Gen. George C. Marshall, the United States Army's steely chief of staff during World War II, was ruthless in relieving subordinates who didn't measure up to his exacting standards. Between the time he assumed office in September 1939 and America's entry into the war on Dec. 8, 1941, he cashiered at least 600 officers — and he wasn't done yet. Numerous others, including generals, would lose their jobs when they didn't perform well enough in the caldron of combat. As the veteran military correspondent Thomas E. Ricks notes in his new book, "The Generals," "Sixteen Army division commanders were relieved for cause, out of a total of 155 officers who commanded Army divisions in combat during the war. At least five corps commanders also were relieved for cause."
In the place of the duds that he cleared out, Marshall promoted promising young men like Dwight Eisenhower, a colonel until September 1941, who the following year would be named a three-star general and commander in chief of Allied forces in North Africa.
That's not the way the system works today. Generals still get relieved — the fate suffered by, among others, the commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the surgeon general of the Army after a scandal was uncovered in 2007 — but usually only when their political masters intervene. Seldom are Army officers cashiered anymore by their military superiors and especially not for mere failure to perform at the highest level in wartime. Normally it takes a sexual or other scandal to bring down a senior officer. "As matters stand now," Paul Yingling, then a lieutenant colonel, wrote in a celebrated 2007 article, "a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."