I find Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne in World War II and turned around the Korean War in early 1951 after MacArthur screwed it up, endlessly interesting. When I was up at the Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, doing book research last month, I spent a day reading his oral history interviews, some of them corrected in his own hand, and signed by him at the end in the same ink.
Here are some of my favorite passages:
On the strains of combat: "The best of troops will fail if the strain is big enough...I have commanded in World War II the finest troops the U.S. had...I have seen individuals break in battle, and I have seen units perform miserably. The latter was always because of poor leadership. But sometimes, failure of the individual was not due to leadership. It just gets to the point where a man can't take it anymore -- that's all...I saw men in Normandy in a few cases where the strain was too damn much for them. Casualties were very, very heavy, men were falling all around them, and they just walked off crying. Always be easy on a man like that. Help him get back to the rear. Nine times out of 10 he will come out of it all right. Sometimes he can be ruined for life, though."
What a chief of staff should be: "I always picked my chief of staff very carefully. A commander and his chief of staff should be a dual personality. There must be no secrets between them. Each one has to know the soul of the other and have confidence in the other. He knew my policies and everything else. He was completely authorized to act in my name."
On the need to read history: "We don't emphasize this enough in our service schools, even the War College. My advice to any young officer is read -- read -- read. And learn from the successes of the great ones and their failures."
On the nature of man: "Man is the most dangerous predator on Earth. It is bred in his bones. He has had to fight for a living since time immemorial, and he always will. That's human nature and it's not going to change."
Why he declines to talk to soldiers from stages or platforms: "I always disliked standing above people. I'm no better than they are. In rank, yes; in experience, yes; but not as a man...When reviewing troops I would never permit them to raise a reviewing stand. I always stood there on the field, six to eight feet from the right flank of the unit going by. Then I could look into the eyes of the men going by. Looking into their eyes tells you something -- and it tells them something, too."
On the nature of Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "Everybody in life has their fallibilities and MacArthur had them to an extraordinary extent, which apparently he concealed from the public."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.