Non-Fiction Challenge: The Generals

This is going to be harder than I thought.

The idea was to read a different non-fiction book every month, and report back about them. I’d expand my horizons, learn new things, and have material to chew over when I’m writing fiction. My current books happen to feature characters who move around the very highest levels of the military and government of their country, so I thought a great place to start would be The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks, a study of the US Army leadership from World War Two to present.

Holy fuck this book sucks.

It starts well, very well, with a quick, brutal takedown of the myth of un-compromised American heroism in the days and months after the invasion of Normandy. The hapless 90th infantry division sustains 100% casualties as its general struggles to find his ass with both hands. Senior officers are getting replaced left and right. Finally, General Eisenhower finds an officer capable to getting the 90th out of its rut and pushes the Germans back and takes its objectives, weeks behind schedule.

Sadly, as soon as the author moves past recounting the events and into analyzing them, we get into mush territory fast. I must admit defeat, because I was not able to read much further than the lengthy first chapter, which covers World War Two, and part of the second, which covers Korea. I’m not sure how fair of me it is to critique a book I did not finish, so I will confine my criticisms to the sections of the book that I did read.

What I learned from the first chapter: the Marshall system for selecting, training, and replacing combat generals was both a very effective policy that produced good results and also frequently arbitrary, unfair process that relieved competent officers from their commands. Further, this system both shaped Army policy for decades to come, and also was something that later generals would ignore. Under this system the US Army both underwent a sea change from a skittish, amateurish force to a dynamic powerhouse, and at the same time was a sluggish behemoth that was hopelessly outclassed by the Wehrmacht for the entire war. Which of course did not prevent the German commanders from being awed by how quickly Americans adapted to changing circumstances. I learned that since Eisenhower  most generals who try their hands at politics have fared quite badly, but not why it was different for Ike. Everything I learned was contradicted by something else that I learned, as if Ricks does not really know how to contextualize contradictory evidence in a way that explains the tensions in his thesis without undermining it. It is a book length freshman term paper, and I’m regretting the 15 bucks I spent on this thing.

And that’s just chapter 1. I’m not going to be pressing on through chapter 2.

So this Non-Fiction Challenge is getting off to a rocky start. After several unsatisfying days slogging through Ricks, I got distracted by the shiny and never really went back. I’m adding a new rule to the Non-Fiction Challenge. I will not feel compelled to finish books that lose my interest. This rule is necessary because I’m going to be following it, one way or the other. Additionally, I think I will scale my ambition down from a monthly event to a bi-monthly one. It’s taking me some time to get my hands on the next book, which is going to be some kind of literary examination of the Gothic tradition. I haven’t settled on which one yet.

So that’s month 1 of the Non-Fiction Challenge. Hooray! Now, I’m off to salve my wounds with a nifty new recommendation I got from a friend.

This entry was posted by April Daniels.


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