Marcus Aurelius: General Failure — Neil Sheehan Reviews Thomas Rick’s New Book Plus Chapter Extract

Corruption, Idiocy, Ineptitude, Military
Marcus Aurelius

An adapted excerpt from this book, cued to me by a friend, can be found as indicated below, followed by Neil Sheehan's review of the book.

General Failure

Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.


Relief of generals has become so rare that a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of the war.

. . . . . . .

To a shocking degree, the Army’s leadership ranks have become populated by mediocre officers, placed in positions where they are likely to fail. Success goes unrewarded, and everything but the most extreme failure goes unpunished, creating a perverse incentive system that drives leaders toward a risk-averse middle where they are more likely to find stalemate than victory.

Read full abstract.

Book World: How The Military Brass Lost Their Luster

By Neil Sheehan

Washington Post, October 28, 2012, Pg. B6

THE GENERALS: American Military Command From World War II to Today. By Thomas E. Ricks, Penguin Press, 558 pp., $32.95

Troubles between a president and his generals are hardly new in the history of American civil-military relations. Abraham Lincoln had to work his way through a succession of generals before he was able to find the man, Ulysses S. Grant, who could defeat the Confederacy’s Robert E. Lee. Woodrow Wilson was more fortunate in World War I. He had the decisive and capable John J. Pershing. Franklin Roosevelt was even more fortunate in World War II. He had the incomparable George C. Marshall.

After that, things began to change, as we learn in this important and timely book by Thomas E. Ricks about the decline of senior leadership in the United States Army. Ricks’s touchstone is the standard established by Marshall, the creator of the modern American Army. The “Marshall system,” as Ricks calls it, consisted of Marshall determining the requirements of a position, appointing the best man he could find to it and then giving the man freedom to exercise his judgment and initiative in fulfilling the task. The most famous example was Marshall’s elevation of Dwight Eisenhower from one-star brigadier to commander in chief of Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa in 1942 that constituted the first Allied counteroffensive.

Under the Marshall system, if the officer proved incompetent or grew tired and stale in the job, he was relieved, and reliefs of senior officers were common, particularly of major generals commanding divisions. Eisenhower, too, came close to being relieved after the brilliant Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, routed the American troops in their initial confrontation at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Because of its rigorous demands and willingness to act swiftly against failure, the Marshall system, Ricks points out, brought excellent leadership to the Army’s upper ranks.

Read full review.

Phi Beta Iota:  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) does not manage, and no one is held accountable for anything other than “keep the money moving.”  This is why the secret intelligence community is largely worthless to Whole of Government and provides “at best” 4% of what a major commander needs; and this is why 99% of the Pentagon budget is spent on complex systems that are not needed and do not work as they should.  One lesson the British learned early was that it takes two years to weed out peacetime generals promoted above their  depth, and that the best of the best have generally retired at lower ranks and should be recalled and promoted.  Looking back over the Secretaries of Defense that have served since the position was created in 1947, a handful of intelligent and ethical Secretaries aside, what we see are mostly political appointees who lack the strategic depth, intellectual breadth, and absolute ethics needed to wage peace, which is what Secretaries of Defense are supposed to do.

See Also:

Patrick Beasely, Very Special Intelligence (Greenhill Books, 2000)

James Carol, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Mariner Books, 2007)

Norman Dixon, The Psychology of Military Incompetence (Futura, 1988)

Worth a Look: Book Review Lists (Negative)

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