The career path that led Tommy Franks from the dusty plains of
Oklahoma to a military leadership role in three American wars has a
familiar trajectory. As a youngster at the University of Texas he
was mostly concerned with drinking beer, chasing girls and tooling
around in fast cars. He joined the army in 1965 mostly to escape
academic disaster --- and there began a steady rise in rank,
self-discipline and patriotic fervor. He retired 38 years later
with four stars on his uniform.
In AMERICAN SOLDIER, he and collaborator Malcolm McConnell tell
this story in soldierly fashion --- straightforwardly, with obvious
confidence in the rightness of Franks's judgments of people and
situations, and from a worldview starkly divided between good guys
and bad guys --- Us and Them.
He was a young junior officer in Vietnam, a one-star general during
the first Gulf War, and a four-star general for the invasion of
Iraq in 2003. His post as leader of the U.S. Central Command put
him in charge of military matters over a huge area stretching from
Kenya to Pakistan.
He gives his readers a vivid field officer's perspective on
Vietnam, where he saw plenty of stiff action. His account comes
complete with a forest of military acronyms (there is a seven-page
glossary at the end of his text, which is very helpful to readers
who are not four-star generals) and plenty of the casual profanity
without which no army has ever seemed able to function.
The book is generally well-written --- that feckless college
dropout ends up quoting Homer and Shakespeare --- but whether the
credit belongs to Franks himself or to McConnell is not easy to
decide. At any rate, Franks comes across as a clever fellow,
willing to devise and implement out-of-the-box solutions to
problems and thoroughly ingrained with the military virtue of
loyalty. He makes the point, though, that loyalty must flow in both
directions to be effective --- from troops to commander, but also
from commander to his men. Point scored.
Another theme that will hold the nonmilitary reader's interest is
the incredible sophistication of modern computer-dominated warfare.
Officers sitting in Tampa, Florida, watch in real time the progress
of a motorcade in Afghanistan and see it assaulted by pilotless
aircraft controlled from hundreds of miles away. Things have come a
long, long way since my own days as a grunt in the Army Security
Agency half a century ago!
Franks tells his story in a series of discrete snapshots, skipping
over long time periods to concentrate on moments he deems
important. His obvious devotion to his wife Cathy is a touching
sidelight. As his story progresses, though, the book can get bogged
down in the minutiae of military planning and logistics.
Inevitably, most reader interest will center on Franks's views on
the highly controversial Iraq adventure. His loyalty, as one might
expect, lies totally with President Bush and Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, with whom he was in virtually daily contact. A
general, after all, is required to be loyal to his
commanders-in-chief. Tommy Franks, even in retirement, has only
fulsome praise for Bush and a kind of wary respect for
More unexpected is his irritation with the Pentagon military
bureaucracy and with some high ranking civilians in the defense
establishment. He expresses impatience with attempts at
micro-management by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stating in one memo
that their presence at his daily teleconferences with Bush and
Rumsfeld is "not helpful." Late in his career he turned down
Rumsfeld's offer to become Army Chief of Staff himself.
He dismisses Richard Clarke, the now-famous National Security
Council operative and controversial author, as ineffective and
self-serving, and he has little good to say about one of Rumsfeld's
super-hawk subordinates, Douglas Feith.
Perhaps his most pungent quote on military matters is the wry
comment that "the army doesn't issue wisdom when it pins on the
His end-of-the-day conclusions on Iraq closely parallel the
administration line: Saddam Hussein was a mortal peril to America.
Postwar Iraq, contrary to media reports, is an unpublicized success
story; we must stay the course and finish the job.
He shares the old soldier's typical grudging toleration of the
media, fuming when they report bad news, trying to remain honest
with them while concealing information he does not want them to
This is an honest book by a soldier who did his job well. You may
not agree with Tommy Franks on all the larger issues, but you have
to admit that, after his unpromising start, he sure found his place
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on December 22, 2010