What makes a great general?

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Article Highlights

  • We're turning away from our troops while we nation-build at home

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  • Civil-military relations are critical to a global power like the US

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Surely one of the reasons Barack Obama was reelected as president is that many Americans, and not least our political elites, remain war weary. Even Afghanistan, the "good" war, the "war of necessity," has faded from public consciousness. The one thing we seem to remember about it is that it's "on schedule" to end in 2014.

Similarly, our attention to men and women in uniform is fading. We still honor them at ballparks, let them board planes ahead of us -- sometimes even before the frequent-flying executives -- and are forever "thanking them for their service." But we're turning away, getting on with nation-building at home.

Tom Ricks' new book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, is many things: a deeply considered and researched work of history, an excellent genealogy of the Army's general officer corps, and a well-told tale. In sum, there are a host of reasons to read the book, more than this short piece can limn or even suggest. But, taken as a whole, The Generals is first and foremost a powerful argument that as a nation and as a polity we should not allow the professional military to retreat behind the camouflage netting. Indeed, now more than ever, civilians ought to concern themselves with the "profession" of arms, and particularly what happens to the U.S. Army.

Like many other professions, the profession of arms involves a set of cultural beliefs handed down from generation to generation but molded by the quirks of strong, paradigmatic personalities. And Ricks lays this out well: the leaders of World War II begat those of Korea and Vietnam, who begat those of the modern All-Volunteer Force and Operation Desert Storm, who in turn begat those of the post-9/11 wars. The field- and company-grade officers of these wars are the future of our military, and the next decade will determine what kind of senior commanders they will be.

Ricks' central argument -- that the quality of Army generalship has declined through the years -- is one broadly shared by today's younger officers. "America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy," wrote then- Lt. Col. Paul Yingling in a 2007 Armed Forces Journal article that became a lightning rod for the current debate.

If this charge is true, and I think it is, it is a problem of the first order. Proper civil-military relations are critical to our democracy, particularly one that is also a global power. We can't go back to the pre-imperial past that produced George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Thus Ricks' remedy for what ails us -- holding leaders accountable and relieving them when they fail -- strikes me as a necessary but not sufficient condition. There is also a systemic problem with an officer training, education, and selection model designed to produce competent tacticians but indifferent if not hostile to developing strategists. Our officers are much better in battle than at war.

It is said that amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics, and really smart guys, like Tom Ricks, talk personnel. If there were any justice in the worlds of publishing, politics, or policy, this book would outsell either of Ricks' Iraq books. It would also be a way to truly thank people in uniform for the sacrifices they make.

Thomas Donnelly is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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