What Thomas E. Ricks taught me about war
1) High respect for the skill, tact, wisdom, foresight, and calculation of the good generals: George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Matthew Ridgway.
2) Hatred of the sloppy invocation of military metaphors in areas of civilian life whose laughable triviality is matched only by the self-seriousness of the morons who invoke them. Every football coach who likens his game to war. Every corporate executive who issues a mission statement. Every middle manager who expects his or her underlings to take that crap seriously. Every business person who invokes The Art of War. At best you're a clown. At worst you're a destroyer of lives for no noble cause. I knew that already, but Ricks taught me that in appropriating military lexicon without any of the risk or the high purpose that attends some military action, you're not just debasing the English language, you're disrespecting an institution you'd probably pretend to admire.
3) Ricks writes about war without resorting to the condescending, ethically dubious you-were-there in which reporters transport themselves into the bodies of the people who really were there. (You know the sort of stuff: "Harry Grabowski shivered in the early-morning chill on that fateful day in June 1944." How does the reporter know this?) Ricks does a perfectly fine job relating the rigors and horrors of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir without resorting to such trickery.
4) Another reason to hate the Dallas Cowboys, if football fans need one. Clint Murchison, Ricks writes, father of the Cowboys' first owner, was among the arch-conservative Texas oil billionaires who bankrolled a nationwide tour by the frothing, insubordinate Douglas MacArthur with a view toward getting MacArthur elected president. Lest this offend any Republicans, conservatives, oil men, or Texans, they should know that Ricks also notes the role of Sid Richardson, another rich Texas oilman, in the political career of the much saner Eisenhower. And is MacArthur to blame for such scary creatures as Alexander Haig and Oliver North? (I wonder, too, if Murchison or Richardson inspired any of the characters in James Ellroy's Underworld USA novels.)I thought of including boots on the ground, much overused these days, in 2) above, but Ricks sheds some incidental light on why that particular phrase, rather than some other, is the self-serious instant cliché in the current debate about Syria. In the 1950s, Ricks writes, the future of the U.S. Army was in doubt. Many in the army and out believed that sea and air war would render ground troops and the army itself obsolete. So boots on the ground may reflect bitter relearning of a lesson Donald Rumsfeld did not know or pretended not to know: that warfare still requires troops, sometimes in massive numbers.
© Peter Rozovsky 2013
Labels: Bouchercon, Bouchercon 2013, history, J. Robert Janes, James Ellroy, James R. Benn, John Lawton, Martin Limón, military, military mysteries, Susan Elia MacNeal, things that drive me nuts, Thomas E. Ricks