This book fully lives up to its billing. It begins by highlighting the state of the U.S. Army as it was upon the outbreak of the Second World War and the promotion of George Catlett Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. Marshall, while not a West Point graduate as were many of his contemporaries, had made a name for himself as a "brilliant planner" on the staff of General John J. Pershing in France during the First World War. Indeed, it was Marshall's grasp of logistics, of breaking down complex problems to their simpler elements and developing means of resolving said problems that would prove instrumental in the U.S. Army's victories in the Battles of Saint Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. Marshall was a deeply principled man who devoted his life to making the Army adaptive to the changing needs of the nation and the evolving nature of war.
As Chief of Staff throughout the Second World War, Marshall "devoted much effort to finding the right men for the jobs at hand. When some did not work out, they were removed quickly - but often given another chance in a different job." This came to be known as the "Marshall system", which created a generally well-led, cohesive Army instrumental in ensuring a resounding Allied victory in 1945.
In subsequent years and wars (Korea, Vietnam, Panama, the Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), this book shows how this system was gradually abandoned, and the largely negative impact that this abandonment had on the evolving philosophy, education, culture and ethics of the officer corps.
In summing up, Ricks opines that "if the military... fails to restore the traditions of accountability, then it seems likely that the current trend will continue: When generals don't fire generals, civilians will. Thus it is really not a question of whether to relieve but of who will relieve them. As unhappiness with the conduct of a war increases, pressure will build to get rid of someone. That is the message of the historical record of the past sixty years. Since the Army lost the tradition of relief in the Korean War, each conflict has instead been marked by the firing of top commanders by civilians: MacArthur in that war, Harkins and Westmoreland in Vietnam, Woerner before Panama, Dugan during the Gulf War, Wesley Clark after Kossovo, Casey in Iraq, McKiernan and McChrystal in Afghanistan. These ousters are necessarily clumsier and tardier than internal military moves would be, because they are less like routine maintenance and more like blowing the safety valve on a boiler. But, as with a boiler under pressure, even a late move generally is better than the alternative of doing nothing."