentioning the video. I rely on your blog more than ever.

    interesting:
    -Marshall’s overview of qualities which makes a good American general. (15:45min). Also the reference to American way of war and doctrine were helpful.

    -Firing Generals (before rotations were implemented in 1951) did not mean the end of a career(22:00min).

    Good quote by Marshall when Congressmen complained of Generals being fired: “[It's a democracy; enlisted men count for more].” Thanks, T.

  5. Prior to and including WWII, the US basically dissolved the military after every war and started it back up again for the next war.

    This allowed for *flexibility* and prevented rigidity of doctrine — and flexibility was the way the Union approached war. The extreme case is seen in the Civil War, where Lincoln fired generals repeatedly.

    During the Cold War, the military became a stultified bureaucracy. That was the end. It was incapable of adapting to the changes in warfare.

    A competent warlord could now wipe the floor with the US military. We’re kind of lucky we haven’t had one yet.

  6. Could it be a generational failing? The values and integrity are pretty lacking in successive degrees among the post war generations. There is also definitely a failing in the promotion systems in both the government and the military. All too often, articulation and so-called communicative skills are valued more than experience and real knowledge or grounding in a subject matter. Leadership is awarded on the basis of loyalty and saying what would please the boss. Plus contacts make a difference all too often, sad to say

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