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Originally published Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:02 AM

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'The Generals': Thomas Ricks on the decline of U.S. Army leadership

Thomas E. Ricks' "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today" makes the case that the quality of leadership in the U.S. Army has seriously deteriorated since World War II. Ricks will discuss his book Friday, Nov. 16, at the Seattle Public Library.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Thomas E. Ricks

The author of "The Generals" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, in the Microsoft auditorium of the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
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Wow, good timing for this book. Maybe it will turn into a Pentagon best seller. MORE

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Author Thomas E. Ricks applies the word "scathing" to criticism in a U.S. Army review of the war in Afghanistan, a critique that said mistakes by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks "had a significant negative impact on operations."

That assessment is mild compared with Ricks' own criticism of military leadership in his book "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today" (The Penguin Press, 558 pp., $36).

He calls Franks' effort to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in 2001 "bumbling," describes Franks as a "graceless sort of leader, both dull and arrogant," and dismisses the general's memoirs as filled with statements that make "him look good but were easily shown to be false."

To Ricks, Franks is a product of the post-Vietnam War Army, just as Gen. William Westmoreland, who also comes in for censorious criticism for his role in Vietnam, is a product of the post-World War II Army.

Ricks, who has covered wars for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, directs his criticism at those who have led the Army for the past 70 years, a structure that gives his book a focus and organization that is logical and easy to follow.

He starts with Gen. George Marshall, who led the service in World War II. Marshall had standards for choosing his generals — common sense, a student of the profession, strong, optimistic, energetic, loyal and determined — and he expected them to be able to translate strategy into operational orders and results, to figure out what to do and then get people to do it.

If his generals could not do that, Marshall relieved them. Ricks points out that relief of a commander was once seen as the organization working correctly.

Now, removing a general from command is seen as an organizational failure. Being relieved under Marshall did not mean being drummed out of the service; it meant being reassigned and perhaps returned to a combat role later.

Abandonment of relief, a form of accountability, is one reason Ricks sees for a decline in the effectiveness of the Army. Deterioration of communication between generals and civilian authorities is another. The Army cannot be an effective tool of the nation if the country's leaders can't articulate why we fight.

The result is an Army that can win battles, but doesn't know what to do next. Thus, the invasion of Iraq goes well, but the aftermath is a failure.

Ricks saves his most scathing criticism for generals in the second Iraq war, which probably should be expected from an author who called his book on that war "Fiasco."

But he walks up to that criticism through Korea and Douglas MacArthur's shortcomings, then proceeds to a full-scale attack on Westmoreland in Vietnam. He sees the rebuilding of the Army after Vietnam as almost successful, and laments the lack of strategic understanding in the Gulf War of 1991 and in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past 10 years.

The only military actions described in any detail are examples of failures: the story of the Army's defeat at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Both are disheartening to read, but clear examples of what happens when leadership fails or is corrupt.

Ricks' documentation includes internal Army investigations and reports, Hanoi's military history of the Vietnam War, interviews with North Vietnamese veterans, and books, articles and criticisms written about military leadership.

Ricks ends "The Generals" by positing what he thinks Marshall would do to fix things. Resorting to the irretrievable past may be Ricks' way of saying there's no one in the Army's upper echelons willing to undertake a "soul-searching review" of its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan or to reposition the Army to successfully fight and win the "messy small wars" of the future.

Ricks wrote admirably of David Petraeus as an innovator but doubted he would be given a chance to make needed changes. Two weeks after Ricks' book was published at the end of October, Petraeus, who served as the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan and then as the director of the CIA, revealed an extramarital affair and made it certain he would not be the one to save the Army.

John B. Saul is a freelance writer and former editor at The Seattle Times. Contact him at jbsaul@me.com.

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