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Author and reporter Tom Ricks holds up Gen. George C. Marshall as the model of excellence in military leadership during his talk at Breckenridge Hall on Feb. 12, 2014.

Photo by Mike DiCicco

MCU speaker criticizes lack of accountability in Army brass

13 Feb 2014 | Mike DiCicco Marine Corps Base Quantico

When Army Gen. George C. Marshall was a captain with the 1st Infantry Division in France during World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing paid a visit to his post and, appalled at the training soldiers were receiving there, Pershing proceeded to lay into the division’s commanding general, author and reporter Tom Ricks told his audience at Marine Corps University.

Cautioning that he wouldn’t recommend Marshall’s reaction as a profitable career move, Ricks recounted how the captain interrupted Pershing, grabbing him by the arm and insisting that Army Headquarters was in part to blame for the state of affairs and that the division needed Pershing’s help, not his condemnation.

Shortly thereafter, Pershing made Marshall his aide-de-camp.

During his talk at Breckenridge Hall on Feb. 12, 2014, Ricks, author of “The Generals,” “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” and several other books, held up Marshall as the model of excellence in military leadership, a quality that he said has diminished in the American military since World War II. He said Marshall was defined by his honesty and willingness to speak truth to power, and he credited him with instituting a system of accountability that made the Army effective and adaptable during World War II but has since evaporated.

The talk was part of Marine Corps University’s ongoing lecture series and was open to anyone interested.

As a young officer, Marshall got what Ricks called “one of the best officer evaluations I’ve ever seen” when his commander was asked if he’d like Marshall to serve under him again and responded, “Yes, but would prefer to serve under his command.”

Later, just before the start of World War II, Brig. Gen. Marshall was part of a group of military leaders who visited President Franklin Roosevelt to convince him to increase the size of the Army, Ricks said. Roosevelt, who was less than receptive, made a remark and asked jovially, “Don’t you think so, George?” to which Marshall promptly responded in the negative and proceeded to tell the president why he was wrong.

Roosevelt soon chose Marshall as the Army chief of staff.

In that role, Ricks said, Marshall brought a high level of accountability to the service. He and then-Col. Matthew Ridgway wrote up a list of 600 Army officers who could be jettisoned and proceeded to purge the ranks of what they considered “deadwood.” When he was challenged on the dismissal of one of those officers, Marshall told members of Congress, “If he stays, I go, and if I stay, he goes.”

Of 155 men commanding Army divisions during World War II, 16 were relieved of their duties, although five were given other positions, and Ricks noted that many battalion and regiment commanders were also replaced. “You had 90 days to get it right, get killed or get removed,” he said.

For Marshall, Ricks said, accountability was “much more important than looking out for other people’s feelings and other people’s careers,” and he said it was this policy that made the Army adaptable. While U.S. forces lost their first fight with the Germans, they adapted and did not repeat mistakes, as the men who failed were quickly replaced, while those who succeeded were promoted.

For example, Ricks said, Maj. Gen. James Chaney, commander of the Army for the European Theater of Operations, ended up commanding a boot camp, while his replacement, Dwight Eisenhower, rose from the rank of lieutenant colonel to four-star general in about 20 months.

However, in the small, messy and unpopular wars that followed, Ricks said, a lack of clear strategy made such accountability difficult. Without a definition for success, generals couldn’t be held accountable for failures. When Ridgway went to Korea and began firing officers, he was told to keep the removals quiet, promoting men to phony positions so as not to raise questions in Congress.

Many of the generals in Korea and Vietnam had succeeded as field-grade officers in World War II, Ricks noted, but he said they failed to continue to adapt. “Whatever the question, the answer was firepower, because that’s what worked against the Germans.”

During the Vietnam War, the Marshall tradition of accountability fell apart completely and was never restored, Ricks said. “Today, being a general in the U.S. Army is a lot like being a college professor with tenure,” he said, noting that generals keep their positions regardless of failures “as long as you keep your zipper closed.”

While the military is supposed to know what discipline looks like, he said, “I don’t think, these days, we have a good hold on what a disciplined general looks like.”

Ricks said disciplined generals think for themselves, are willing to privately criticize peers, are willing to speak truth to power and care more about their troops than their careers. They free themselves up to do their job by empowering their subordinates. When they retire, he said, they don’t take high-paying jobs in the defense industry, and they don’t lend their rank and service to political candidates.

Ricks was asked whether his assessment applied to the Marine Corps, which has developed professional military education to create critical thinkers.

He said the Corps may have retained the nautical tradition of accountability, where “the skipper is responsible for everything that happens on the ship, even if he’s asleep.” But he disagreed sharply with regard to military education, saying “Generally the services today do not put a lot of value on PME.”

In his view of current military education, Ricks said, little currency is placed on graduating at the top of a class, attending the Naval War College actually appears to hurt one’s chances of becoming a flag officer, and the educational environment lacks rigor, expects plagiarism and doesn’t give failing grades, a state of affairs that he said amounts to “fraud on the taxpayer.”

Instead, he said, class ranks should be released every two weeks, and the bottom 5 percent should be let go. “Eisenhower worked like a dog to graduate No. 1 from the Command and General Staff School,” he observed. “That was not a year off.” He lamented the passing of a time when being a successful military education instructor was a way to earn stars.

As the question-and-answer session continued, Ricks was asked about his position on the replacement of military leaders due to infidelity. He said that while these transgressions are regrettable, effective generals are too valuable to be fired for having “zipper problems.” Noting that Eisenhower was an effective general despite carrying on inappropriately with his British chauffeur, he said, “I think people can be honest about one area of their lives and lie about another area of their lives.”

— Writer:

Marine Corps Base Quantico