What Would Marshall Do?

Book review of The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks, The Weekly Standard

Economist and Research Fellow, Hoover Institution

What is strategy, after all?

The public talks about war as if it were a game of chess or Risk or Sid Meier's Civilization. But the real meaning of strategy, as opposed to tactics, is the capacity to determine what to do in a world without guidelines, not how to optimize resources toward well-defined objectives. Thus, the problem with armchair strategy, even when those armchairs are in the Oval Office, is the assumption that satellite imagery and GPS tracking have eliminated fog and friction. We have endless conversations about strategy (backward-looking all), fewer conversations about strategists, and none about the most important topic of all. 

What is the system for producing our generals? The United States Army does not produce its generals on the fields of friendly strife at West Point, nor in the classrooms of the Command and General Staff College, nor at the Army War College—not even on bloody fields of combat. It produces them quietly in the paperwork labyrinth known as Human Resources Command, rarely weeding out the very worst while incessantly promoting the most cautious and mediocre. It was not always thus. 

The demise of the military's personnel system is the subject of The Generals, a collection of biographies from George Marshall to David Petraeus that has a narrative arc as powerful as its policy message.

Thomas Ricks describes the genesis of General Marshall's successful system, which emphasized the frequent relief of weak performers, and its evolution during the 1970s into a micromanaging bureaucracy. Along the way, he aims his fire at the usual subjects—namely, skeptics of counterinsurgency and the failed leaders who almost lost Iraq before the surge in 2006-07—as those familiar with his recent books might expect.

The Generals offers a different, much more penetrating look at how, organizationally, the Army lost its nerve to let leaders lead and bear the consequences. Did you know that General George Kenney, upon promotion to head air operations in the Pacific in mid-1942, immediately relieved five generals from command and fired an additional 40 colonels? Did you know that one-third of submarine commanders were relieved in 1942? Ricks laments the loss of relief, or any real accountability at the top, in today's military.

"Not a single general has been removed for ineffectiveness during the course of this war," scolded one outside adviser to President George W. Bush in late 2006—a stunning statistic compared with General Marshall's relief of 600 officers before the United States even sent troops overseas during World War II. And it wasn't just Marshall; it was a philosophy he cultivated in all branches. The Supreme Allied Commander (and future president) General Dwight Eisenhower advised his old friend and fellow general, George Patton, "to be cold-blooded about removal of inefficient officers."

Relief is just one of the lost management tools from that era. Today, military performance evaluations are so inflated that everyone walks on water (at least on paper) while promotions are all but timed to the day for the first dozen years of an officer's career, regardless of talent or experience. Job-matching is done not by letting commanding officers select among qualified applicants, but by a faceless bureaucracy with whom most young officers interact only over the phone or, more often, by email. It's one of the great ironies that the armed forces, defending free-market capitalism 20 years after winning the Cold War, are organized along principles inspired more by Lenin than by Milton Friedman.  

To his credit, Ricks does not get bogged down in the logic or bureaucracy, but tells a fascinating story of how Army leaders came out of Vietnam with a singular focus on tactics at the expense of strategic thinking. Frequent rotations—of 12, and then 6, months—during the wars in Korea and Vietnam had the perverse effect of making combat units inexperienced, risk-averse, and oblivious to the results of their actions. One study found that roughly three American soldiers were killed during the first half of their tours in Vietnam for every one in the second half. 

Tactical weakness was the symptom, not the malady, but it was addressed during the two decades after Vietnam by a relentless focus on Army-wide tactical training and education. And here is where Ricks shines, blending an impressive level of research with expert storytelling. He brings life to the rebuilding of the Army under General William DePuy, who developed AirLand Battle Doctrine, instructing authors of the new field manuals that "wars are won by draftees and reserve officers. Write so they can understand." Yet rather than counter the ticket-punching and careerism fostered by frequent job rotations, the new training programs made things worse. Psychological studies in the 1980s and '90s reported that Army generals were more introverted and rigid; battalion commanders surveyed in 1983 said that one-quarter of new brigadier generals were unqualified, a finding echoed in studies ever since. At the same time, younger officers remain as sharp and creative as any generation before. 

The only flaw is that Ricks gets distracted by the very thing he identifies as a distraction. Training, doctrine, and programs to educate officers were never the solution to strategic weakness in the personnel system. Nor will modifying them matter one bit. An epilogue outlines a number of smart proposals regarding rotation, but I found myself wishing for some insight into how the evaluation and job-matching functions were neutered in the 1980s Pentagon, and why. 

"How do you teach judgment?" ask Ricks and his protagonists. It's a good question; it's also an irrelevant question. The military has made all the right moves in designing excellent leadership training programs that foster independent thinking in its ranks. But the effort is wasted by the refusal to distinguish or promote talent. The Pentagon has perfected teaching judgment to its officers, but has abdicated passing judgment on them. 

Tactical success, strategic failure.