Friday, January 11, 2013

Q&A with author Thomas E. Ricks

Thomas E. Ricks covered the military for many years for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and writes a blog for called The Best Defense. His books include The Gamble, Fiasco, and most recently The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

Q: You open your book The Generals with a quotation attributed to Napoleon: “There are no bad soldiers, only bad generals.” Why did you pick this particular quote?

A: I liked it. It made me think. And it struck me as a good introduction to the themes of the book. What makes a bad general? And what’s the difference between a good one and a bad one? These were questions I was trying to address.  

Q: General George C. Marshall is an important figure in your book, and you write, “It would be difficult to understand today's Army without knowledge of Marshall's career--and especially his powerful sense of duty and honor.” What about Marshall, in particular, do you find admirable, and which other generals since Marshall, in your opinion, have displayed that same sense of duty and honor?

A: You are absolutely right. George Marshall became a hero of mine while I was writing this book.  He wasn’t perfect—he made poor decisions on the race issue, on strategy, and one some of his picks for generals early in the war. But what I like about him stands out much more. He spoke truth to power. (His willingness to throw the BS flag on President Roosevelt was one reason FDR picked him in 1939 to be chief of staff of the Army.) 

He also kept his social distance from the president—he refused to laugh at FDR’s jokes, he made it clear he wanted to be addressed as “General Marshall,” and he never visited Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York, until he was there as one of FDR’s pallbearers.  

He also understood that he served the nation first, his soldiers second, and officers a very distant third—that seems simple, but it is very different from, say, the way the Army approached the Vietnam War. 

Finally, and most importantly for the subject of my book, he was very quick to recognize and relieve failed generals, something the Army no longer does. He also rewarded success by promoting promising younger officers, which is today why we know names such as James Gavin, Matthew Ridgway and Dwight D. Eisenhower.   
Q: You write, “By the end of the Vietnam War, the system of running the Army that had been devised decades earlier by George Marshall, a man of integrity, discipline, and objectivity, had collapsed.” Among those you blame are John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, Earle Wheeler, Harold K. Johnson, and William Westmoreland. Would you fault the presidents and the generals equally, or does one category bear more of the responsibility?

A: I would blame both. Neither spoke candidly or truthfully to each other, and the nation was far worse off for it.

Q: How did more recent generals use the lessons of the Vietnam War in Iraq and Afghanistan, and do you think the right lessons were drawn?

A: No, I don’t think they have drawn the right lessons. For example, it is a common belief in the officer corps that civilians were too intrusive in the conduct of the Vietnam War. Actually, the problem was not that—you want civilians to be engaged deeply, as Churchill was in World War II. Rather, in Vietnam, our generals—specifically our Joint Chiefs of Staff—were not involved enough. They let President Johnson cut them off, keep them in the dark. When he cursed them, they should have resigned. They lacked the moral courage to do so. 

I worry that our generals today actually are going down the same road on Iraq and Afghanistan as they did on Vietnam, believing they did pretty good but that the civilians let them down. Now, the Bush Administration made plenty of mistakes on Iraq—some of them whoppers. But the military also made many mistakes. It was 2007 before we had an effective military strategy in Iraq. That’s more than three years of fighting before we really adapted. That’s too slow, and for that I primarily blame military leadership.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on my blog and thinking about my next book. I think I may write a history of the Vietnam War—there isn’t a good operational history.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Sure. The reception to the book has been very interesting. I’ve had lots of notes from military officers saying the book is spot on. Generals don’t seem to like it much, but military historians do. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A is also posted on

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