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Ricks: Firing 'The Generals' To Fight Better Wars?

Thomas Ricks' new book, The Generals, is about what he sees as a decline of American military leadership and accountability. He says that in World War II, generals were held accountable for their lack of success — but that started to change with the Korean War.


Other segments from the episode on November 1, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 1, 2012: Interview with Thomas Ricks; Commentary on Britishisms in American English.


November 1, 2012

Guest: Tom Ricks

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After covering the military for the Washington Post and writing the bestseller "Fiasco" about the war in Iraq, Tom Ricks has written a new book about a military issue that he says has gone all but unnoticed - an issue he says might help us understand why the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be so long and frustrating.

That issue is the decline in the operational competence of American generals, which he links to the reluctance to relieve generals of their command when they are ineffective. Ricks compares that to World War II, when generals were held to a higher level of competence and were swiftly relieved of their command if they didn't perform well.

Tom Ricks' new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." Ricks covered the military for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2008. He's the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the Iraq war, and "The Gamble" about General David Petraeus. He's a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, for which he writes the blog The Best Defense.

Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about generals and about how what happens when generals who are mediocre or failing aren't relieved of their command?

TOM RICKS: Well, this is a book that covers from World War II to the present, and it kind of began with both ends of that time span. When I was writing my book "Fiasco," about the Iraq War, I took a break and went on a staff ride, a battlefield study of Sicily, with a bunch of graduate students from Johns Hopkins University.

We were standing there in the middle of Sicily, and the discussion was about an American general, Terry de la Mesa Allen, who was one of the most effective combat commanders we had in the first year of World War II in Europe, how Allen had been fired at the end of the culminating battle of the Sicily campaign in the summer of 1943.

And my jaw dropped. I was thinking my God, I'm coming out of Iraq, where we have mediocre generals all over the place, where they're flailing around, where they don't understand the war they're fighting, and nobody gets fired. How could we go from an Army that in World War II would dismiss a successful general to an Army in Iraq in which mediocrity is acceptable, nobody wants to stick their head out and nobody gets fired for anything except for embarrassing the institution with what they call zipper problems, you know, having sex with a subordinate?

And that's really what began the book for me.

GROSS: Do you feel like you've come up with an answer to that question?

RICKS: I do. In one word, it's accountability. In World War II, successful generals generally were promoted. Unsuccessful generals were relieved. Starting really late in the Korea War and then especially in Vietnam, nobody gets fired anymore. Major General James Baldwin is an obscure figure in American history but significant to me. He, as far as I can determine, was the last general fired for combat ineffectiveness. This was in Vietnam in 1971.

Since then, as far as I can tell, nobody has actually been relieved for being professionally incompetent. So it really is all about accountability and the loss of accountability in the U.S. military, from being a very accountable institution in World War II to having almost no accountability today.

Today being a general in the Army is a lot like a professor having tenure in a university. If you have a moral lapse, they might get rid of you, but if you're just not very good at your job, you're comfortable and you have tenure.

GROSS: Well, what's changed institutionally to make that possible?

RICKS: I think the first major change was the nature of our wars. In World War II it was pretty clear what we were fighting about. The whole country was at war, and there was a sense of obligation to the country, especially on the part of George Marshall, the chief of the Army in World War II, that look, we're fighting a war for democracy, we are responsible in a democratic way to our enlisted troops. Their lives are more important than the careers of our generals.

The Army kind of loses that sense in Vietnam and subsequent wars. One general, General William DePuy, said that we ran Vietnam to help the careers of officers, not to win the war, and as other generals commented, it was a hell of a way to run a war.

The nature of our wars becoming murkier has also made it harder to tell what success is. So in World War II, it was very clear what was successful. In Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, it's not so clear. So it's harder to have a clear-cut you're fired because you failed.

And thirdly when you're fighting small, unpopular wars, there's a natural inclination, I think, on the part of the military not to want to make their problems public. So in the Korean War, when Matthew Ridgway took over there at the end of 1950, he began firing a lot of generals.

And the Pentagon told him to stop. They said you're embarrassing us and you're going to cause Congress to start asking embarrassing questions. So if you're going to get rid of people, you have to do it quietly. You have to disguise it, maybe just find places to park unsuccessful generals but don't fire them publicly like we did in World War II.

GROSS: One of the points you make in the book is if the military leadership doesn't fire generals who are mediocre or performing badly, then it ends up being the civilian leadership that has to do it, i.e., the president of the United States. Why is it worse if a president fires a general?

RICKS: You're right. It was almost like a switch being turned. When the military stopped firing generals in the Korean War, almost instantly the civilians start getting rid of the top guy. So you have MacArthur fired in Korea, Harkins and Westmoreland fired in Vietnam, Casey fired in Iraq, and McKiernan and McChrystal fired in Afghanistan, all fired by the civilian leadership.

Why is it bad? Because often changing the top guy is not the answer. It's as if you had a baseball team and every time you started losing the game, you fired the manager. Now, sometimes you do want to fire the manager. MacArthur was a general who clearly had to go in the Korean War. But often you just need a relief pitcher, put a different guy in that spot at that time.

That was very much the attitude in World War II of Marshall, which is, look, you're not a bad guy, you're not a coward, you're not a character problem, you're just not the right person for this job at this time.

So you had 155 generals who commanded divisions in combat for the U.S. Army in World War II. Of that 155, 16 were fired. But of that 16, five were given other commands in combat later in the war. So while relief was swift, it was not terminal. It was not a career ender. These days it is. It's a black mark, and your career is over. So it's almost like going nuclear, and nobody wants to do that.

GROSS: Yeah, you write, for General Marshall, that being willing to remove an officer signaled to the American people that the Army's leaders cared more about the hordes of enlisted soldiers than the small officer corps.

RICKS: Yeah, it was a sign that, look, you know, we are really looking out for the interest of the soldier here. And it was also relieving people in World War II, which happened not just to generals but to colonels and captains and everybody else; it was seen as a sign the system was working. They expected about 10 percent of officers to not work out for one reason or another.

And so they moved them on. They'd find them another job. These days, and from Vietnam on, really, firing a general is seen as a sign that the system is not working, that somehow the Army let slip through somebody who shouldn't have been a general. So these days it's a much more dramatic event. You have to make relief frequent in order for it not to be so dramatic and in order for it not to be a black mark that just devastates somebody's career.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks, who is the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the war in Iraq. His new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."

So you say the Korean War is the first war in which the military failed to relieve leaders of their posts if they were performing in a mediocre or downright bad way. And you give an example, as an example, that General MacArthur ended up being relieved of his command by President Truman, that it fell upon our civilian leader to do the job. What was going wrong with MacArthur?

RICKS: MacArthur's a piece of work. He's the only general I can think of in American history who was insubordinate to three different presidents: Hoover during the Bonus March early in the 1930s; FDR early in Roosevelt's presidency, when MacArthur kind of threatened him in the Oval Office; and finally Truman, who was the president who had to fire MacArthur.

MacArthur probably should have been fired in World War II, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a much more Machiavellian president than Truman. Truman was a very straightforward guy. I came away thinking that FDR kept MacArthur in place in World War II as the U.S. commander for the Southwest Pacific specifically because he preferred having him inside the tent as part of the military establishment than outside it running for president.

Even so, MacArthur clearly indicated to his subordinates that he thought he would be elected president in 1944 and may have actually thought that even after being relieved in Korea that he would be elected president in 1952. Very much a guy who had the White House on his mind for years and years.

By the Korean War, though, MacArthur was really well over the hill, and MacArthur did not end up being elected president the following year. It was actually his former aide in the Philippines, a man named Dwight Eisenhower, who was elected president. Much to MacArthur's chagrin, I think.

GROSS: You write about how MacArthur in the Korean War actually wanted to fight China. He thought the way to win was to enter a nuclear war with China, whereas the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who he disagreed with, wanted to basically abandon the war. They said we believe that Korea is not the place to fight a major war. And Truman agreed with the joint chiefs, not with MacArthur.

RICKS: Yeah, in the Senate hearings on MacArthur, after the firing, the most famous line came not from MacArthur, who was actually quite a good speaker, but from the very colorless General Omar Bradley, who said fighting a war with China over Korea would be the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong enemy, which was a very good summary.

But MacArthur went to his grave believing that if only he had been allowed to use about 35 nuclear weapons to blockade China, to bomb its military airfields and to send in the Taiwanese in Korea, that he could have won that war handily.

Ridgway, who replaces him, has a very different point of view. Number one, he believes he works for the president and should enforce the president's policy. Number two, he says the closer you get up to the Chinese border, the longer our lines of communication are, the harder it is to supply our people and to get out the wounded and so on, and the easier it is for the Chinese to fight us.

And remember, the primary foe on the ground in Korea from about November 1950 on was the Chinese, not the North Koreans. The North Korean army had been pretty much wiped out. It was the Chinese that we were fighting in Korea in late '50, '51, '52.

GROSS: It's just amazing to think what the world might look like today had MacArthur won that argument and used nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War.

RICKS: This is actually something that I think Americans have forgotten - in fact I didn't know. The great surprise to me writing this book was the Korean War, I think. I knew a lot about Vietnam, about World War II and Iraq and so on, but the Korean War is a very important war.

Here we are just a few years after World War II, in which our military has beaten the Nazi and the Japanese empires, and we're in Korea and we get hurled down the Korean Peninsula twice by Asian peasant armies that have very few aircraft, very few tanks, almost no trucks.

First it's the North Korean army that throws us down the peninsula, in the summer of 1950, and then it's the Chinese army that throws us down the peninsula in the following winter.

I do wonder what MacArthur was thinking when he told the Marines at Chosin Reservoir to drive up to the border, 120 more miles from where they were. If the Marines had done what MacArthur ordered, they almost certainly would have been wiped out. Here you had one reinforced Marine division with one Army regiment on its right flank surrounded by between six and 12 Chinese divisions who had orders to wipe out the Marines, we now know from Chinese documents released decades later.

Had that happened, had 15,000 Marines been wiped out there, it would have been the biggest military disaster in American history, and we almost certainly would have responded in one of two ways. Either we would have gone nuclear and fought a nuclear war with China in 1951, or we would have withdrawn altogether from Asia, and East Asia would look very different today than it does, especially South Korea.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He's the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the war in Iraq. His new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks. He used to cover the military for the Washington Post. He's the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the war in Iraq. His new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."

You write in your book "The Generals" that under LBJ the discourse between civilian leaders and top generals, which was already strained under John Kennedy, began to break down altogether. What happened?

RICKS: This is a kind of secondary theme of the book for me because I don't want people to think this book is just about criticizing American generals. It's also looking at what works and what doesn't work in warfare. There are very few leading indicators of how well a war is going to go for you, you know, as you begin that war.

One of the few is the quality of discourse between your civilian leadership and your military leadership. The model for this, I think, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George Marshall in World War II. They were not buddy-buddy, they were not close. Marshall didn't like to be called George by President Roosevelt and made it clear that he wanted to be addressed as general.

He wouldn't laugh at FDR's jokes. The first time he ever went to visit FDR at his house in Hyde Park, New York, was for FDR's funeral. So he kept his distance. But he was incredibly candid with the president, which is why Roosevelt picked him to be the chief of staff of the Army and to lead this armed forces of millions, of nine million soldiers by 1945.

By contrast, LBJ is not candid with his generals. He makes it clear he doesn't want candor from them. He treats the Joint Chiefs of Staff as if they were a political lobby, somebody to be sort of persuaded, manipulated and lied to, but certainly not people you're seeking advice from.

So there's this almost poisonous relationship between Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as we go into Vietnam, escalating in 1965. It's a terrible way to fight a war. One of the measures of the quality of civil-military discourse is not just how well the president gets along; in fact it's not a good thing if everybody's chummy-chummy.

There are basically two things you want to do to ensure good civil-military discourse, to ensure good planning going into a war. The first thing is you want to examine assumptions. Often we fight war on unstated assumptions. In the Vietnam War, it was: there is a breaking point in North Vietnam that they will reach before we reach our breaking point.

It turned out that fundamental assumption of the war was wrong. Another assumption that General Tommy Franks operated on in Afghanistan and in Iraq was take the enemy's capital and the war is over. In fact we now know that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq really began when we got to the capital, especially when we got to Baghdad.

So the first thing is examine assumptions. The second thing you really need to do is to dissect your differences, and this is something I would especially blame George W. Bush, the younger Bush, going to Iraq. When General Eric Shinseki, the chief of staff of the Army, said we don't have enough troops in the invasion plan, that was all kind of hushed up, let's not talk about that.

Now, as it happens, I don't think Shinseki was necessarily right, but you want to examine those differences because that's where strategy comes from. How are we are seeing this differently? You really want to get into it, in probably fairly brutal ways. Feelings are going to be bruised. That is a sign of good military discourse, when you really get down to the nitty-gritty.

GROSS: And talking about generals, I want to ask you about General David Petraeus. You got to know him pretty well when he was commanding troops in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. And I think it's fair to say you've expressed a lot of admiration for the way in which he brought a counterinsurgency strategy to those wars.

Now that he is no longer in a military position, he's at the CIA, I'm wondering in retrospect what you think - like how effective was counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan in the sense that in Iraq, things don't look great there now. There's still a lot of fighting. There's still a lot of bombs going off. And in Afghanistan things really don't look great there either.

RICKS: Yeah, as a matter of fact, actually, Americans don't seem to know this, but Iraq is more violent than Afghanistan right now. The war in Iraq is hardly over. The difference is we got out of it. And so Americans don't care about it anymore.

I think General Petraeus did a very good job in Iraq in getting us out, and I think that's really what the mission was. Get the American military off the ground in Iraq with some shreds of dignity left. Don't have us retreating and chased out of the country. And I think that's what his campaign was about, and I think he achieved it, and I think he took a lot of risk, which distinguished him from his peers.

One thing that's important to note about Petraeus as I talk about the decline of military leadership is that Petraeus is an exception to that. He was a very good general. He was very good at figuring out what the situation was, thinking critically and coming up with new and different ways to address it.

But he was not popular among his peer group. He was kind of almost rejected by them. I think he made them look bad, and even more than that, he didn't care for a lot of his peers, and they resented that even more deeply. He was not a good old boy, he was not a muddy-boot soldier. He was an intellectual with a Ph.D. from Princeton who enjoyed talking to reporters and talking to politicians in Washington, and this was just anathema to most Army generals.

I don't know about Afghanistan. The story is hardly over there. I'm actually much more pessimistic in the long run about Iraq than I am about Afghanistan. I don't see how Iraq holds together as a country, and if it does, it'll be partly because it's dominated by Iran.

Afghanistan, actually, I think, could hold together as a country, and I like the idea that President Obama has of saying, look, we're out of there in 2014 as much as possible, because you guys, the Afghan security forces, the Afghan political leadership, need to get your act together because we're going to be gone.

A friend of mine describes this as the postcard of Mussolini theory, which is you show these guys a postcard of Mussolini hanging from an Italian lamppost by his boot heels and say this could be you in two years if you don't get your security forces together.

And so Obama's emphasis on 2014 I think is a good way of conveying that to them.

GROSS: What about the argument is that it's sending another postcard to the Taliban saying hang on a couple of years and then we're gone and you can take over?

RICKS: Yeah, it's a good argument, and I think it's a stiffening argument for both sides in the Afghan war. It's also a way of saying we're out of there.

GROSS: Tom Ricks will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tom Ricks. He's best known for his book "'Fiasco," about the war in Iraq. He followed that with the book "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq." Rick's new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." He covered the military for The Washington Post from 2000 to 2008. Ricks is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

I remember we talked several times during the Iraq war when we had troops there, and you kept saying there are no good alternatives, it's a question of which is the least bad. Do you feel the same way about Afghanistan now in terms of the options facing the United States?

RICKS: I kind of do. And just as Iran I think was the long-term worry in Iraq, I think Pakistan is the long-term worry in Afghanistan. Afghanistan by itself I think can sort out its problems. Afghanistan with Pakistan on its doorstep, wanting to control events in Afghanistan, that's a much harder case. Pakistan strikes me as the biggest problem in the world right now, much more than Iran. Pakistan is a country that seems to be on the edge of falling apart, that already has well over 100 nuclear weapons, by best estimates, and seems to be drifting towards extremism. So I think Pakistan is a real problem and as long as it's next-door to Afghanistan, it's going to make trouble in Afghanistan. That's what gives me real pessimism about Afghanistan these days.

GROSS: You have a list that you wrote about a year ago and that you reprinted recently when you were on break. It was a kind of like rerun on your blog.

RICKS: Yeah. I went into summer reruns on the blog.

GROSS: Yeah. So it was a list of 19 things that many insiders and vets of Afghanistan agreed to be true about the war there but the generals can't say in public. And number one on that list was Pakistan is now an enemy of the U.S.

RICKS: I think it is. But just because a country is your enemy you don't necessarily need to say so if you're an official. And I really think that's what our policy is now. If you look at President Obama and the people around him, the way they deal with Pakistan, they're really holding it at arm's length. They're not talking about it being an ally in the war against terror. They're managing it with the sense that hey, in the short term we need to kind of, you know, talk nice about these guys, but in the long term, we're getting a divorce.

GROSS: If Pakistan is becoming the enemy or is the enemy to the United States, what are the implications of that, especially since they do have nuclear weapons?

RICKS: Well, there are two major implications for us. One is what we do in Afghanistan. It makes it much more difficult extricating ourselves from Afghanistan and hoping that it is relatively OK after we leave. The second thing is India. It gives us a natural reason to be allied with India, in addition to other reasons, like that India is a democracy, that India is a very large and important country, and that India has a burgeoning information technologies industry. So there's a lot of good reasons for us to be allied with India. The funny thing is India is not quite so sure it wants to start going steady with us. I think India is a little bit worried that the United States is not the best partner in the world to have at this point, and it's doing quite well on its own and it doesn't necessarily want to forge a close alliance with the United States.

GROSS: So getting back to Afghanistan for a second, what do you think are the possibilities for what happens after we pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, which is what President Obama wants to do if he's reelected?

RICKS: I think it's possible that after we leave Afghanistan that you could get some sort of stalemate, some sort of nervous cease-fire in Afghanistan that allows the country to move forward. I think that both the Kabul government under Karzai or his successor and the Taliban could find their way to some sort of living with each other. My worry, though, is that Pakistan will undercut that. That Pakistan will again back the Taliban and again attack the Kabul government. I think you could see Pakistan really undercutting the situation in Afghanistan, but I think also they've been doing this for several years now, playing a double game there, backing the Taliban.

I remember talking to an American official who said that - he was talking about 2005 when it was clear that the Americans were very busy with Iraq, that Pakistan started coming back into Afghanistan and helping out the Taliban again, and I think they'll just intensify that after we go. But there are ways of helping the Kabul government counter that and I think we're going to end up stuck in Afghanistan doing those sort of small missions that help them out, fighting basically people supported by Pakistan.

GROSS: The issue of defense spending has been coming up, both in terms of the fiscal cliff and sequestration and also in terms of the presidential campaign. When you look at the defense budget, what do you see and do you think it needs more money or how much do you think it can afford to be cut?

RICKS: I think you could cut a lot of money from the defense budget. I don't know whether it's 10 or 20 or 30 percent. Right now we have a U.S. military that really is not very good at spending money. Since 9/11, they've just had a firehose of cash turned on them. Almost like, here's the cash. Figure how to spend it. And in military terms, 10 or 15 years is a generation. So we've got a generation of officers who have never actually had to live with any austerity at all or even had to think about things about maybe there's a cheaper, better way to do this. Maybe this second way of doing it is not quite as effective but it's one-tenth the cost. So we have a military that really doesn't know how to spend money effectively at all anymore.

The second thing is, that I don't understand is, we're coming out of two wars here. The war in Iraq for us is over and the war in Afghanistan we should be out of soon. Historically, when wars end, defense spending goes down. Yet, Governor Romney is talking about increasing defense spending. He is talking about a plan to increase defense spending to four percent of Gross National Product by the end of his two terms in office. I think that's crazy. I've been reading a history of the British Empire, which points out that at the height of the British Empire in the early 19th century, the British spent two to three percent of their national income on defense. Romney is not talking about maintaining a global empire, but is talking about spending almost twice as much as that. I just don't get it.

GROSS: You have a blog post in which you write that you're surprised that Mitt Romney with not only his business sense, but his experience with Bain Capital, cutting back expenses and companies after Bain would acquire them, cutting them back before selling them, that he'd want to increase the budget in the military instead of applying the same kind of principles that he's applied in businesses, how can you decrease the budget?

RICKS: Here's what I don't get about conservatives in America generally these days is they're not conservative at all about defense spending. They don't apply the same principles. They mock liberals for wanting to throw money at problems. Yet, when you ask them about the Pentagon, the only thing that Romney and Ryan seemed to say in the debates was, I'll throw money at it. I promise to throw money at it. It just doesn't strike me as a fiscally conservative approach. And they seem to almost regard, especially Ryan in the vice presidential debate, seemed to regard the military as kind of an interest group. I remember when Martha Raddatz, the moderator, said she knew of an officer who felt that the election process didn't shine a good light on democracy, didn't make him feel good about the process he was defending, they kind of responded as if it was an interest group. Oh, don't worry. We're going to increase defense spending. No. That's not what he was saying. He was saying I want to be proud of the country I'm defending. I want to feel that the sacrifices we're making out here are worth it in the political system we're preserving back home. But neither side seemed to really get that, neither Ryan nor Vice President Biden in that debate.

GROSS: You have a lot of contacts within the military. What do they think they need in the military budget? More? Less? Same?

RICKS: Well, they're kind of all over the place like the rest of America. Generally, they like the military, they want to see spending. But you can find lots of people in the military will tell you we are not spending money effectively. We're not being efficient here. There's a lot of different ways we should approach this. We need to start operating differently. But they're just so accustomed to having all this money, there's almost a sense of entitlement in a lot of military people. But I'm seeing younger officers sort of saying this is not the way to go and we really need to think differently about this.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks. His new book is called "The Generals." He covered the military for The Washington Post from 2000 to 2008, and wrote the bestseller "Fiasco," about the war in Iraq.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks. He's the author of the bestseller "Fiasco," about the war in Iraq. He kind of gave it the name fiasco. His new book is called "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."

So let's get back to your book "The Generals." You write about the military command during that era. What do you think of today's military command? I know that's a general question, but I'll ask it.

RICKS: I think it's actually a good question and it's a question that we should be asking. It's time to take stock of our military leadership. I think we were so snake-bit by the way we treated the military during the Vietnam War that we have kind of come to venerate the military and just sort of cheerlead for it, which is not that good either. We've overreacted to the bitterness of the Vietnam era. Yes, support the troops but one way to support the troops is to question the military leadership. Right now, we have soldiers who are very good. They're as effective as probably any soldiers we've ever had. They are well-trained. They're well-equipped. They're cohesive. They are so tactically magnificent in fact, that they kind of make it possible for our military leaders to be strategically sloppy. If you'd been sending draftees into Iraq, we would not have drifted in Iraq, I think, like we did for so many as. We fought in Iraq ineffectively longer than we were in World War II. It was not until early 2007 that we began operating effectively in Iraq, four years into that war.

GROSS: What does that have to do with having effective soldiers?

RICKS: Well, we had very effective soldiers and that kind of made it easier for generals to be sloppy because you knew that the soldiers would kind of bail you out. They'd be so good, they'd fight so well, they'd fight so effectively that even when their leadership wasn't good, they would soldier on. They weren't the draftees of Vietnam who would throw down their weapons and say this is nuts. They would figure out a way to bail out the generals, to win battles, even like in Fallujah that we probably should have not been fighting in the first place. So, as a country, we have given our generals a free pass that they shouldn't have and it's not helpful to the military to have. They certainly didn't have this in World War II. We need to ask our generals tough questions. We need to encourage them to think, to be strategic in their thinking, to be more careful in their thinking.

GROSS: You think that we should have a draft in the United States - a draft that would function differently than the draft of the Vietnam War era. Why do you want to reinstitute a draft? And then we'll talk about the shape, if it was your job to reinstitute, the shape you'd want it to have.

RICKS: The reason I think we should have a draft is there is a basic disconnection now in this country between the population and the wars we are fighting. There are two one-percents in America, and I think these things are related. There's the one percent that is grabbing all the wealth in this country right now, and then there's the one percent, a different one percent, that fights our wars. The one percent of the country fights our wars and the 99 percent of the country is not affected by them at all. That is no way for a democracy to conduct itself. It means that our wars are conducted with some inattention, that our politicians aren't pushed by our people and that our politicians don't push our generals to fight more effectively, to terminate our wars more quickly and our wars tend to drag on, to dither and to be led by mediocrities conducting mediocre campaigns.

If you had a draft, you would reconnect the people to the wars they fight and they would be a lot more interested in the military, they'd pay a lot more attention, they would not stand for the kind of organization and leadership you see in the Army in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

GROSS: So how would you structure it? What would the options be?

RICKS: If I were king for a day, I would structure a draft very unlike the Vietnam era draft. It would be universal. There'd be almost no exemptions. You would draft men and women. There would not be any college exemption. However, being drafted would be like winning the lottery. If you got drafted, you would have a free ride through college and probably concessions in the rest of your life on things like mortgages and so on - not unlike the VA stuff you get now. But I'd also have a second option, which is hey, you don't want to go fight? We understand. We'll come up with alternative service. There's a lot of things in this country that people could do. And I'd just give them somewhat longer term of service and somewhat fewer benefits. So you get some nice help on college but not some of the other benefits. And I would have a third option - the libertarian option. We have a great tradition of libertarianism in this country. You don't want to serve? You don't want Uncle Sam bothering you? Not a problem. Just don't be asking Uncle Sam for anything.

So no college loans, no mortgage subsidies, nothing from Uncle Sam for the rest of your life. You can drive on our roads. You can breathe our air. But don't be expecting Uncle Sam to help you out. If at age 50 you decide you're wrong, you can come in and join the military, drive around a general for a couple of years. Not a problem.

GROSS: General George Patton was one of the most famous generals in World War II, and part of the reason why he's remained famous is George C. Scott.

RICKS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You know, who played him in the film. What's your opinion of Patton as a general?

RICKS: Well, first of all, I love the movie. A little-known fact about it is that Francis Ford Coppola wrote it. And it's a well-done movie, and actually I think in some ways it's the first of the "Godfather" movies. Remember that the whole middle part of the movie "Patton" is set in Sicily. And I think that's where Coppola begins thinking about the "Godfather" movies.

GROSS: Interesting.

RICKS: I went back and watched the movie, actually, when I was writing the Patton section of the book and I was surprised, actually, at how much of the dialogue actually comes from the histories that we have and from various documents and so on. A lot of those words are Patton's words. The difference is George C. Scott had this sort of barky, growly voice and George Patton - little-known fact - had a high squeaky voice, almost cartoonish voice.

He was a funny guy, Patton. He was kind of nuts but at the same time was a very effective combat leader and really one of Eisenhower's oldest and closest friends. At the beginning of the war it's Patton who's the senior commander. Eisenhower writes him a pleading note saying, if you get a division I hope you can give me one of your regiments. Of course, the tables are turned later on.

Eisenhower looks out for Patton, preserves him through a couple of really notorious incidents, most of all slapping soldiers with PTSD, basically - combat fatigue, who are hospitalized in Sicily in August 1943. But even Ike couldn't preserve Patton the whole way through and Patton gets fired shortly after the war ends.

It's interesting, though, reading Ike on Patton. He doesn't call him a great combat leader. He doesn't even call him a great attacker, and they knew that Patton would not be good in the defense. What Patton was good at was one really unique thing - which is pursuit of a retreating enemy. But, Marshall and Eisenhower knew that at some point in the war we would be pursuing the Germans across northern Europe and they kept Patton's career alive for that specific purpose.

And he was great at it. That was Patton's great moment, when he pursued the Germans across France in the summer and fall of 1944. And for that he'll always be remembered as a great general.

GROSS: What was he fired for?

RICKS: Ultimately he was fired because he kept on shooting his mouth off, even after the war was over and talking about how maybe the Nazis weren't all that bad and the Jews were kind of disgusting.



RICKS: And he said things like that. And he hated all these refugees. They were just stupid and we should get rid of them and stuff like that. And of course, we need to get ready for war with Russia. And the combination of just his inability to shut his mouth up - to shut his mouth - is what ultimately meant that Eisenhower had to get rid of him.

But Patton illustrates another aspect of World War II that I think is forgotten. Marshall and Eisenhower didn't just treat generals like interchangeable parts. You're the next senior guy in line, so you get it. You know, you're entitled. They picked people specifically for specific jobs. Marshall knew, going into World War II, that A, we would go to war unprepared, because we were so far other fighting countries that we wouldn't feel a need to get prepared.

And second, we would have to fight overseas in concert with allies. And so he specifically looked around for what sort of general would be good at that. Patton obviously was not your choice for that. He picks a young officer, Eisenhower, who as late as 1940 was just the executive officer of a regiment, a lieutenant colonel.

Marshall promotes Eisenhower very quickly from 1940, before the war begins, because he's looking for a guy who can go in, work with allies in a cooperative way, be optimistic, even as we lose our first battles, and be determined and ambitious. And Eisenhower has all those qualities and Marshall sees that and it was kind of Marshall's genius to pull up these people early on. Younger officers - Matthew Ridgeway, James Gavin - and put them control and let them succeed. And the people who didn't succeed? He fired. And that was Marshall's genius as a commander, which was reward success, punish failure, and try new people.

GROSS: Well, Tom Ricks, it's been great to talk with you again. I really want to thank you.

RICKS: You're welcome. I love being on FRESH AIR.

GROSS: Tom Ricks is the author of the new book "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." You can read an excerpt on our website, Ricks is a fellow at the Center for New American Security. Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers some of the Britishisms that Americans are picking up on, inspired perhaps by shows like "Downton Abbey." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Spot on, kerfuffle, cheeky. We think of those words as British words but they've been showing up more and more frequently in American speech. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts about the new British invasion.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Mitt Romney was on CNN not long ago defending the claims in his campaign ads. We've been absolutely spot on, he said. Politics aside, the expression had me doing an audible roll of the eyes. I've always associated spot on with the type of Englishman who's played by Terry-Thomas or John Cleese, someone who pronounces yes and ears in the same way, as in 'eeahs.' It shows up when people do send-ups of plummy British speech. I say - spot on, old chap!

But that wasn't really fair to Romney. Actually, spot on isn't heard as snooty when it's used as an adjective meaning accurate or on-target, as in a spot-on impersonation. And it has become more common in American speech than it was even 10 years ago, when it made a notable appearance in a 2003 episode of "The Wire."

Detective Jimmy McNulty is posing as an English businessman in order to bust a Baltimore brothel. He speaks with a comically bad English accent, the inside joke being that McNulty was actually played by the English actor Dominic West. His boss Lt. Daniels and the assistant DA are prepping him for his role, telling him the signal for them come in.


LANCE REDDICK: (as Lt. Daniels) It'll be your call when we come through the doors. You want us in, you say - what was it?

DEIRDRE LOVEJOY: (as Rhonda Pearlman) Spot on. It means exactly. And remember, they have to bring up the money and the sex first, then an overt attempt to engage.

DOMINIC WEST: (as Jimmy McNulty) Spot on.

NUNBERG: Now, I doubt that somebody like Daniels or McNulty would know the expression even now. But you do hear it from decidedly unplummy people like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry. "Spot on" falls somewhere in the blurry region between affectation and flash, like a lot of the Britishisms that have been showing up lately in American speech.

The New York Times blogger Ben Yagoda has a site listing more than 150 of these imports. They're a motley crowd, from daft to dodgy and keen to kerfuffle. Adding a foreign word to your vocabulary is like adding foreign attire to your wardrobe. Sometimes you do it because it's practical and sometimes just because you think it looks cool.

Some of the new arrivals are clearly useful. One-off, for example - it's a nicely concise noun for a one-time event. Other words have a whimsical appeal. You're a dab hand at the Google, I told my wife the other day. I'd put "spot on" and "gobsmacked" in that group. And still others announce the arrival of imported sensibilities.

Snarky, for example. It was pretty much unknown in America before the early 2000s, when it was attached to the tone of snide knowingness that has become the stock patois of sites like Gawker, Wonkette and Deadspin. But other words are imported just for effect. I'm not very keen on it, but I'll have a go. People claim to discern some useful nuances of meaning there, but who are they kidding?

I got a call not long ago from a BBC reporter doing a piece about these Britishisms. She described me in the piece as quivering with revulsion. It must have been a bad phone connection. I mean, when I quiver, I quiver, but not about some American saying dodgy or keen. Mostly I'm a little embarrassed for the speaker, particularly when the word adds nothing but the clink of teacups. Fortnight? Bespoke? Really?

Actually, the British are the ones who have conniptions over foreign words. Whenever the British media run a piece on Americanisms, it gets hundreds or thousands of comments, most of them keening indignantly over the corruption of English: I cringe whenever I hear someone say "touch base." Faucet instead of tap? Argh.

That might seem a little over-the-top for a race that's not known for its demonstrativeness. But the Brits have had to endure an inundation of American popular culture that has saturated every corner of their vocabulary with Americanisms - probably including the word Brits itself. Not long ago, the Financial Times columnist Matthew Engel warned that if the flood of Americanisms isn't stanched, it will lead to 51st statehood.

We react very differently to Britishisms. To the British, our words wrench and sweater are abominations; to us, their words spanner and jumper are merely quaint. To Americans, after all, Britain is just a big linguistic theme park. The relative handful of Britishisms that do find their way here may raise some eyebrows, but they're hardly a threat to our culture.

After all, British English comes to us through a much narrower pipe than the one that floods Britain with our words. They pick up our language from "Friends" and "The Avengers." We pick up theirs from "Downton Abbey" and "Inspector Morse." And when they do send us an occasional blockbuster like "Harry Potter," they're considerate enough to Americanize dustbin to trash can and pinny to apron.

No doubt some of the newcomers will wind up as naturalized American citizens. After all, tiresome and fed up were considered affected Britishisms when they made their American debut in the 19th century. My guess is that "spot on" is already on the way to becoming everyday American. But it'll be a while yet before it reaches the cultural outer boroughs. Like the Baltimore Police, I think I'll hold back until I hear it from McNulty.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches in the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book is called "Ascent of the A-Word."


GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show at our website and you can follow us on Twitter at @nprfreshair and on Tumblr on

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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