The Generals

The Generals

American Military Command from World War II to Today

Additional Formats
  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781101595930
  • 576 Pages
  • Penguin Books
  • Adult


From the #1 bestselling author of Fiasco and The Gamble, an epic history of the decline of American military leadership from World War II to Iraq

History has been kind to the American generals of World War II—Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley—and less kind to the generals of the wars that followed. In The Generals, Thomas E. Ricks sets out to explain why that is. In part it is the story of a widening gulf between performance and accountability. During the Second World War, scores of American generals were relieved of command simply for not being good enough. Today, as one American colonel said bitterly during the Iraq War, “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.”

In The Generals we meet great leaders and suspect ones, generals who rose to the occasion and those who failed themselves and their soldiers. Marshall and Eisenhower cast long shadows over this story, as does the less familiar Marine General O. P. Smith, whose fighting retreat from the Chinese onslaught into Korea in the winter of 1950 snatched a kind of victory from the jaws of annihilation.

But Korea also showed the first signs of an army leadership culture that neither punished mediocrity nor particularly rewarded daring. In the Vietnam War, the problem grew worse until, finally, American military leadership bottomed out. The My Lai massacre, Ricks shows us, is the emblematic event of this dark chapter of our history. In the wake of Vietnam a battle for the soul of the U.S. Army was waged with impressive success. It became a transformed institution, reinvigorated from the bottom up. But if the body was highly toned, its head still suffered from familiar problems, resulting in tactically savvy but strategically obtuse leadership that would win battles but end wars badly from the first Iraq War of 1990 through to the present.

Ricks has made a close study of America’s military leaders for three decades, and in his hands this story resounds with larger meaning: about the transmission of values, about strategic thinking, and about the difference between an organization that learns and one that fails.

The Generals

The Generals

Thomas E. Ricks


A Washington Post 2012 Notable Work of Nonfiction

Ricks shines, blending an impressive level of research with expert storytelling.”
—The Weekly Standard

“[A] savvy study of leadership. Combining lucid historical analysis, acid-etched portraits of generals from ‘troublesome blowhard’ Douglas MacArthur to ‘two-time loser’ Tommy Franks, and shrewd postmortems of military failures and pointless slaughters such as My Lai, the author demonstrates how everything from strategic doctrine to personnel policies create a mediocre, rigid, morally derelict army leadership… Ricks presents an incisive, hard-hitting corrective to unthinking veneration of American military prowess.”
Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

“Informed readers, especially military buffs, will appreciate this provocative, blistering critique of a system where accountability appears to have gone missing – like the author’s 2006 bestseller, Fiasco, this book is bound to cause heartburn in the Pentagon.”

“Entertaining, provocative and important.”
—The Wilson Quarterly

This is a brilliant book—deeply researched, very well-written and outspoken. Ricks pulls no punches in naming names as he cites serious failures of leadership, even as we were winning World War II, and failures that led to serious problems in later wars.  And he calls for rethinking the concept of generalship in the Army of the future.”
—William J. Perry, 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense

“Thomas E. Ricks has written a definitive and comprehensive story of American generalship from the battlefields of World War II to the recent war in Iraq. The Generals candidly reveals their triumphs and failures, and offers a prognosis of what can be done to ensure success by our future leaders in the volatile world of the twenty-first century.”
—Carlo D’Este, author of Patton: A Genius for War

“Tom Ricks has written another provocative and superbly researched book that addresses a critical issue, generalship. After each period of conflict in our history, the quality and performance of our senior military leaders comes under serious scrutiny. The Generals will be a definitive and controversial work that will spark the debate, once again, regarding how we make and choose our top military leaders.”
—Anthony C. Zinni, General USMC (Ret.)

The Generals is insightful, well written and thought-provoking. Using General George C. Marshall as the gold standard, it is replete with examples of good and bad generalship in the postwar years. Too often a bureaucratic culture in those years failed to connect performance with consequences. This gave rise to many mediocre and poor senior leaders. Seldom have any of them ever been held accountable for their failures. This book justifiably calls for a return to the strict, demanding and successful Marshall prescription for generalship. It is a reminder that the lives of soldiers are more important than the careers of officers—and that winning wars is more important than either.”
—Bernard E. Trainor, Lt. Gen. USMC (Ret.); author of The Generals’ War

The Generals rips up the definition of professionalism in which the US Army has clothed itself. Tom Ricks shows that it has lost the habit of sacking those who cannot meet the challenge of war, leaving it to Presidents to do so. His devastating analysis explains much that is wrong in US civil-military relations. America’s allies, who have looked to emulate too slavishly the world’s pre-eminent military power, should also take heed.”
—Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford

Table of Contents


PROLOGUE: Captain William DePuy and the 90th Division in Normandy, summer 1944


1. General George C. Marshall: The leader

2. Dwight Eisenhower: How the Marshall system worked

3. George Patton: The specialist

4. Mark Clark: The man in the middle

5. “Terrible Terry” Allen: Conflict between Marshall and his protégés

6. Eisenhower manages Montgomery

7. Douglas MacArthur: The general as presidential aspirant

8. William Simpson: The Marshall system and the new model American general


9. William Dean and Douglas MacArthur: Two generals self- destruct

10. Army generals fail at Chosin

11. O. P. Smith succeeds at Chosin

12. Ridgway turns the war around

13. MacArthur’s last stand

14. The organization man’s Army


15. Maxwell Taylor: Architect of defeat

16. William Westmoreland: The organization man in command

17. William DePuy: World War II– style generalship in Vietnam

18. The collapse of generalship in the 1960s

  • a. At the top
  • b. In the field
  • c. In personnel policy

19. Tet ’68: The end of Westmoreland and the turning point of the war

20. My Lai: General Koster’s cover-up and General Peers’s investigation

21. The end of a war, the end of an Army


22. DePuy’s great rebuilding

23. “How to teach judgment”



24. Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, and the empty triumph of the 1991 war

25. The ground war: Schwarzkopf vs. Frederick Franks

26. The post– Gulf War military

27. Tommy R. Franks: Two- time loser

28. Ricardo Sanchez: Over his head

29. George Casey: Trying but treading water

30. David Petraeus: An outlier moves in, then leaves

EPILOGUE: Restoring American military leadership




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