Tales of war

The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and Kin – The 5-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea, by Walter Borneman, Little, Brown, RRP$29.99/£23, 560 pages

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas Ricks, Penguin, RRP$32.95/£25, 576 pages

On November 6 Americans will vote for their next commander-in-chief, the first of the duties assigned to the president by the constitution. The security outlook he will face is in flux. There are plans for a “rebalancing” of military attention to the Asia Pacific region, new tensions over old islands in the western Pacific, and even speculation over a novel “Air-Sea” operational concept, which would integrate air force and navy capabilities to deter – and, if need be, to counter – precision missiles and other weapons that could threaten America’s projection of power across oceans.

It seems opportune, then, to recall the last time the US was forced to fight across the vast Pacific expanse. The historian Walter Borneman tells this story through an enjoyable multiple biography of America’s four five-star “Fleet Admirals” during the second world war: William Leahy, Ernest King, Chester Nimitz and William Halsey. At the heart of The Admirals is an amazing drama – the incredible reversal and rollback of Imperial Japan in less than four years after the devastation of Pearl Harbor.

Borneman’s narrative opens with each man’s days at Annapolis, the US Naval Academy. These young officers came of age just before or after the Spanish-American war of 1898, when the US emerged as a world power, and found their sea legs during the era of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet. Borneman describes insightfully how three of these rising officers, in an age when the battleship was queen of the navy, found their way to the innovative arms of naval aviation and submarines. These proved to be the decisive weapons in the Pacific war; although German U-boats have received more attention, the US navy’s “Silent Service” succeeded against its island foe, whereas the Germans did not.

Borneman’s review of the past may offer lessons for advocates of the “Air-Sea” concept. In 1941, the US navy still had a lot to learn about the operational arts of that generation of innovations – how to combine intelligence, scouting, fleet deployments of different ships, communications, night-fighting and even workable torpedoes. Then it had to determine how to counter an “asymmetric” response – the kamikaze suicide bomber. The Admirals reminds us of the sheer scale of the Pacific, and logistics, supply lines, energy routes and islands for bases loom large in its narrative. In recent decades, ideas about land warfare have been tested in violence but, other than maritime security operations, only the short but destructive Falklands war offers lessons on how navies must prepare.

Yet Borneman’s book is fundamentally a story of men, not doctrines. The least known of the admirals is probably Leahy, who was older than the others and who had the good fortune to skipper a dispatch boat that was at the service of the young assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D Roosevelt, in 1915-16. Leahy retired as chief of naval operations in 1939, but FDR appointed him as ambassador to Vichy France and later summoned him home to serve as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Leahy became a key assistant for FDR, especially as the president’s health failed. Borneman asserts that the self-effacing Leahy was not only Roosevelt’s “number one military adviser” but also “his unquestioned chief counsellor and trusted confidant on all matters”.

King, Nimitz and Halsey were leaders of men in a life-and-death struggle, with different styles and temperaments. Borneman renders them skilfully, including the complexities of their professional relations. Although the writer is too polite to quite say so, one gets the sense that Halsey – a fighting admiral loved by the public – might have risen to a level beyond his abilities. After Halsey took his fleet for the second time into the path of destructive typhoons, it seems that Admiral John S McCain – grandfather of the senator – had to take the fall. The author clearly wishes that the quiet, highly competent victor of the Battle of Midway, Raymond Spruance, could have been added to the five-star pantheon – but the US Congress authorised only four such navy appointments. The focus on these four may also underplay the US navy’s tenacious success in the Battle of the Atlantic, the contest for another lifeline.

As security challenges change, the US army might also draw lessons from history. Thomas Ricks’s The Generals offers a critical thesis on the leadership of America’s “ground pounders” over the past 70 years. As an experienced and dedicated journalist of military affairs, Ricks writes current history, which usually has a point to make: his argument here is that, since the second world war, the US army leadership culture has let down its troops by accepting mediocrity, failing to encourage daring and losing sight of strategic aims. In particular, Ricks maintains that senior US generals during the second world war were far more demanding of performance – and ensured accountability through frequent removals from command.

Ricks wonderfully recalls to the service of leadership studies some extraordinary men, including Generals William Simpson in the second world war, OP Smith of the marines in Korea and Matthew Ridgway in both. Ricks’s tales of the life and influence of General William DePuy offer a thread that ties together much of his story: after heroic service as a junior officer in the second world war, DePuy is an example to Ricks of impressive but unsuccessful leadership in Vietnam, and then of the army’s successful but strategically incomplete revival in the 1970s and 1980s. Ricks’s account of the army’s rebuilding and rethinking of mission after the Korean and Vietnam wars may offer useful insights as the US steps back from a decade of combat in southwest Asia. The good news for Ricks is that America’s military staff colleges are pretty good at questioning themselves, as his many references substantiate, so I expect this account will be read widely and debated.

It will be equally interesting for the story of America, however, to see how historians treat Ricks’s argument. I wonder whether the major difference between the generals of the second world war and those that followed is that the former won a clear-cut victory. As a recent more specialist history, Stephen R Taaffe’s Marshall and His Generals (2011), makes clear, both George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower made missteps as senior generals about commanders, strategy and tactics. I think the distinctive quality about those two – and other successful officers – is their ability to learn from mistakes.

Recent generals seem to have that ability, as well; Ricks credits Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno. Moreover, the need for heroes during the second world war protected some commanders – such as Admiral Halsey and General Douglas MacArthur – from the consequences of mistakes. A solution of firing generals may not encourage on-the-job learning. Officers may also fairly point out that their civilian superiors’ specification of objectives has been less clear since the second world war – or, where specific, as in the first Gulf war, are less satisfying.

I respect Ricks’s insistence that generals need to keep their eye on achieving strategic aims. He correctly emphasises that civilian and military leaders together need to share this duty, though civilians must bear the ultimate responsibility. It is frustrating – but understandable – that generals have struggled in leading campaigns that depend on support from weak local leaders, countering insurgencies, defeating enemies who can cross borders into neighbouring states and making the public case for long wars. That has been the reality of most fights from Korea on. It is far from clear that Marshall’s methods from the second world war – Ricks’s model – would have produced different outcomes.

Maybe the real lesson is that the US needs to be careful and realistic about what use of force can accomplish; specify strategic objectives with care, even if they are limited; and explain, continually, to the American public and others, what the US is doing and why. America’s leaders, civilian and military alike, also need to keep one other slim volume close at hand: Fred Iklé’s Every War Must End (1971), the classic examination of what military colleges study as “war termination”. And last, the US needs to consider how its traditional strategic perspective as a maritime power applies to today’s circumstances.

Robert Zoellick served as president of the World Bank and US deputy secretary of state

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