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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

BOOK REVIEWS: Two Views of War

The Generals -- Thomas E. Ricks, 466 pages (558 pages with notes and index)

What It Is Like To Go To War -- Karl Marlantes, 256 pages

Two books have been published over the past two years addressing distinct aspects of war in terms of its leadership and its impacts on soldiers doing the fighting. Either book is worth reading on its own but reading them in combination magnifies the insights from each, making the duo a must read.

The Generals

Thomas Ricks wrote The Generals not as a biography of a particular military hero or the history of a particular battle or war but as a study in the management and organizational design of the US military throughout the twentieth century into the present. As Ricks writes in the forward, his research into the topic grew from an on-site tour of a famous WWII battleground in Sicily with students and military experts from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. During the stop, one of the participants mentioned how the American general that led the campaign that retook Sicily was still relieved of command during the war for difficulties reaching other objectives.

After reading Ricks' book, the content breaks down into four key periods of time and thinking within the US military:

  • The lead-up to and execution of World War II
  • The drift of philosophy from Korea to Vietnam
  • The post-Vietnam rebuilding of the military team and its tools
  • The current day consequences of this military evolution as reflected in Iraq and Afghanistan

Ricks' analysis of the WWII period focuses on the tremendous insight and positive influence George C Marshall had on the rapid buildup of the military leading up to US entry into the war and its subsequent performance in the war. Marshall's experience as an underling of General John Pershing in World War I crystallized in his mind a short list of criteria he would use in awarding promotions between the wars and during WWII that emphasized character, loyalty and communication skills over intellect. Marshall had advanced high enough in the military in the 1930s to apply his criteria and philosophy on a relatively large cadre of senior leaders in the undersized military. As US involvement in WWII grew near and the ranks jumped from 190,000 to 1.4 million in the summer of 1941 then 7 million by 1943, this core cadre of generals promoted under Marshall's criteria and leadership philosophy were applying those unifying strategies for the organizations beneath them. Ricks quotes Marshall's philosophy from a comment Marshall made to a military historian:

I'm going to put these men to the severest tests I can devise in times of peace. I'm going to start shifting them into jobs of greater responsibility than they hold now. Then I'm going to change them, suddenly, without warning, to jobs even more burdensome ad difficult. Those who stand up to the punishment will be pushed ahead. Those who fail are out at the first sign of faltering.

Marshall wasn't kidding. DOZENS of generals were relieved of command during WWII when their performance didn't match the task at hand. As other quotes and anecdotes provided by Ricks make clear, this philosophy wasn't simply an attempt to be a hardass. The philosophy reflected the reality that the task of providing leadership in a highly complex, industrialized war environment was so incredibly unique and so difficult a task that there was no shame in placing someone in a position who wound up falling short and requiring replacement. The only shame would be in leaving them in place instead of trying someone else.

The other key point Ricks makes about the WWII era and George Marshall involves Marshall's management of his relationship with his boss, President Franklin Roosevelt. Marshall consciously chose to limit his interaction with the President to purely professional matters. This relational separation was not only important as a typical buffer between boss (CIC) and subordinate (General) but between the military leadership and civilian government. Marshall believed a more personal relationship with the President would draw Marshall into more "gray" areas between military and political spheres which would eventually distort the perception of any advise Marshall would provide on purely military issues. In essence, Marshall understood the importance of protecting the military's legitimate influence on civilian leadership regarding purely military issues by avoiding entanglement in squabbles that crossed over from the military's core responsibilities. Marshall also understood that there are some decisions about war that only the elected politicians SHOULD make -- then OWN.

By the time WWII ended, the quality of leadership in the US military was unparalleled anywhere in the world -- and arguably unparalleled in history. However, the inevitable churn of personnel as active duty troop levels dropped, the US engagement in Korea and a shift in emphasis to nuclear weapons diluted the senior leadership talent pool in the Army and, from the perspective of those in the Army, set it adrift without any clear mission or support. A muddled picture of the mission even generated additional conflict with other branches of the military as the Army tried to find new areas of focus (small wars, counter-insurgency) and began competing for "shelf space" with the Marine Corps. That environment was further corrupted by the numbers-driven "organizational man" style of management that began dominating US corporations. By the end of the 1950s, the Army senior leadership talent pool had changed from one dominated by battle-tested leaders with "hands-on" experience to one dominated by generals who had rotated through a variety of positions without the experience of battle and brought a don't rock the boat, just get my ticket punched and move on mentality. With that historical perspective, putting THAT military under THAT leadership into THAT combat situation with THAT flawed strategic and political starting point seems guaranteed to have produced the disaster that was the Vietnam War.

After Vietnam ended, the Army had to rebuild itself. The introduction to that section of the book does a great job in outlining the challenge at hand and the final result:

Coming out of Vietnam, the Army was shattered. It was, said one general, "on its ass." As in the 1950s, it faced a basic question. this time the issue was whether it could exist without a draft. Over the following twenty years, it would remake itself. It recruited a force of volunteers. It revolutionized how it trained soldiers, with far more realistic field exercises. It overhauled its doctrine of how to fight. It developed an array of new weapons. Almost everything about it changed except its concept of generalship.

This last section of the book cements the value of having read all of the prior chapters of the book as Ricks analyzes in WITHERING, SCATHING detail how unbalanced the Army has become with incredible firepower, resilience and adaptability being exhibited at the boots on the ground level while senior leadership in the Army seems to have abdicated any responsibility for or interest in anything beyond pure day to day tactics. Here are excerpts of Ricks' analysis on two major figures:

Norman Schwartzkopf -- In his haste to win a decisive "first battle" of a war, Schwartzkopf's strategy in the first Gulf War timed a Marine attack in Southern Iraq before adequate forces could be placed to prevent Iraqi troops and equipment from escaping into Northern Kuwait. Schwartzkopf then negotiated a cease fire without any concrete guidance from Washington or even participation of other senior military leaders. This was the infamous cease fire agreement which granted Iraq an exemption from the US no-fly zone for helicopters, an exemption Saddam Hussein would exploit to decimate Shi'ite Iraqi enemies in Southern Iraq with helicopter gunships.

Tommy Franks -- During an appearance at the Naval War College after the Anaconda battle in Afghanistan in which hundreds of al Qaeda fighters managed to escape into Pakistan, Franks was asked a simple question -- What is the nature of the war you are fighting in Afghanistan? Franks answered by talking about tactical strategies for clearing caves and made no mention of the challenges of fighting a war of counter-insurgency. If botching his role in Afghanistan wasn't enough, Franks went on to botch his command in Iraq, starting with formulating the attack plans which contained NOTHING about what to do after toppling the government.

Ricks goes on with details on crucial strategic mistakes made by Ricardo Sanchez, George Casey, and Ray Odienero, Perhaps Ricks says it best with this heading of one sub-section in a chapter: The Troops: Lions often led by donkeys

Simply put, The Generals provides tremendous insight into the "macro" management of war -- both in terms of management of personnel within the military and the management of the relationship between the military and civilian leadership. The book provides clear-cut examples of how military management -- good and bad -- affected the bottom line of America, not just in lives lost or saved but by affecting the wars we chose to enter and the conditions we created when we chose to end them. If you want to understand why the American military can appear so powerful yet unable to wrap up any conflict with a bow on it and make a clean exit, there's probably no better place to start learning than The Generals.

What It Is Like To Go To War

If The Generals excels at providing a "macro" view of war not often considered, then Karl Marlantes' book What It Is Like To Go To War (WIILTGTW) excels at providing an intense "micro" view of the impact of war on those doing the killing. Marlantes graduated from Yale, attended Oxford as a Rhodes scholar then voluntarily left Oxford to report for service in Vietnam as a Marine. His book provides not only a "you are there" perspective on the second-by-second stress of being fired at and looking someone in the eye as you shoot them but perspective on the second-by-second stress that crops up months, years and decades after the fact in the form of what we now term PTSD.

WIILTGTW isn't a handbook on how the military conditions soldiers to kill. Instead, it is a handbook on how the human brain and soul can be re-wired by the stresses and danger of war and how that re-wiring can create almost a parallel sense of morality amid immorality. As an example, he talks about the fixation upon body counts in Vietnam as a flawed proxy for actual progress in the absence of meaningful strategic goals. The fixation became so perverse that lives were often risked trying to obtain more accurate kill counts to float up the chain to top brass. After relaying his story of such an incident in which his crew made multiple passes over a bombed out bunker to get a "better number" for a captain on a ship who launched the shells that destroyed the bunker, Marlantes explains the madness this way:

Why don't decent people stand up and scream? It's because there's nothing in it for them. They're in a system in which they wish to survive. Assume you're a decent soldier. like me. You and I are decent, aren't we? You know there's a bunch of lying bastards, the other guys, who will do anything to get ahead and who aren't decent at all. If you naively turn in only one probable (kill), when you know under similar circumstances the other SOBs are going to turn in at least five of one kind or another, well, who's going to end up running the place? A bunch of lying bastards. It's your moral duty to keep up.

He finishes the story by stating the only meaningful statistic in war is when the other side quits.

Marlantes also addresses the mismatch between the behavior of civilians and the emotional / psychological needs of returning combat veterans. We cheer returning soldiers and throw parades for them. As Marlantes puts it, a soldier is fulfilling a role to execute an unpleasant, sometimes horrific task that you and I don't wish to perform but sometimes, under rare circumstances, absolutely need performed. The soldier's role is similar to that of a surgeon brought into to cut off a limb being lost to gangrene. The limb must be removed, we may not have the skill or the will to do it so we give the work to the surgeon. However, we don't cheer the surgeon when he emerges from the operating room. We thank him.

The nature of the topic of WIILTGTW is so unique and "in your head" in nature that it is difficult to adequately "review" it in a traditional sense. Reading the narratives Marlantes provides about his own experience is essential to understanding his higher level points about the "re-wiring" performed by the experience on the brains of combat veterans that non-veterans seldom think about. Marlantes appeared on Bill Moyers' PBS show back around August 2012 promoting the book and Moyers devoted the entire hour to the subject. You can watch it here:


As the Moyers appearance makes clear, Marlantes is extremely eloquent yet very simple and direct in his speaking and writing about the topic. Reading the book is exactly like sitting across the table from him in the Moyers interview.

A Joint Review

I happened to read both of these books back to back, starting with The Generals then proceeding to What It Is Like To Go To War. In hindsight, I have concluded that they probably SHOULD be read together, in that order. Reading The Generals by itself will provide a great deal of insight into why America seems to be dogged with nearly 20 years of military scandals and management failures, including:

  • Tailhook assault and rape scandal in the Air Force in the 1990s
  • repeated conflicts between US military and Japanese civilians on Okinawa
  • torture at Abu Ghraib
  • the Haditha murder incident of innocent Iraqis at a checkpoint
  • the Kandahar murders where an American soldier murdered 13 people
  • US troops urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban combatants
  • the high incidence of rape of American female soldiers
  • Stealth fighter pilot deaths and near-misses from known issues with oxygen systems
  • "reverse hazing" at the Air Force academy that injured 27 cadets as they tossed their cadet first sergeant into the snow.
  • the Petraeus affair -- which CLEARLY involved an inappropriate relationship while he was in uniform

Reading What It Is Like To Go To War after The Generals helps associate nearly every macro management problem to concrete damage done to the soldiers at the bottom of the chain and damage done to America's legitimate strategic goals. America needs a strong military and needs people willing and able to serve in the military. However, American civilians need to jettison the bogus, flag-waving, parade attending, reflexive "pro military" posturing that's been substituted for critical thinking and become more "pro-soldier" and "pro sanity" when deciding where, when and how to throw our weight around the world. No two current books better make that point than these.