Small Wars Journal

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today - A US Naval Institute book review by John Nagl.

... In a cascading litany of failures, this book presents more villains than heroes.  Other than Marshall, generals who receive high praise include Matthew Ridgway, who turned around a losing war in Korea, and David Petraeus, who performed a similar task in Iraq.  Marine Maj. Gen. General O.P. Smith earns praise for his exceptional performance at the 1950 Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, where his inspired generalship saved a Marine division from a Chinese onslaught. Smith’s success is contrasted with US Army generals who left their units exposed and subject to devastating defeats. 

Others are not so fortunate.  Generals Maxwell Taylor and William Westmoreland earn scathing criticism for their performance in Vietnam.  Gen. Tommy Franks is faulted for his leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan and for his post-Army conduct, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez is described as “in over his head” for his leadership during the first, horrible year of the Iraq fiasco.

There is much truth in Ricks’ description of flawed Army generalship.  Since Vietnam, the Pentagon and civilian administrations have too often failed to hold general officers accountable for their actions in war.  The admiration that the American public rightly proclaims for the soldiers of today’s conflicts should not automatically extend to their superiors, despite the hard tasks they recently have been given. America’s major wars of the past four decades (other than the brief and almost completely conventional Operation Desert Storm) have been the sort of protracted counterinsurgency campaigns that have tested generals since the Roman Empire.  While Rome’s legions could simply lay waste to rebellious provinces, modern morality has rendered that technique untenable...