TIME's Mark Thompson talks to Thomas E. Ricks about what's changed in the military since 9/11.
TIME: Is it true that privates are punished more today for losing a rifle than generals are for losing a war? If so, why?
Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, it is true. I say that because privates are routinely punished for infractions. But as far as I can tell, no general has been fired for incompetence in combat since Maj. Gen. James Baldwin was fired as commander of the Americal Division in 1971.
Since then, others have been relieved for moral and ethical lapses that are embarrassing to the Army, but not, to my knowledge, for combat ineffectiveness. Indeed, one ineffective general, Lt. Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez, was outraged that he was not promoted to 4 stars after failing in Iraq in 2003-04.
TIME: Why did you write The Generals? How much were you influenced by what you saw in Iraq and wrote about in Fiasco and The Gamble?
Ricks: This book comes directly out of those two earlier ones. In 2005, while I was writing Fiasco, I went on a Johns Hopkins University staff ride study of the allied campaign in Sicily in 1943.
While we were standing on a hilltop in central Sicily, one of Professor Eliot Cohen’s students related the tale of Omar Bradley firing Terry de la Mesa Allen, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, after Allen won one of the toughest battles of the campaign.
I was stunned. Here I was coming out of Iraq, where generals were failing yet not being removed, and I was being told about the firing of one of the most successful American generals during our first year of World War II.
How could that be? Why had the Army’s approach to leadership and accountability changed so much? That was the beginning of this book.
TIME: What is your favorite part of the book?
Ricks: I have several. I really liked doing researching about George Marshall, who should be better known. I enjoyed sitting in archives and reading his notes and letters, even going through the “desk litter” collected from the drawers of his Pentagon office. Some files I read had penciled letters home from generals during World War II.
But my favorite parts of the book were narratives. Dwight Eisenhower’s train journey from Texas to Washington, D.C., in December 1941, a week after Pearl Harbor, amazed me—not only did he meet the man who would help finance his presidential campaign 11 years later, he also got off the train and was asked the same day by Marshall how to win the war in the Pacific.
Another favorite section is the chapter on how Marine Maj. Gen. O.P. Smith waged the Chosin campaign in the Korean War. He’s another guy who should be better known.
His actions likely saved 15,000 or so Marines from being killed or captured—which would have been the greatest military disaster in American history, much more devastating than Custer’s Last Stand. And he had to do that while dealing with superiors—Gen. Ned Almond and Gen. Douglas MacArthur—who didn’t understand what he was doing or why.
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(Photograph of Army General Tommy Franks, via.)