The Magazine

What Would Marshall Do?

Fire some generals, for starters.

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By TIM KANE
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Tactical weakness was the symptom, not the malady, but it was addressed during the two decades after Vietnam by a relentless focus on Army-wide tactical training and education. And here is where Ricks shines, blending an impressive level of research with expert storytelling. He brings life to the rebuilding of the Army under General William DePuy, who developed AirLand Battle Doctrine, instructing authors of the new field manuals that “wars are won by draftees and reserve officers. Write so they can understand.” Yet rather than counter the ticket-punching and careerism fostered by frequent job rotations, the new training programs made things worse. Psychological studies in the 1980s and ’90s reported that Army generals were more introverted and rigid; battalion commanders surveyed in 1983 said that one-quarter of new brigadier generals were unqualified, a finding echoed in studies ever since. At the same time, younger officers remain as sharp and creative as any generation before. 

The only flaw is that Ricks gets distracted by the very thing he identifies as a distraction. Training, doctrine, and programs to educate officers were never the solution to strategic weakness in the personnel system. Nor will modifying them matter one bit. An epilogue outlines a number of smart proposals regarding rotation, but I found myself wishing for some insight into how the evaluation and job-matching functions were neutered in the 1980s Pentagon, and why. 

“How do you teach judgment?” ask Ricks and his protagonists. It’s a good question; it’s also an irrelevant question. The military has made all the right moves in designing excellent leadership training programs that foster independent thinking in its ranks. But the effort is wasted by the refusal to distinguish or promote talent. The Pentagon has perfected teaching judgment to its officers, but has abdicated passing judgment on them. 

Tactical success, strategic failure.


Tim Kane is the author of Bleeding Talent: How the U.S. Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution.