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‘Good Guys’ Make Bad Generals

By all accounts, the present-day United States military is the best—that is, the most capable—in all the world. In the estimation of their countrymen, today’s American warrior (the homelier term G.I. having now gone the way of doughboy) may well be the best of all time. Yet America’s Army doesn’t win. Except for small-scale skirmishes, it hasn’t since World War II.

In terms of providing its army with bountiful resources, no nation comes even close to the United States. In terms of willingness to commit that army into action, no nation (except perhaps Israel and the United Kingdom) compares. Yet the roster of victories achieved by the United States Army since 1945 is an abbreviated one: the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989). Twenty years ago, observers might have added the Persian Gulf War (1991) to that list. Unfortunately, the brief and seemingly glorious encounter that was Operation Desert Storm turned out to be a mere preliminary bout.

Forays ending in something other than victory—i.e., conclusive operational success yielding desired political outcomes—have been both more numerous and of greater moment. The Cold War provided the occasion for one costly draw (Korea) and one humiliating defeat (Vietnam). The post-Cold War era has included one outright failure, the embarrassing if quickly mythologized Somalia intervention, along with two wars of middling size, long duration, and ambiguous outcome. Whatever verdict historians ultimately render regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, they are unlikely to classify them as roaring successes. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that these two badly managed wars may have rung down the curtain on the so-called American Century, with the self-described “world’s only superpower” now facing irreversible decline.

The United States Army is like one of those chronically underperforming professional sports franchises: the team looks good on paper but somehow doesn’t quite get the job done. Despite a huge payroll, a roster loaded with talent, and an enthusiastic fan base, performance on the pitch falls short of what’s needed to win championships.

What explains this gap between apparent potential and actual achievement? When Americans send their army to fight, why doesn’t it return home in triumph? In The Generals, Thomas R. Ricks ventures an answer to that question, with his book’s title fingering the chief culprits.

Writing in 1932, the soldier-historian J.F.C. Fuller identified the essential attributes of successful generalship as “courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.” A prize-winning journalist best known for his cogent analysis of the Iraq War, Ricks does not question whether senior American military officers can do the requisite number of push-ups and sit-ups to demonstrate their physical vigor. Yet since World War II, he argues, the quality of creative intelligence found in the upper echelons of the United States Army has declined precipitously. So too has the quality of civil-military interaction—the dialogue between senior officers and senior civilian officials that is essential to effective war management. Here the problem stems at least in part from pronounced lapses in moral courage. Together, these failings at the top explain why an army that seemingly ought to win doesn’t.

Ricks also offers an explanation for why this decline occurred: the Army officer corps no longer polices itself, at least not its upper echelons. Back in World War II, generals fired generals who performed poorly. Today that is no longer the case—indeed, it hasn’t been for several decades. The demise of this ethic of professional accountability has created an environment in which people getting to the top are patently unqualified for the responsibilities that await them. Worse, even when they screw up they get a pass—and sometimes even get promoted.

To become a general officer is to join an exclusive club. As with many clubs, ranking members decide whom to admit, restricting entry to those who satisfy the criteria for being the right sort. In American military vernacular, Ricks writes, the key is to be deemed a “good guy.” The good guy projects the right attitude, strikes the right pose, and recites all the right clichés. Good guys are team players. They don’t rock the boat. They get ahead by going along. In practical terms, demonstrated adherence to orthodoxy becomes the premier qualification for admission. Heretics need not apply.


And according to Ricks, once you’re in, you’re golden: with membership come privileges and protection. So when events expose the limitations of a William Westmoreland in Vietnam or a Tommy Franks in Iraq, other senior officers cognizant of those shortcomings keep mum. Sergeants or captains falling short in the performance of duty might feel the axe; not so with the generals said to be responsible for what the sergeants and captains do or don’t do. General officer responsibility turns out to be more nominal than real. Reflecting on the Iraq War, one disenchanted American officer put it this way: “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” Needless to say, that officer’s invitation to join the club never arrived.


It didn’t use to be that way. At the outset of World War II, Ricks writes, George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, established strict standards of general officer accountability. In the field, commanders like Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced those standards, ruthlessly sacking division and corps commanders found wanting. Meanwhile, those generals who demonstrated a capacity for combat leadership—among them J. Lawton Collins, James Gavin, and Matthew Ridgway—reaped rewards: swift promotion and assignment to positions of greater responsibility. For Marshall, war was the ultimate Darwinian environment, separating fit from unfit (or perhaps lucky from unlucky). The clash of arms rendered judgments; Marshall’s system accepted those judgments as authoritative.

Did this Marshall system actually exist? The case that Ricks advances for answering that question in the affirmative falls short of being conclusive. His approach is nakedly didactic: The Generals consists of a series of chapter-length profiles, each focusing on a particular senior officer whose personal qualities, performance of duty, or ultimate fate reveals something about the evolution of American generalship. The individuals to whom the author directs attention form a motley, even whimsical, group. Some are colorful, others bland. Some—George S. Patton for example—meet anyone’s standards for historical importance. Others—raise your hand if you’ve heard of Terry de la Mesa Allen—qualify as marginal. But the key point is this: tinker with the cast of characters and you’re likely to reach different conclusions.

Even some of the figures Ricks uses to build his argument cast doubts about the Marshall system’s efficacy. Mark Clark offers a case in point. Ricks correctly identifies Clark, the erstwhile liberator of Rome, as a petty, if exceedingly ambitious, officer of negligible ability, “disliked and distrusted by subordinates and superiors alike.” In a crisis, Clark’s practice was “to blame everyone but himself.” If the Marshall system worked as Ricks claims, he ought to have been sacked. Yet as a personal friend of Eisenhower, Clark flourished, achieving four-star rank and remaining a blight on the Army for years to come.

More problematic still is the case of Douglas MacArthur, who presided over the Southwest Pacific theatre of operations with an imperial disdain for whatever George Marshall (not to mention Franklin Roosevelt) might want. In a 2010 blog post, Ricks fingered MacArthur as “the worst general in American history.” Here he concedes that MacArthur “stood outside of” the Marshall system. Yet a system of accountability that allows the worst (not to mention most narcissistic) general in U.S. history to run roughshod over his superiors while cultivating an undeserved reputation as a Great American Hero may not actually qualify as a system at all. Some exceptions confirm the rule; others expose the rule as fiction.

Still, even without enshrining World War II as some sort of golden age of American generalship, Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and the rest of them (even including he likes of Clark and MacArthur) did get the job done. The war ended with the United States on the winning side. We may wonder how much credit for that outcome is due to superior U.S. military leadership as opposed to German strategic folly, Japanese economic weakness, and the extraordinary resilience of the Red Army. But that is not the question that Ricks wishes to entertain here.

Instead, according to the story he chooses to tell, the leadership system that had produced victory almost immediately began to decay. By the onset of the Korean War, it had all but ceased to exist. In choosing subordinates, MacArthur, the dominant figure during the war’s early stages, preferred cronies and courtiers. The only creative intelligence he valued was his own. Rather than competence or independent judgment, therefore, sucking up to the boss determined who flourished under his command. After President Harry Truman had finally had his fill of MacArthur’s insubordination and dismissed him, Ridgway sought to reinstate Marshall’s standards, but with a twist: rather than being fired outright, failed commanders were quietly transferred. Shielding generals, and the Army, from embarrassment was becoming a priority.

Worse was to come. In the wake of Korea, a new “corporate model of generalship” emerged, embodied by Maxwell Taylor and by Taylor’s protégé William Westmoreland, officers who were smooth, bureaucratically savvy, intellectually shallow, and less than honest. Taylor “made a habit of saying not what he knew to be true but instead what he thought should be said.” Westmoreland displayed a similar tendency to shade the truth, especially on matters affecting his own image and reputation. Among senior officers, plain speaking was becoming a lost art. The Army, writes Ricks, “was fast becoming a collection of ‘organization men’ … who were far less inclined to judge the performance of their peers.” Generals “were acting less like stewards of their profession, answerable to the public, and more like keepers of a closed guild.”

Here for Ricks lies the key explanation for why Vietnam became such a debacle: Army generals screwed it up. They misconstrued that war’s actual nature. They employed methods (“search and destroy”) that were wrong-headed, unnecessarily brutal, and massively counterproductive. Attempting to deceive and manipulate their civilian masters, they helped create a poisonous civil-military relationship. And with Marshall’s standards of accountability now fully abandoned, they prospered. Senior officers who ran the army into the ground as they led it to defeat reaped rewards, winning medals and promotions. Westmoreland’s fate was emblematic: Ricks suggests that Marshall would have canned him; yet after four years of mismanaging the Vietnam War, Westy ascended to Marshall’s old job as Army chief of staff.

From their experience battling insurgents in Southeast Asia, army generals took one lesson: never again. That apart, they learned next to nothing. Indeed they wasted no time in concluding that the war had nothing to teach.

In recounting how the Army recovered from Vietnam, Ricks rightly emphasizes the contributions of Gen. William DePuy. Today a forgotten figure, DePuy may well rank as the most consequential U.S. military officer in the last quarter of the 20th century, both as chief architect of the Army’s post-Vietnam reforms and as the senior officer most insistent on declaring the entire Vietnam experience irrelevant.

DePuy’s interest in burying that war was understandable: as Westmoreland’s operations chief he had devised the concept of “search and destroy,” confident that superior U.S. firepower would bludgeon the Communist insurgents into submission. In effect, DePuy in the 1960s applied to a Vietnamese civil war methods that Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman had employed during the American Civil War in the 1860s: grind the enemy down until he gives up. Yet the two wars were utterly dissimilar. DePuy’s approach badly underestimated the capacity of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army to absorb punishment and still carry on. And in a contest where the prospects of success turned on winning the support of a contested population, it employed means that victimized and alienated that population.

Yet the abject failure of that concept in Vietnam—a failure above all of creative intelligence—prompted little soul-searching on DePuy’s part. Nothing that had occurred there altered his pre-existing conception of warfare. Stripped to its essentials, that conception reduced combat to a series of discrete, measurable tasks. In DePuy’s eyes, to master tasks was to master war itself. Paying lip service to war’s human dimension, disdaining its political aspect altogether, DePuy’s approach—which became the Army’s approach—pretended to a sort of pseudo-empiricism, as if war were akin to a large-scale industrial enterprise.

Demanding compliance with prescribed formulas, checklists, and decision matrices, DePuy’s Army had little use for critical thinking or independent judgment. This was the Army that in 1991 fought Saddam Hussein and then in 2003 came back for a second go—an Army led by “good guys” who had mastered minor tactics but were intellectually complacent, strategically illiterate, and wore their antipathy for politics like a badge of honor.

Against Saddam’s undistinguished legions, this proved good enough to win battles but nowhere near good enough to win wars. Against the more resolute opponent that American soldiers confronted in occupying Iraq (and Afghanistan), it wasn’t good enough to win anything. Iraq after 2003 became the war that DePuy’s Army had been so intent on avoiding: it was Vietnam redux. Yet generals imbued with DePuy’s mechanistic approach to warfare proved no more adept at grasping the problem actually at hand than had the prior generation of senior leaders who all but destroyed the army they professed to love in their vain pursuit of an ever bigger body count.


Generals who had come of age in DePuy’s army took for granted the superiority of American military technique. They did not question its relevance to the battlefield that they confronted in Iraq. For this generation of senior leaders, creative intelligence amounted to bearing down harder in the face of resistance, an impulse that found its ultimate expression in the madcap effort to lock up every military age Iraqi male in places like Abu Ghraib prison. To remove from circulation every potential “terrorist” was to assure ultimate victory: here was the modified version of body count.

In painful detail, Ricks recounts the failings of successive U.S. commanders in Baghdad and of the equally lackluster four-stars back in Washington who had little to offer to civilian leaders badly in need of competent military advice—even if they were slow to acknowledge that need. The roll call of generals that Ricks singles out for spanking—the “dull and arrogant” Tommy Franks, the clueless Ricardo Sanchez, and the slow-on-the-uptake George Casey (“up to his ears in quicksand and he doesn’t even know it”)—certainly sustains his overall thesis. Not since Irvin MacDowell, George McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joe Hooker subjected the Army of the Potomac to serial abuse had American soldiers suffered under such mediocre leadership.

Extending that comparison would find David Petraeus serving as the Iraq War’s equivalent of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who turns looming failure into victory. Yet Ricks won’t go that far. Rather than winning the Iraq War, he writes, Petraeus succeeded in merely “putting a new face on it.” He applied the tourniquet that slowed the loss of blood. The tourniquet held just long enough for Washington to declare the patient stable and hastily leave the scene of mayhem that the United States itself had unleashed.

Furthermore, the Petraeus Moment by no means inaugurated a full-fledged renaissance of American generalship. According to Ricks, Petraeus’s ill-concealed ambition and operating style, more than slightly reminiscent of Taylor or Westmoreland, had always marked him as an “outlier.” Petraeus assiduously courted journalists. Devoting considerable energy to winning favor among politicians, he achieved rock-star status on Capitol Hill. In recruiting staff, he surrounded himself with fellow Ph.D.’s, seemingly valuing academic credentials over experience gained while leading troops in the field. None of these qualify as standard “good guy” attributes.

May/June 2013 issue [1]As a consequence, Ricks depicts Petraeus as a one-off. When he departed from active duty to become CIA director, the Petraeus Moment ended. Were there doubts on that score, the sex scandal that booted “King David” out of Langley quashed them. The result was an Army left in the hands of senior officers no more interested in critically examining their service’s (or their own) performance in Iraq and Afghanistan than DePuy had been interested in critically examining his service’s (and his own) performance in Vietnam. To judge by the evidence that Ricks assembles, the present generation of senior officers may lack a capacity for introspection, but its members suffer no shortage of self-esteem. “I think we’ve got great general officers,” remarks one Army four-star quoted by Ricks, insisting that anything that had gone amiss in Iraq was clearly the fault of civilian politicians.

For this very reason, the eminently sensible suggestions for improving the quality of senior military leadership that Ricks offers in concluding his account—in essence restoring the professional ethic that produced George C. Marshall and that he himself subsequently sought (however imperfectly) to uphold—have little chance of implementation. The successors to the generals once so keen to forget Vietnam are now hell-bent on forgetting Iraq and can’t wait to do the same for Afghanistan. They are “good guys,” able to do their push-ups and sit-ups. Just don’t look to them for much by way of moral courage or creative intelligence.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

68 Comments (Open | Close)

68 Comments To "‘Good Guys’ Make Bad Generals"

#1 Comment By Guy Montag On May 19, 2013 @ 10:36 am

“… even when they screw up they get a pass—and sometimes even get promoted. … To become a general officer is to join an exclusive club. As with many clubs, ranking members decide whom to admit … Good guys are team players.”

In July 2007, Secretary of the Army Pete Geren hand-picked the 15 Army generals who would serve on the promotion board to select new generals. Among those were Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Just two weeks later, at a press conference Geren cleared McChrystal of “all wrong-doing” in the Army’s cover-up Pat Tillman 2004 friendly-fire death. The next day, the Democratic Congress, led by Congressman Henry Waxman “Oversight” committee also whitewashed McChrystal’s central role in the affair while scapegoating Gen. Kensinger.

If interested in more details, see the post “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” at the Feral Firefighter blog.

#2 Comment By Richard Earley On May 19, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

Writing as one who has heard of Terry de la Mesa Allen, I found Bacevich’s customary good sense has departed him. Americans need to remember that Churchill until the end of the war questioned the American infantry’s “battle-worthiness”. We simply did not fight well against the Germans in that war or the war to end all wars. The American public has refused to recognize our incompetence.

During the First World War Allen was wounded three times and ended the war as an acting regimental commander. Allen had the innate ability to antagonize many of the American commanders and their concept of what war was about. Allen, contemptuous of the flag waving school of American patriotism, spewed his distaste by denigrating the thought that soldiers fight to save humanity “or any other goddamned nonsense”. He made clear the soldier fought to prove his unit was the best in the army, and he did not want to shame it: “Break up the unit and incentive is gone”. Although friendly with Allen, George Patton regarded him as a competitor. When inspecting Allen’s 1st Division in North Africa, Patton asked Allen where his trench was. After Allen pointed, Patton walked over and urinated in it. Publicly humiliating Allen by warning him to stay out of it, Patton was obviously aware of how much a rival and threat Allen was to him as a combat soldier.

Allen, who did not turn down a drink, had an even more serious misunderstanding with the abstemious Omar Bradley, who did not get overseas during the First World War. Despite the surface acrimony he had a solid underlayment of respect with Patton. Bradley thought Allen’s division lacked discipline, that Allen was not a team player and that Allen was “the most difficult commander I had to handle during the war”. His troops had notoriously bad relations with support troops, and Eisenhower, himself, in Algiers was furious a 1st Division MP had punched an Arab. What a disgrace to the American image that man must have been! The aim to win the hearts and minds of the natives must have been set back. Later Allen was relieved and returned in disgrace to the US. The incompetent Fredenall, who bore most of the responsibility for the American debacle at Kasserine Pass, was sent back to the United States with a promotion. In the USA Allen trained another division which he once again would lead into combat. Allen had the reputation of being one of the few American commanders who could train troops to attack at night. Although shortchanged by the American high command, Major General Allen did have one fervent admirer, British General Alexander, the General’s General, who called Allen the best division commander he had seen in two wars.

Alexander, who never lost his low opinion of the fighting quality of American troops, was too much of a professional to let hatred for the enemy cloud his judgment of their skills. At the crest of the fighting for Monte Cassino in Italy when attacking New Zealand troops under Bernard Freyberg were being steadily repulsed by German paratroopers, Alexander wrote to Field Marshal Brooke: “Unfortunately : “Unfortunately we are fighting the best soldiers in the world – what men!…”

Commenting on the battle at Kasserine in a biography of Eisenhower published in 1983, the popular historian and cheerleader Stephen Ambrose regarded the battle in the tactical sense as a victory for Rommel, but denied any strategic gain for the Germans. In the approved manner of optimistic American historians Ambrose qualified his assessment to add Eisenhower may have been done a favor in preparing Americans for subsequent battle. However, his overall judgment of Ike’s performance in his first major battle was “miserable”. Almost 10 years later in common with many newspapers the Philadelphia Inquirer ran stories commemorating the 50th anniversaries of important events of World War II. For the invasion of North Africa the Inquirer asked Ambrose about American performance, and Ambrose replied: “At Kasserine Pass we took a pretty good licking for two days, and we started to dig in. Eisenhower made the comment that the American soldier doesn’t like to be pushed around. In the end, I think it was a victory”. Did Mr. Ambrose lecture at Rotary Clubs and women literary clubs for the nine years between the book publishing date and the newspaper article? Mr. Ambrose must have learned the great audiences in America demanded this balderdash for mental stimulation and a feel-good mood.

Of great interest was the observation of Omar Bradley, who was Eisenhower’s classmate at West Point and favorite. Bradley commented that “Ike led an extraordinarily charmed life”, and he thought the British who had elevated Ike into the stratosphere at Casablanca and brought Alexander into his command were trapped by their precipitous action. Bradley professionally critiqued the campaign: “I feel certain that after Kasserine Pass he (Eisenhower) would have been fired. Ike was a political general of rare and valuable gifts, but as his African record clearly demonstrates, he did not know how to manage a battlefield”. Bradley thought of Alexander as the outstanding General’s General of the European war with his shrewd tactical judgment and his ability to bear the nationally minded and jealous Allied commanders of his command. In each successive Mediterranean campaign he won the adulation of his American subordinates.

Years later writing largely about another war in another time and another place, a young William Westmoreland, not seven years out of West Point and serving as an artillery commander in the Ninth Division, would refer only to American troops having “fallen back under impact” from the onslaught of Rommel’s forces. Refusal to accept brutal facts and publicly acknowledge them was probably learned in North Africa by the former First Captain of West Point.

#3 Comment By Georgiaboy61 On May 20, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

Re: ” Americans need to remember that Churchill until the end of the war questioned the American infantry’s “battle-worthiness”. We simply did not fight well against the Germans in that war or the war to end all wars. The American public has refused to recognize our incompetence.” (Richard Earley)

Mr. Earley, you appear to have bought into the now-popular but misguided revisionist historical notion that in WWII, Allied troops – especially Americans – were inferior to Germans in the art of war. There is no denying that the best of German’s best were formidable fighting men – but what then must be said of the Anglo-American (and Soviet) men who beat them? German military “superiority” is a myth, albeit a carefully-cultivated one.

After the Second World War ended and the Cold War began in earnest, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies found propaganda value in undercutting how the Anglo-American allies had prosecuted the war. For example, they spread the now-discredited notion (see Frederick Taylor’s superb new book “Dresden”) that the fire-bombing of Dresden was unnececcessary and that the city was not a valid military target – and the raid therefore an atrocity.

The propaganda efforts of the communists dovetailed nicely with then-emerging (~1950s-60s) autobiographical accounts by notable German survivors of the war. Adolf Galland, the famed Luftwaffe fighter ace, for example, held the belief that the Allies had won the air war only through overwhelming material superiority and weight of numbers, and not through their bravery, resourcefulness or command of the tools of war. Over the decades, Galland’s account and many others like it reframed Germany’s loss in a politically-correct manner that served the agenda of revisionist historians on the academic left, as well as their communist ideological brethren behind the Iron Curtain. It was all very nice and neat; the trouble is, however, that this view of history was and is utterly incorrect.

As superbly-documented and argued by Dr. Richard Overy – perhaps the foremost living historian of WWII in Europe – in his book “Why the Allies Won,” the Germans were excellent, even superb, soldiers – but the free men who bested them had to be even better, and they were. Overy’s argument is that the free world ultimately produced superior fighting men and a superior way of making war to that of totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany. Hitler had argued that the sons of Britain, the Commonwealths and America were soft and corrupt, thanks to years of prosperity and the decadent societies in which they lived. They would make easy pickings for Hitler’s hardened and ideologically-pure Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers. The cost was terribly high, but in the end, Herr Hitler was proven to be conclusively wrong.

At the start of the war, German’s military may have been qualitatively better than those of her enemies, but by the time the tide turned and as the war progressed to its end, those formerly inferior or marginal forces had become – via the relentlessly Darwinian pressures of combat – expert in the art and science of war, and surpassed their erstwhile teachers, the Germans themselves. Adapt or die, and adapt the Allies did.

Kenneth Macksey’s book, “Why the Germans Lose at War: The Myth of German Military Superiority” is recommended – perhaps it will get you to reconsider your views. The author was a career army officer in armor, saw combat, and knows whereof he speaks.

Quod erat demonstrandum – Q.E.D. In any case, the evidence speaks for itself: Germany fought and ultimately lost the two largest and most-destructive wars of the 20th century. That rather conclusively proves the superiority of the Allied way of making war, wouldn’t you say?

#4 Comment By Patrick On May 21, 2013 @ 8:32 am

Nice that he uses the Generals as the scapegoat for losing wars. Wars have to be faught under a COHERANT national strategy emplaced by our civilian leadership. Take a look at the American Civil War which by 1863 looked all but unwinnable for the North due to a disconnect of how the President and his Generals wanted to fight the war (McClellan, Meade, Pope et al) wanted to fight a classic war of maneuver why clearly a war of bloody attrition and mass was needed due to the size of the armies and the quality of the leadership and troops. Once Lincoln and Grant decided, let me repeat that ONCE LINCOLN and GRANT agreed, on how the war was going to be conducted as a grinding war of attrition focused on the enemies army (thats you Bobby Lee) was the war won. Break Comma. America has traditionally excelled in conventional wars where our material overwhelms the enemy with bombs and bullets. We either have to stop fighting small wars and live by the “Powell” doctrine of fighting only large wars which are to save our national intersts or get used to fight never ending “brush” or skirmish wars ala Vietnam and Afghanistan. We can afford to lose a dozen of these type wars but never a large war for a national interest. Do we unleash and dissipate the passions of our people in these small wars or do we harnest them for larger wars? Good question. Not for our Generals to decide but for our Civilian leadership.

#5 Comment By Dave Brostrom On May 22, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

I lost a son in the battle of Wanat as did dozens of other families over a 10 year period due to a flawed strategy caused by systemic incompetence at the General Officer level in Afghanistan. However, our most senior civilian leadership also added to this failure.

#6 Comment By Richard Earley On May 22, 2013 @ 6:06 pm


If I am to be accused of being confused about the performance of the American army in WW2, I must console myself with being in good company. Not only did Winston Churchill doubt the performance of the American infantry, so did Jim Gavin, George Patton and, most importantly, George Marshall.

Presently in Mexico, I cannot give the exact citations, but you will have to take my word for what I write. British historian, Max Hastings, has quoted Gavin as stating that if the American infantry had élan and spirit the war in Western Europe would have ended months before it did. Patton did write home disparaging the American infantry as needing all the help it could get. Marshall a few years before death told his biographer, Forest Pogue, that the Germans were natural fighters and natural warriors and judged the soldiers of the world wars as being inferior to his 19th century ancestors.. He cautioned that Americans must accept that. Few Americans do.

Your sources are quite sound in an academic manner, but lack the instinctual feels for veracity and importance of those I cite. DeGaulle in his diary forecast the poor performance of the American army while forecasting the stellar role of the US navy.

The Vietnam army I was in lacked a sense of cohesion and purpose. The army presently being wasted in the Middle East is representative of one percent of the population.

#7 Comment By Mightypeon On May 22, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

@ Georgiaboy:

WW2 was won by the Red army. That the western allies in 1944 were equal or superior to German units was because the actual German units were already pretty dead, or at the eastern front, by then.
It was the Soviet, not the American, that took the brunt and inflicted the overwhelming majorities of casulties against the fascists.

You are making a mistake in believing that conditions in the western allies produced “superior fighting men”. What they did produce is nations that could somewhat effectivly cooperate against a common threat, and that could bring to bear overwhelming material power against a common threat.

When the allies did not have overwhelming material superiority, the Germans usually crushed them.
Usually having material superiority was the advantadge, one the western allies gained from its economical and ideological system (Nazi economics dont work very well in practice).

If you want to compare the Red Armys unit effectiveness to the Americans, well, the not exactly perfect Red Army of 1939 decisivly defeated the vaunted Elite Japanese Imperial Guard at Kalkin Gol.
The battle hardened veteran Red army of 1945 completely obliberated the Japanese (no longer elite by that time) Kwantung army in a manner of days, in a campaign that was only slightly less one sided than the German invasion of the Netherlands.

There was a good reason to nuke Japan, show Stalin that WW3 would not be just conventional, because a “just conventional” world war 3 immidiatly or shortly after WW2 would have ended with the Red army enjoying Portugals beaches.

#8 Comment By Vox Logicae On May 22, 2013 @ 7:22 pm

Without reading the book and only referring to this summary, there appears to be a logical flaw in the premise. If I understand the premise correctly, the author is at least alluding to the fact the Army’s failures from Korea and to more current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is due to a poor system of identifying and maintaining General officers. This is in comparison, apparently, to the successes of World War II. However, to compare the conduct of an Army in large-scale, total warfare to the outcomes of much more limited warfare or counterinsurgencies is not a valid comparison. Any valid comparison must at least hold something in common. If World War II era generals had demonstrated success in counterinsurgency there would be more validity to this premise. Also, the author seems to dismiss the successes of Desert Storm, but the resurgence of Saddam Hussein after 1991 can hardly be blamed on generalship.

#9 Comment By Georgiaboy61 On May 23, 2013 @ 2:03 am

Re: “Your sources are quite sound in an academic manner, but lack the instinctual feels for veracity and importance of those I cite.” An ad hominem attack – how nice. You’ll have to do better than that.

Re: “DeGaulle in his diary forecast the poor performance of the American army while forecasting the stellar role of the US navy.”

With all due respect, anyone who trusts the opinion of Charles de Gaulle on anything having to do with military affairs is asking for trouble. True, de Gaulle made some important contributions to pre-war armor doctrine and had some short-lived success during the Battle of France in 1940, but he then spent the war acting like a spoiled child peeved that La Belle France had to rely on the Americans and Brits to liberate them. For the remainder of his life, de Gaulle’s animating characteristic concerning anything American was envy. Would you call that a dispassionate, unbiased observer? I would not. He was also, it should be noted, famous for taking pot-shots at the Americans. Patton, among many others, wrote of it.

Re: “If I am to be accused of being confused about the performance of the American army in WW2, I must console myself with being in good company. Not only did Winston Churchill doubt the performance of the American infantry, so did Jim Gavin, George Patton and, most importantly, George Marshall.” You’ve cherry-picked the historical record, because while each of these men may have expressed a doubt here and there, they all made numerous and very public statements attesting to the bravery and resourcefulness of the American soldier.

Patton may have doubted our men after Kasserine Pass, but be assured he did not by war’s end, after he and 3rd Army had liberated hundreds of European towns and cities in their drive into Germany. Their record spoke for itself.

George Marshall was a gifted administrative leader, but was not a fighting general. He, too, may have expressed doubts about our troops early in the war when they were untested and unblooded, but are you really suggesting that he harbored doubts by the time the war in Europe ended?

“Marshall a few years before death told his biographer, Forest Pogue, that the Germans were natural fighters and natural warriors and judged the soldiers of the world wars as being inferior to his 19th century ancestors..”He cautioned that Americans must accept that. Few Americans do.”

What precisely is meant by this passage? “Natural” fighters?
There’s no such thing, for that statement implies that skill in warfare is a product of genetics and nothing else, which is clearly nonsense. In any given cohort of people – no matter what their nation or origin – a certain number will possess the attributes necessary to function effectively in battle, and a certain number will not. Training and experience can also mold everyday men into effective soldiers.

Bear in mind that Marshall, for all his accomplishments, was an 18th century man who knew little of science generally, let alone modern genetics – which had yet to be invented. Marshall’s statements are what is known today as genetic determinism – which is a thoroughly discredited field. He was also an administrative general, and not a fighting man. Since Marshall didn’t command soldiers in combat in WWII, and did not often see them in action –
his statements judging them should be taken with a grain of salt.

The mythology of the Germans as super soldiers does not take into account all of the wash-outs, failures and mediocrities in the Wehrmacht. There were plenty of them, just as there are in any army. Many of them perished fighting on the eastern front, or in the west – or spent the war in Allied POW enclosures. You just don’t read about them in the hagiographies that pass for history these days.

It is not at all surprising that many of the German soldiers who survived the war were skilled. They had to be to make it that far. They also had to be lucky. These superior troops were that way not because of some innate attribute of Germans, but because of the relentlessly Darwinian nature of war itself. Adapt or die.

As for Churchill, being British, he could be expected to talk down the American contribution to the war effort and elevate that of the British; the same is true of Max Hastings. Hastings is a terrific historian, but no scholar – no matter how gifted – is without bias. You might consider being more aware of his.

Concerning Vietnam, I do not doubt your experiences or your observations, but by the same token, just because you saw some sub-standard soldiers or sad sacks, does not mean all of them were that way. Beware of extrapolating from the specific to the general; it isn’t always valid to do so.

#10 Comment By Mightypeon On May 23, 2013 @ 2:23 am

@ Vox Logicae

Korea was not a counterinsurgency campaign, both the Koreans and the Chinese fought conventionally, and the Chinese night fighting and infiltration tactics werent that different from Imperial Japanese army night fighting and/or small units doctrine.
The US wiseley accepted a White Peace before the Soviets got openly involved.

#11 Comment By Michael Peirce On May 24, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

Our infantry simply weren’t very good in WWII. Sorry but there it is. We pushed all the smart guys into the air force and Navy – put all the tough motivated guys in the Airborne and Marines, put the mechanical types in armor or transport. What’s left?

Well, they’d missed some smart guys so they put them in ASTP – a college course for gosh sake!

Plus they weren’t very aggressive and had this bizarre desire to survive the war. In Europe they weren’t even clear on why they were fighting…

So the infantry – who take ninety percent of the casualties, were usually not very good, not very aggressive and artillery dependent to a degree unknown in other armies other than the British. They got worse after taking the first fifty to one hundred percent casualty rates in the line companies. Some US units lost well over 100 % of the men in the rifle companies – then replaced them with guys who were poorly trained, didn’t know anybody and were killed at a horrific rate.

If you doubt my facts research the combat record of the 90th Infantry division in Normandy.

Somebody finally noticed we needed better infantry and pulled the ASTP guys out of school and sent them to the front. Luckily for the US Army, they were coming in and the Normandy survivors were starting to get pretty good by about the time of the Battle of the Bulge.

Add to this our dreadful and downright inhuman method of sticking replacements in combat units while already engaged in combat. They were often killed before anybody even knew their name. Imagine being killed in action with no friends, nor even an idea of what outfit you belonged to!

We cadred out well trained infantrymen from divisions soon to sail for Europe or Asia to throw them away as replacements. Look at the 106 Division in the Bulge. Pathetic performance but look deeper and it’s easy to see the cause.

I’d add that our refusal to create as many infantry divisions as we actually needed to fight in Europe put a tremendous strain on the front line fighters. The 1st Infantry Division was very good but it was destroyed and rebuilt way too often. Divisions simply couldn’t be pulled out for a rest since there were not enough of them. Even the battered Germans routinely pulled out frontline units for rest, refit and absorption of replacements.

As a former combat infantryman I personally prefer the American way to that of the Soviets – damn right I like to rely on overwhelming force and artillery by the metric ton!

I laugh when I read whining German memoirs complaining about of our use of firepower instead of lives. It was exactly what they did until they ran out of force and by then the quality of their infantry was way down too – Volksgrenadiers were often poorly trained and given assault rifles to ‘stiffen’ them. Didn’t work.

Since Hastings has been quoted here please remember his own comments about this sad fact – to paraphrase – the German natural fighting ethos was bolstered by the continuous indoctrination and the draconian penalties for slacking off. Did we really want our fighters to be that good if that is what it takes? We plodded to victory but by gosh we got there.

And PS – I darn sure have heard of Terry Allen. A second rater like Bradley would naturally be appalled by a real soldier. His late war return at the head of the 104th Division showed his mettle for any who noticed. But Bradley? Hodges? Geeze…How many men did those clowns throw away at Brest and Huertgen and for what? Bugger all. That’s what.

They followed that same old attrition nonsense while pretending to care for their soldiers. They weren’t good enough to tap dance so they kept swinging that sledge hammer, figuring sooner or later, the Red Army, would finish it. Which they did. (At horrendous cost)

Yeah, our generals have sucked for a long time. I’ve often wondered why and sometimes I think it is that we over rate ourselves as a culture. So fast forward to now: we have first class infantry who fight like lions, but they are, as the Germans said of the Brits at Loos (WWI) ‘…lead by donkeys.’

#12 Comment By Mightypeon On May 25, 2013 @ 11:44 am

@ Michael Pierce:

Actually, the Red Army eventually got quite frugal with its live, I would recomend investigating the August Storm Operation in Manchuria 45 a bit.

Why Germans were “good” also had other reasons (actual penalties for slacking off werent much worse than in other armies ususally):
1: The Soldiers often knew each other in civilian life already. This did wonders for unit cohesion.
2: The German officer corps had very very well trained NCOs.
3: One could promote fairly rapidly, at the lower ranks, stuff could be quite meritocratic.

One should also note the effect of the paramilitary youth organisations (and the Arbeitsdienst), basically, before being conscripted into the army you spend 6 months as a labour group. Food was plentifull, medical care was there, and both muscles, and shared sense of achievement, usually grew quite a bit. The Heer tried to keep Arbeitsdienst units together, and send those to the same Wehrmacht units as replacements.

Later in the war all of that of course broke down.

#13 Comment By OldVet On May 26, 2013 @ 12:59 am

Seems to me the main issue with our war-fighting capacity is in Washington, not on the battlefield. We have been putting troops into difficult situations in far-off lands where they don’t even understand the rationale for the war. We have been choosing our battles very poorly, and therein lies the problem. I suspect that American soldiers would perform admirably if they were actually defending our homeland, rather than fighting to advance corporate hegemony.

Sgt. E-5 (Ret.)
11th Brigade
Americal Division
I Corps, Vietnam (1969-70)

#14 Comment By Mightypeon On May 26, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

@ Oldvet

As long as your politicians have such an oversized hammer, most of their “perceived problems” will look a lot like nails.

#15 Comment By simontmn On May 26, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

The Union has always had a culture of mediocrity in its genrerals since the Civil War, but that culture has served the USA pretty well – great generals can destroy Republics.

#16 Comment By Gary E. Masters On December 29, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

Wrong enough to b useless. General DePuy was known for firing officers that did not perform, while being faulted for not doing so. This is like a “drive by” shooting. Superficial and flawed but reaching the PC conclusions of a generation that gives up at any and all difficulty. I served in the S2 shop of the First Infantry Division (66-67) and observed his approach to war. This article is a disservice to him and to history.

#17 Comment By Robert On October 15, 2016 @ 9:41 am

Oh please.We lost somewhere around six thousand soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.To contrast that we easily killed over a million enemy combatants…and some others.By any account that is a roaring victory.

#18 Comment By cap’n fast On May 12, 2017 @ 2:49 am

interesting quote of a red army supply Sargent “this man gets a rifle an a bullet, the next man gets two bullets and so on. the man with the rifle shoots the enemy with the rifle. when the man shooting the rifle gets shot, the man with the bullets picks up the rifle and shoots the enemy.”
that is a very simple combat instruction. battlefield longevity of those shooting the rifle is suspect. however,note that the man with the bullets does in fact pick up the rifle and shoot the enemy.
this is the core basic tactical reality of insurgent combat in west asia.
generals that are products of the system simply cannot comprehend why the solder with the bullets would willingly pick up the rifle and shoot the enemy. they are clueless as to why insurgents fight them so hard. its like these generals were trained by letting them play first person shooter video games with max ammo and invulnerability.
sometimes i feel the highest army rank should be captain. any thing above that has zero contact with the troops they command. anything above that is a politician. POTUS should say to the captain “this is a bad guy. go kill him today.”
the captain should tell the LT “supply and transport is here. that’s the bad guy over there. go kill him today.” the LT tells the NCO “see him? i need him dead now. whats the best way to do it now with what we have on hand” the NCO says “i am on it sir”. pretty much anything in between the the characters in that little play is for supporting staff who should be civilians outside the line of command because they just are clueless.
i believe majors and above would be just as effective as they are now if they stayed in the voq and played their video games.