Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Thomas E. Ricks taught me about war

I'm done reading the parts of Thomas E. Ricks' The Generals most relevant to my Bouchercon panel on wartime crime fiction.  Here's what I take from those sections, on World War II and the Korean 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.
Thomas E. Ricks' presence will loom over my "World War II and Sons" panel at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:00 p.m., which will include authors Susan Elia MacNeal, Martin Limón, John Lawton, J. Robert Janes, and James R. Benn.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger Dana King said...

"Mission critical" is the one that sets my teeth on edge. It's used too often to describe functions or processes ("This is a mission critical application,") that are important, but the operation will not fall apart if something goes down.

I'm in lockdown mode on Ricks's book, as it's now officially on my Christmas list, and I have an arrangement with The Beloved Spouse and The Sole Heir not to buy anything on that list until after my birthday in January, so they have gift ideas. After that, it's mine, one way or the other.

September 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Long-range thinking is essential to a critical mission. Strategy: Get Ricks' book into your hands. Tactics: Avoid buying books on your list until Christmas, with a backup plan of avoiding buying books until your birthday in case the main attack fails. That's good generalship on your wife's and daughter's parts.

Ricks dedicates the book "To those who died following poor leaders." That may be a bit melodramatic, but it's forceful reminder that unlike their pale echoes in metaphor, wars do matter.

Incidentally, that stuff about hating the Dallas Cowboys and casual use of military metaphors is all me, not Ricks. He gives a straightforward account of generalship. I give a straightforward account od the things his books make me think of. He is unusually unrestrained in condemning bad generals, though, which a delight to read.

September 13, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


This might be my book of the year. A very clear eyed view of American institutional failure. If this isnt immediately on the curriculum at West Point then the institutional rot is so deep it can't be fixed.

The chapters on the invasion of Iraq and the Mi Lai massacre and its aftermath should be read by every single person in the country who wants to understand how we can into the fix we're in.

If I have one criticism of the book its the slightly easier ride he gives to the generalship in the Marine Corps.

My review of The Generals here:

September 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll see that for my purposes, I've read just the sections on WWII and Korea so far. Ricks makes a case that the Marines outperformed the Army at Chosin Reservoir.

But he can craft a story, too, and he plants plenty of hints that things get worse after Korea. I expect the sections on the organization man and the military will be especially relevant to today's readers.

I read your review back when you posted it. That may have been what first got me interested in the book.

September 15, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...


I thought the US Army high command comes off pretty well in WW2 except maybe for not getting rid of Mark Clark. The concept of rapid relief (if I'm remembering it correctly) was a good one.

The chapters on Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq are maybe the best in the book though. Stick with it.

September 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I'll definitely stick with it. I put aside with great regret. But I'm just about done writing the questions for my Bouchercon panels, and I have maybe one book left to read.

Army generals come off so well during World War II that I'm tempted to look for biographies of Eisenhower and George Marshall. The first two sections are very clearly a story of decline from World War II through Korea.

I like the idea, too, that relief was less a matter of punishment that of simply doing what was needed to get done what was necessary, or so some officers said. Some of those relieved leaders came back to acquit themselves well in other leadership jobs, even in the same way. I'll be interested to see if later military leaders feared precisely that: that dismissed generals would come back, and that they therefore stopped dismissing them.

This obviously is of interest in areas other than the military.

September 16, 2013  

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