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Leadership during wartime can bring dramatic victories and resounding failures, shaping the legacies of both the generals who lead wars and the countries in conflict. Though retired four-star Army Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Gen. John Allen are considered masterminds behind U.S. military strategy in an unpopular war, recent analysis has been devoted to their roles in a sex scandal. Veteran military reporter Thomas Ricks thinks that’s a problem. He chronicles the decline of American military leadership from World War II to today in his new book, “The Generals.” Ricks joins Kojo to look at some of U.S. history’s top generals, and explore how today’s commanders are adapting — or not — to the demands of modern warfare.
- Thomas Ricks Fellow, Center for a New American Security; contributing editor and writer of 'The Best Defense' blog, Foreign Policy; author, "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today"
Video: Inside The Studio
Veteran military reporter Thomas Ricks weighed in on the sex scandal engulfing retired four-star Army Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Gen. John Allen. Ricks said the real scandal is the taxpayer funds invested in an FBI investigation of the matter, as well as the lack of attention Americans pay to military leadership. “We seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than we do about the real lives of our soldiers,” Ricks said. He added that news media devoted a disproportionate amount of time talking about the American security contractors killed in the Benghazi, Libya, attack, when hundreds of contractors have been killed in Iraq without nearly as much press.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today” by Thomas E. Ricks. Copyright 2012 by Thomas E. Ricks. Reprinted here by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. There are masterminds behind U.S. strategy in an unpopular war waged halfway around the world. But over the last ten days, more ink has been spilled and column inches devoted to a sex scandal swirling around retired Army General David Petraeus and Marine General John Allen. Long time military reporter Tom Ricks thinks that's a problem.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's made a study of Army Generals from World War II to today and thinks that our military brass need to adapt to changing times and be judged more harshly for their successes and failures on the battlefield and for their personal indiscretions. Tom Ricks joins us in studio, he is a Senior Fellow at the Center for A New American Security.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's also a contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine where he writes the Best Defense blog. He's the author of several books, the latest -- the -- the latest is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." If you're looking for the books, the author is listed as Thomas E. Ricks. He joins us in studio. Tom Ricks, good to see you again.
MR. THOMAS RICKSGreat to be here.
NNAMDICan we start with the elephant in the studio, retired General David Petraeus and active duty General John Allen in the midst of a scandal unfolding and soap operatic fashion? What's your take on what we know so far?
RICKSI think there's two news flashes here. News flash one, David Petraeus is a human being.
RICKSNews flash number two, a Marine officer flirts with a woman. There's some real scandals here. I think the first real scandal is the fact that the FBI devoted our taxpayers dollars to investigating a lovers' quarrel and intruding in people's privacy. I think everything that flows from that is fruit of the poison tree. I think the second scandal and even bigger one is that we seem to care more about the sex lives of our generals than we do about the real lives of our soldiers.
RICKSPetraeus and Allen are two of the best generals we've had. We have had a lot of mediocre generals. In fact, the third big scandal is American Generalship in the inattention that the American people, the American media and the American Congress have paid to it. The real scandal in Iraq has nothing to do with David Petraeus, it's that we had three failed commanders, Tommy Franks, that didn't know how to recognize victory or defeat, didn't understand that the war began when you got to the enemies capital and that's not when it ended.
RICKSRicardo Sanchez let an insurgency blow up in his face and came home embittered that he wasn't promoted for his wonderful performance. And George Casey, a better general but still a profoundly conventional man who tried to operate unconventionally and was not really able to bring the Army along and so had a Civil War in Iraq blow up in his face. David Petraeus, by contrast, got us out of Iraq and for that I think we should -- could show a little gratitude here. He's been very generous with his time and his energy over the last ten years. When it came time for us to be equally generous and response, we as a nation were not.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, why did you decide to write this book? It seems that that's the reason, you're looking at the big picture in this book of why generals become generals and we, as a culture, now seem to be obsessed with the small picture.
RICKSExactly. The more trivial, the more energy we devote to it. I think this is partly the poison thrown in the American bloodstream by FOX News. I think there really is a distorting factor there. For example, Benghazi. Benghazi, for American Security contractors died. Do you know how many American Security contractors died in Iraq? No, you don't because nobody knows. Nobody has kept track.
RICKSWe know it's at least several hundred but a quick count of the official numbers revealed several incidents where -- that weren't listed in the official numbers. So it's somewhere upward of 300. Yet FOX News has been pounding away on Benghazi for weeks now. And I think there's a broad tabloidization also going on that has messed this up.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Tom Ricks, he's a Senior Fellow at the Center for A New American Society, contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine where he writes, The Best Defense, blog. He's the author of several books. His latest is called, "The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today." If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. What strengths or what failings have you noted when it comes to American military leadership, 800-433-8850.
RICKSTom Ricks, affairs derailing military careers is nothing new. And on Friday we learned that before this most recent scandal broke, the Pentagon launched a wide ranging review of misconduct by senior officers. Why are we seeing so many as you've dubbed them, zipper problems among military leaders?
RICKSI think we have given our generals a free pass for a long time. Nobody wanted to repeat the mistake of Vietnam and blaming the troops. And so people want to support the troops. It's become, sort of, this mantra. But because we don't understand the military well anymore, the Congress doesn't, the media doesn't, the public doesn't, we don't understand that one way to support the troops is to give them good leadership. Now, we have these small messy wars these days, but you know, Iraq and Afghanistan kind of resemble Korea and Vietnam a bit.
RICKSAnd it's hard to know what success looks like in these wars. We're not sure quite what we're doing in some of these wars. None the less, if you get blown up by an IED in Afghanistan, you're every bit as dead as a soldier, machine gunned at D Day at Omaha Beach. And you want good leadership. I hear these people asking about, Isn't this going to cause bad moral in the military?
RICKSNo, what causes bad moral in the military is the feeling that you are ill-lead by an incompetent. Soldiers, in battle, want one thing, they want to survive. It's a legitimate request. And if they're not going to survive, at least they want to know that their lives aren't thrown away stupidly by an officer who doesn't know his job.
RICKSWith all these zipper problems, the worry that I have is what -- it focuses on personal behavior rather than unprofessional behavior. And the lesson, I think, I worry our generals will take away these days is mediocrity is acceptable as long as it keeps its pants on.
NNAMDIThe basis for all of this, you say, is that we as a culture don't understand the military anymore and our elected officials don't understand the military either. What accounts for this loss of knowledge?
RICKSA lack of skin in the game. If you have skin in the game, you pay attention. I have a sister, you know, a California Santa Barbara Liberal. When her son joined the Marine Corp, which is kind of like the equivalent of becoming a hippy, you know, out of gate, this is rebellion. Suddenly she learned a whole new language and suddenly she is paying a lot of close attention to it. In World War II, everybody had skin in the game, they understood how serious it was.
RICKSAnd they took things seriously. So for example, if Dwight Eisenhower's romantic relationship with his beautiful British driver, Kay Summersby, had been revealed in January 1944, they would not of yanked him home and said, Sorry, Ike, more boys are going to die at D Day but we can't tolerate you being out there having an affair. There was a seriousness between President Roosevelt and George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff. Roosevelt knew he could be manipulative, he was a master of it and he loved it. He hired George Marshall as Chief of Staff precisely because he couldn't B.S. Marshall.
RICKSMarshall is a fascinating guy. He kept his distance, socially, from Roosevelt. He refused to laugh at his jokes. Once when Roosevelt called him, George, he made it clear his name was General Marshall. But he spoke truth to power, that's why Roosevelt gave him the job. When Roosevelt -- when Marshall was a Brigadier General and he was once being sort of cajoled by Roosevelt, isn't that right? And he said, No, it's not. And that got Roosevelt's attention.
RICKSHe knew he needed somebody like that. Marshall had a Darwinian approach to generals in World War II. You had about 90 days to be successful, get killed or get removed. Failures got moved on. The trivia question I love to ask military audiences, who was Major General James Chaney? No one knows. The answer is, he was Eisenhower's predecessor as the American Commander in England.
RICKSHe was fired by Marshall and wound up World War II, commanding a boot camp in Wichita Falls. Quite a fall from grace. Guys like that were removed, and in their place rose younger promising officers and that's why today we know names like James Gavin, Matthew Ridgway and most of all Dwight D. Eisenhower.
NNAMDIWe'll get to Matthew Ridgway later. But you posit that we have seen a shift in the way the Army essentially hires and fires its top brass. As an example, let's consider the fallout among military brass after two days when the fight came to U.S. soil, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and 9/11. How different were the shakeups at the top after each of those attacks?
RICKSWell, after Pearl Harbor, the American commander of the Pacific was fired, his air commander was fired and his ground commander was fired. But this was not unusual. One-third of submarine commanders in the first year of the war were also removed. The feeling was, this is too serious and second that there was an obligation, first of all to the country and second to the enlisted men, to give them the best possible leadership.
RICKSMarshall explicitly said, I will not consider officers feelings or careers in my decisions. He fired an old friend, called him up one day and said, I need you to do this, and the guy said, Sorry, it can't be done. And he said it twice and Marshall said the third time, You got to be really careful when you say, it can't be done. And he said, It can't be done. And Marshall said, Very well, you're retired.
NNAMDICompared to 9/11?
RICKS9/11 was not primarily a military failure but it was primarily a failure of the intelligence system and even more so of the White House. But even then, the military kind of -- didn't seem to think it was their job. There's evidence that the Air Force was misleading in its discussions with the 9/11 commission and there was no fallout from that that we could see. But basically, nobody gets fired these days. The military is, like Lake Wobegon, everybody seems to be considered above average.
RICKSThe contrast is to Marshall, he expected about 10 percent of his generals to fail because it's the hardest job there is. It's enormously taxing intellectually and physically, not everyone can do it. These days though, the sense is, oh yeah, their great Americans, you know, we'll just march them on out there, whoever next in line. The real scandal in Afghanistan is not that Marine General John Allen flirted with a woman, it's that we've had 11 commanders there in 11 years.
RICKSThat's no way to run anything. That reminds me of something Warren Buffett once said, "If you've been playing poker for half an hour and you don't know who the patsy at the table is, you're the patsy." And by putting out a new commander every year, basically we create that guy as a patsy at the table. Because by the time he figures out what's going on, he has to go home.
NNAMDIIs part of the problem, as you see it, with accountability among military leadership, the changing nature of warfare itself?
RICKSIt is a bit. In these smaller, messier, nastier wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is more difficult to know what success looks like. In World War II, you could measure it. How far is it to Berlin? How many tanks did we destroy yesterday? What is success in, you know, Afghanistan? It's harder to tell but indeed it is possible to tell if we're paying attention. And so this is why the national and attention is so worrisome. In the Korean War, Matthew Ridgway turned around the war, pretty quickly, in a few months in 1951, very effective.
RICKSSo that -- previously, the war had been terribly fouled up. In Iraq, David Petraeus got the United States military out of Iraq, which I think is quite an achievement. In sharp contrast to his three predecessors. So that's what success looks like in Iraq. So it is possible. The second big change is the change in the environment. You know, in the era of digital communications, the lack of privacy, the fact that anybody can take a photograph with a cell phone basically means our lives lack a lot of the privacy that people enjoyed 50 years ago.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of people who want to talk to you so please don your headphones so we can start that conversation with Melanie in Greenbelt, Md. Melanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MELANIEHi. Thank you. Thanks for taking my call.. I just wanted to say thank you. It's such a breath of fresh air to hear somebody talking some sense. I mean, I think -- I don't know a lot about the military but I think General Petraeus has done an amazing job. And this is ridiculous to focus on the trivial. And the media's -- they treat them like they're movie stars. I don't care who the movie stars are sleeping with and I don't care who my generals are sleeping with.
MELANIEThere's people's lives at stake and I think you're really right. It's the media and the Fox News stuff, and the same thing with Benghazi. And I just really appreciate you talking some sense. And I hope a lot of people are listening. And I'm also interested in the organization that you work for because I'm not familiar with it. And if there's more of that kind of common sense there I'd love to be a part of it. So thank you.
RICKSThe reason -- you're welcome. There is a lot of common sense at The Center for a New American Security. If you go on the website DNAS.org, that's "Charlie," "Nancy," "Alpha," "Sierra" dot org, there's a lot of good stuff there. Like for example, on the defense budget there's a terrific report called Responsible Defense, which Bill Keller actually has an op-ed about in today's New York Times. And in it it concludes, you know, you could pretty easily cut the defense budget quite deeply and it would actually be good for the military and I agree with that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Melanie. On the other hand here is Richard in Alexandria, Va. Richard, your turn.
RICHARDHi. How are you, sir? Thank you for taking my call. Previously your guest made a statement that it was four security contractors that were killed in the Benghazi incident. And if my information's correct I thought it was three contractors and the ambassador to the country, which I think is a significant difference.
RICKSYou're correct. It is significant and you're right. I misspoke. I meant to say three security contractors and the ambassador.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Richard. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation with Thomas E. Ricks. His latest book is called "The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today." The phone number's 800-433-8850. Do you think we need to rethink the way in which generals and other high ranking military officers are promoted? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. You can sent us a Tweet at kojoshow or you can simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Thomas E. Ricks. Tom Ricks is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and the contributing editor for foreign policy magazine where he writes the best defense blog. He's the author of several books, the latest of which is "The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today." It's not a new phenomenon for individual generals to take on an iconic larger than life status in our mind. But one gets the impression today that we as a public have all of our generals up on some kind of pedestal.
NNAMDIWe got this email from Beth who says since 2001 there seems to be a sort of cult fetish for generals among politicians, especially Republicans. They're always saying we should do what our generals tell us to do or words to that effect. I can't recall anything similar except maybe Truman and MacArthur. The politicians are driving this of course but how do the generals feel about it in your opinion?
RICKSHow do the generals feel about this deference? I think as human beings they probably kind of enjoy it. It makes life easy. What we have now is a military that really has been unguided the last ten years. They had a fire hose of cash turned on them and given almost no instructions. It seems like this military doesn't understand what austerity is like. We have a generation of generals, a generation that really has never had to think about how to do something in a cheaper way or more efficient way. They just- -- after 9/11 they're basically, you know, given money and told to find out how to spend it.
RICKSAt the same time there's been a real decline in professionalism and this is why this new study that Defense Secretary Panetta ordered last week I think is quite important. They specifically said look at the stewardship of the profession. The real professions, and there's only a few, clergy, law, medicine, military, um, you can never do something for prophet. That's an abuse of the profession. And you are supposed to work for a larger interest, not just for your own career.
RICKSSo it's very good to sit down and look at what does professionalism mean and is it being properly taken care of. When you have military officers retiring and making bundles in the defense industry selling weapons to their former subordinates, I think that's an abuse to the profession. When you have hundreds of generals endorsing political candidates and using their ranks and service names, you know, it's fine for Joe Smith to endorse somebody. But for Major General Joe Smith, U.S. Army retired, I think that drags his service into the political arena. I think it's unprofessional.
RICKSAnd in the center of all this you have generals who no longer are acting like as much like professionals as they are like members of a guild or union, looking out for their own interest. Being a general today is like being a professor at a university with tenure. You could do a lousy job but as long as you keep your pants on, don't embarrass the institution, you know, don't sleep with the undergrads you’re okay.
NNAMDIOnto Fred in Gaithersburg, Md.. Fred, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NNAMDIYeah, I'm retired after 24 years in the Air Force. And as I recall in talking about behavior and behavior such as this, having an extramarital affair, it was more about you're placing yourself in a position such that you could get blackmailed. And basically the -- another country or another non-state actor could demand information that you might have or something too that you could do or else they're going to tell your wife. So it was you placing yourself in a position such that you could get blackmailed, not necessarily that it's immoral, which of course it is.
RICKSYou know, they used to say the same thing about gays. We have to fire this guys because he's gay and he's subject to blackmail. What they found out is that if everybody who was concerned was informed that the blackmail threat was almost entirely reduced. I think President Obama missed a teaching moment here. And had he said to Petraeus, look you have sinned. You need to make amends to your wife and then you need -- your punishment is you're going to go back to work.
RICKSIf he had done that I think this could have been handled quietly, no press release. And if eventually it did leak out you could issue a short statement just saying, you know, you've looked into, you've taken care of it, Petraeus has dealt with it, it's a private affair and we appreciate his decades of service to the country. That didn't happen.
RICKSAnd instead this guy, the repayment he's gotten for the very large sacrifice that he and his wife and the rest of that family has made, that the reward is to be dragged through the mud. I don't think it was the right thing to do to Petraeus and I think it was a deeply offensive thing to do to his wife.
NNAMDIWell, what do you say about Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice which states that adultery is clearly unacceptable conduct and it reflected adversely on the service record of the military member. It is punishable by dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and even a one-year prison term.
RICKSAdultery is almost never brought as a standalone charge. It's what they throw in if for example they found you sleeping with a Russian spy, they throw in the adultery charge too. If they found that you played with, you know, your credit card and used it improperly on travel and one of the things you did was travel to go see your mistress, they'll throw that in. But it is an anachronistic -- and it's not used as a charge just by itself.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Fred. We move on to Steve in Hyattsville, Md. Steve, your turn.
STEVEHi. I was wondering how Mr. Ricks feels about the fact that I believe some services are doing some weeding out at a lower level. I know the navy has retired or relieved from command at least 22 people so far this year. And is that having an effect on the kind of people that will end up being our flag officers of the future?
RICKSThe navy, as I suspect you know, is such an entirely different service and an entirely different tradition. It's hard to compare to the army on this. Two differences are that in the navy the skipper is explicitly responsible for everything that happens aboard his vessel. And there is that tradition also that -- well, what's the best way to put this? In the navy enlisted do not control fire power. There's a whole different approach to discipline required when you have private--army privates carrying weapons.
RICKSAlso in the navy unit discipline is somewhat different because when you want 4,000 people on an aircraft carrier to turn right you turn the wheel. When you want 4,000 soldiers to turn right, every single one of them has to consciously do so. They have to be told to do so and enact it as individuals. So there's a whole different approach to discipline. The navy fires a lot of captains, 06s, the equivalent of colonels in the army and the marines and the air force. It doesn't seem to fire as many admirals, although it certainly seems to fire more admirals than the army does.
RICKSAnother trivia question is the last army general I could fine in my research explicitly fired for combat ineffectiveness was Major General James Baldwin in Vietnam about 40 years ago.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. We'll take you even farther back to Korea because it's sometimes called the forgotten war, but it marked a turning point in how the army promoted and how it fired its generals. How does the story of the aforementioned Matthew Ridgeway highlight that turning point?
RICKSRidgeway's a fascinating guy and also speaking of Petraeus like problems Ridgeway had a habit of getting a new wife for every war. If you go spend time in the archives, as you go through Ridgeway's papers, which are fascinating, there's cables back and forth about how do we improve leadership in the Korean War. Interspersed with those are very terse notes from his first wife's divorce lawyer.
RICKSRidgeway goes into Korea, turns it around pretty quickly. He goes in and says, first of all, I want to get rid of five of the six division commanders here now. And I also want to fire a lot of the lower level regimental commanders. The Pentagon's reaction is interesting and I actually quote these cables in the book. I've dug them out of the archives.
RICKSThe Pentagon writes back to him, look you can get rid of these guys but you got to do it on the down low. You got to disguise it. Find places to park them and we're basically going to lie about it back here because we're worried that if we fire them explicitly and publicly Congress will start asking embarrassing questions. And that's really the death nail for the tradition of Darwinian relief of the weeding out in World War II.
RICKSIn Vietnam almost no one gets fired and since they no one gets fired. When you don't fire that means you're not bringing up your successful people fast enough. You're not promoting the newer people. And when you lack accountability it results in a lack of adaptiveness. And a key military quality, especially in the world we face now of strategic uncertainty and complex and different sorts of enemies, is adaptiveness.
RICKSThis is actually something I admired about Petraeus. He was an adaptive officer. Raymond Odierno, now the Army Chief of Staff, is extremely adaptive. His first tour in Iraq I thought was quite lousy. I thought he was -- he led an invasion that was abusive of Iraqis and they stuffed 10,000 detainees into Abu Ghraib and other detention centers. He realized he needed to operate differently.
RICKSAnd in his second tour in Iraq he went out and got different sorts of people around him. His political advisor was a tiny British woman, a pacifist, anti-American, antimilitary, expert on Arab affairs, spoke Arabic who would really make him think. And when somebody said, why do you have her around he said, because she asks me sometimes why and you don't get that enough from regular military officers.
RICKSBut Korea is a fascinating war to me. One of my sections in the book is the chosen reservoir campaign because it enabled me to compare marine generalship on the west side of the reservoir and army generalship on the east side. In a nutshell the army regiment on the east side is wiped out. Really probably the biggest ground disaster in American military history. It's about 50 times the size of losses of Custer at Little Big Horn. They have a 90 percent casualty rate in that regiment.
RICKSOn the west side, Opie Smith, a terrific general, unfortunately kind of forgotten these days, gets his 15,000 marines out even though he has one division surrounded by 12 Chinese divisions.
NNAMDIIf Korea is the forgotten war and it won't be if people read "The Generals," Vietnam is the specter that seems to loom over our every military move. How do you think our collective memory of the lack of support for the military, both during and after that war, helps or hinders progress today?
RICKSVietnam has made us gun shy of questioning generals and pushing them. We all want to support the troops but you support troops by giving them good leadership. We -- but a big part of the problem is we don't even understand the Vietnam War even now. One of the real surprises to me in my research is that there is not a good operational history of the war. There are 200 good histories of World War II. There's not a single book that says this is what happened militarily in the war. Usually they give you a little taste of battle and then they go back to the diplomatic stuff in Washington and stuff.
RICKSAnother irony or sort of unknown aspect of Vietnam is the same people we salute as the greatest generation, the battalion or regimental commanders of World War II, they became the disastrous generals of Vietnam. These are the same guys 20 years later.
NNAMDIWhy is that significant?
RICKSFirst of all, because we don't recognize that, you know, World War II -- the continuity of people from World War II to Korea to Vietnam. There are a lot of the same people appearing. You know, if World War II -- I write about William Westmoreland as an artillery battalion commander, and a pretty good one, though kind of a suck up. He turns into a disastrous general in Vietnam. And so you need to look at sort of the continuity.
RICKSPeople who usually write books about military history write about one person or one war. And I wanted a new kind of longitudinal study here that looks at the ebb and flow of officers, of military culture and how a lieutenant is shaped by his experience of Normandy in 1944 and how that affects him as a general in Vietnam.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. We'll go to Gary in Washington, D.C. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Oh, Gary is no longer there so we'll go to Mary in Clifton, Va. Hi, Mary.
MARYHi. I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying this conversation. I'm a military history buff as was my husband and we have a huge collection of military history books. But you're correct. My husband mentioned that before regarding the Korean War. You know, that there wasn't a definitive outlook so I can't wait to read your book. But the reason I'm calling is I take a little bit of issue with your remark about Petraeus' resignation.
MARYWhen he approached the president, my understanding from what I've read and heard, that he brought that in and refused to withdraw it. The president wanted him to withdraw it and he felt that it was in conflict with his training under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or whatever it is. And it was a morality thing that if he demanded that of his troops how could he not demand it of himself to resign.
NNAMDIDid indeed President Obama try to convince Petraeus to stay?
RICKSI've heard differing accounts, but what we know is that the president said, let me think about it overnight and didn't come to a decision for 24 hours and then accepted it. Beyond that, we don't really know what happened.
NNAMDIMary, thank you very much for your call. When a long time leader is forced or opts to retire, many wonder whether the punishment of that person's transgression is important enough to risk losing that person's institutional knowledge. But at the same time, the military does seem to foster a belief that no one person is irreplaceable. How do you balance those two ideas?
RICKSWell, I think it is true that the military has that view. At the same time, the military doesn't seem to get rid of any generals. and clearly not everybody is successful. What worries me here is Petraeus was one of the more successful Generals yet we throw away that knowledge, that experience, that ability so casually. There are consequences to this. When you have bad military leaders, people die.
RICKSThis is actually a reason I support the draft. Not a Vietnam-style draft, but some form of draft. It could have various national service or libertarian opt outs, because I think we think we need to connect our military to our society. I think it's profoundly wrong and morally reckless to have one percent of your society fight your war and 99 percent not pay attention. I think it's of a piece with drone warfare where people are killed routinely by the United States in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, yet we pay no attention to it. A friend of mine calls is fire-and-forget warfare.
NNAMDISince Vietnam a rift has opened between the U.S. civilian and military service since, as you point out, the end of selective service in 1973 and that affects our overall perception of military leadership in this way that we see it now from a distance because we don't have skin in the game and therefore we are not paying as much attention, therefore, we are not as concerned about issues of military strategy. What we do pay attention to is the peccadilloes or the zipper problems that -- how do we change that without bringing back the draft?
RICKSI fear it will take a national catastrophe, a military disaster of some sort. There's no political incentive to really pay a lot of attention to the military. I remember talking to Dick Cheney about this years and year ago, and he said, you know, House Arm Services Committee, nobody wants to be on it anymore. The only question you ever get asked is why couldn't you keep our base open? You know, the big money is elsewhere. The big attention is elsewhere.
RICKSAnd there's no percentage in the eyes of politicians in attacking the military because people think you aren't supporting the troops, yet this sort of gives our generals a free pass, and the only thing people seem to talk about in the political campaigns is the size of the defense budget. How much money are you willing to throw at the military? I was kind of stunned when Governor Romney insisted that it was necessary to spend four percent of our GDP on the military even as two wars are ending.
RICKSI've been reading a history of the British Empire which mentions that at the height of the British Empire, early in the 19th century, they spent two to three percent of their national budget on defense. Why would we need to spend more, we're not even trying to have a worldwide empire as they did then.
NNAMDIHere is Alan, speaking of the British, in Annapolis, Md. Alan, your turn.
ALANGood morning, sir. I'm sure your guest there knows about this book, but we can go back further in time . The book called "The Donkeys," author is Alan Clark, now deceased, describes the British army military leadership during World War I and how bad it was. Most significantly the author, Alan Clark, became an adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and I'm sure that helped turn the leadership around to the modern army that Britain has.
ALANAnd just briefly, there's two or three little references there. One is to the U.S.A. where certain people in the U.S.A. shipped shells to Britain's forces that were filled with sawdust. That wasn't well received. And also the author himself, Alan Clark, he has his own coven is the right of word for his band of ladies, so that closes on the General Petraeus.
NNAMDIBut his focus was on the Generals in World War I, the British generals, correct?
NNAMDIHis focus was on British generals in World War I?
ALANBritish army leadership, generals and lower ranks.
NNAMDILet me see what Tom Ricks has to say about that.
RICKSWell, I know the book. I've read "The Donkeys." There's some dispute among the military historians about how accurate and how good it is. In fact, is has been -- the book's been attacked rather vigorously in recent years. That said, the parallel I worry about right now is to the Royal Navy before World War II. The Royal Navy in that era at the end of 1930s, was the world's biggest navy. It also proved to be almost entirely irrelevant during World War II.
RICKSIt was big, powerful, could throw a lot of fire power, and had -- they had very little understanding of how to use aircraft carriers, or the threat presented by submarines, and that's one reason that very few people know much about what happened to the Royal Navy in the war.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We've got to take another short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. If you served in the military, what was your experience with the leadership structure? If you left the military because of frustrations with that structure, we'd like to hear from you. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Thomas E. Ricks. Tom Ricks is a Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security and a contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine where he writes the "Best Defense" blog. His latest book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."
NNAMDIWe got an email from Don in Alexandria, Va., who says, "Is it true that in World War II, senior officials could be removed from command without disgrace? My understanding is that they often were giving meaningful staff and/or noncombat positions, and sometimes another shot at command. Is part of the problem political cowardice? How can the civilian leadership that has never heard a shot fired in anger second guess the Generals, and wouldn't the politician who fired a General be guaranteed accusations of scapegoating by political opponents?"
RICKSIt's a good question. In World War II, 155 men commanded army divisions in combat. Of that 155, 16 were relieved for combat ineffectiveness. Of the 16 relieved, five were indeed given commands of other divisions in combat later in the war. And many others, yes, were sent back to other training jobs, not frontline jobs anymore, which is what people wanted, but they were certainly not kicked out of the military. So there was in this system of swift relief, a kind of element of forgiveness as well.
RICKSPartly because you were expanding the military so quickly. The Army goes from about 180,000 in 1939 when Marshall became chief-of-staff, and that includes the Air Force, which was then part of the Army to 8.5 million people in 1945 when Marshall steps down. So it's expanding rapidly. They didn't have a lot of officers they felt they could throw away. Yet, that said, before World War II even begins, Marshall what he cleaned out what he considered deadwood in the Army Officer Corps at got rid of 600 officers, and got backing for it.
RICKSContrary though to what the caller says, it is the civilians who relieve these days. It's the military that doesn't. Since the military gave us this tradition of relief, which predates Marshall by the way, it goes back to the Revolution, the Civil War and World War I. But when the military gives up this system, almost immediately civilians start firing top Generals, and MacArthur relieved in the Korean War, Paul Harkins and William Westmoreland, the senior commanders in Vietnam are fired.
RICKSIn Iraq, General Casey is fired, and in Afghanistan, McCarran and McChyrstal are fired, but all by civilians, and it's all the top guy -- it's kind of a worrisome system because it's like every time you start losing a baseball game you fire the manager. Sometimes all you want is a relief pitcher, you know, somebody new on the field, but it's hard for the civilians to reach down to that level, and so they just get rid of the top guy.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Tony in Chantilly, Va. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYThank you for taking my call. I agree with everything that the author is speaking about right now, but I do think that he's minimizing the impact of a military officer making the poor decision of taking on a mistress and what impact that might have on his ability to plan and execute the very difficult mission of leading armed forces in war. So I think….
NNAMDIWell, Tony, we've gone over this issue before. What effect do you think it has if a general has a mistress on his ability to plan and execute a war?
TONYWell, I think it depends on the person. But what I would speculate is, is that many officers who would make that decision, which I think is a wrong decision, and I think it needs to be stressed to military officers that it is important for them to continue to have fidelity to their wives, but I think that you might see that many officers extend their poor judgment into the battlefield when they are making such poor...
NNAMDIIf you're making poor judgment in one area, you'll make poor judgment in another, in addition to which it could diversify your focus is what Tony seems to be saying.
RICKSI don't know. I think Eisenhower did a pretty good job in World War II. And, in fact, I think probably having Kay Summersby around eased the job a bit for him. I actually came away from this -- the research for this book, believing that Eisenhower is underrated as a General. And I say that because it wasn't necessarily true that things would go as well as they did with the British allies and with others like the French after they entered the war on our side.
RICKSIt was -- imagine if Marshall had not picked Eisenhower. Imagine that he'd gone with seniority and put Patton out there as the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe. We probably would have been at war with Britain after a year. Eisenhower made it look almost easy, and it was an extraordinarily difficult job. And if having a mistress is what it takes, I think the frontline soldier, if given a vote, would give it two thumbs up.
NNAMDITony, thank you for your call. Glad you mentioned Eisenhower, because the shifts you chronicle have occurred alongside the growth of the military industrial complex, the phrase coined by President Eisenhower, the Five-Star General. Do you see a direct connection between the two, or are they simply concurrent?
RICKSI think there may be a connection. I can't prove it. But with the Cold War, you do get enormous growth in the military bureaucracy, which Eisenhower did identify at the end of his presidency as the military industrial complex. And I think you get this bureaucratization and it's the nature of bureaucracies and trans bureaucracies to lose their focus on the national interest, and confuse it with their own interests, and that's -- when I criticize Generals for being more concerned with their own careers and having a sort of club than they are in the national interest, that's what I mean.
RICKSWhen you don't fire anybody, there's something wrong with your system. When you lose accountability, you start permitting incompetence. When you permit incompetence, you start having an incompetent organization.
NNAMDILooking at the future, retention within the military's junior officer ranks is a growing concern. Might the next great generation of potential generals leave the military before making it to that point in their career, and if so, why?
RICKSIt's a real possibility. There was a study at the Harvard JFK School that said yes, some of the best officers are leaving the military, not because they're tired of combat tours, not because they feel they're underpaid, but because they feel the military is not a meritocracy. They think that good work is not rewarded and bad work is not identified and stopped.
RICKSAnd this is a genuine concern. There's a theory among historians that one reason the British did rather poorly with a lot of generals in World War II is that some of their best and brightest, many of their best and brightest had been slaughtered in World War I.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is Bob is Waldorf, Md. Bob, your turn.
BOBHi. I was working for the Army Corps of Engineers at Corps headquarters in North Atlantic Division from 1975 to 1989, and I dealt on an almost daily basis with five different generals, brigadier and major generals that were -- had high-ranking positions in the Corps of Engineers. And four of the five really impressed me as being outstanding executives, and would have made it any field.
BOBSo I think that the fact is that at least during that period of time, the Generals that I came in contact with were really impressive people. I suspect that the level of dalliance in the military at that level is far less than you would see at senior executives in the civil society outside the military, and it'd be curious to do a study to see whether the level of dalliance increases or has increased during wartime periods as opposed to during non wartime periods.
RICKSThe caller does remind me of one point that I really need to make, which is, I am not criticizing enlisted troops here. The quality of today's enlisted force, the front line soldiers in squads, platoon companies and battalions is excellent. We have a well-equipped, well-trained, and very cohesive military, but that is not the same as having the best Generals we could have and that these soldiers deserve.
NNAMDIFinal question. We've jumped from a new cycle that's all election all the time to much ado about sequestration, and a big question looming around the so-called fiscal cliff is what will it mean for defense spending? Are Generals expected to act almost as lobbyists when it comes to budgetary needs?
RICKSIt's funny because actually Army Generals especially don't like dealing with Congress in my experience. They kind of resent it, and kind of wonder why Congress is bothering them, and they kind of have to be told, actually, you work for the Congress and the president. They're not messing around in your business, you're kind of messing around in their business. That said, I think a big cut in the defense budget would be a healthy thing for the U.S. Military.
RICKSThere's a British saying. We have run out of money and now we must think, and I think that's a good thing for the military.
NNAMDIThomas E. Ricks is Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security and a contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine where he writes the "Best Defense" blog. His latest book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." Tom Ricks, thank you so much for joining us.
RICKSYou're welcome. I enjoyed it.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help from Stephannie Stokes, Jessica Guzman, and Ryan Mixson. Our engineer today is Kellan Quigley. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CDs, and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to share questions or comments with us, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook, or send a Tweet @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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