Incongruity rests at the core of Thomas E. Ricks’s innovative and provocative book ... Ricks’s book contains several estimable features. The novel military framing, for example, allows Ricks to offer engaging reappraisals of some civil rights figures ... Moreover, rather than viewing the conflict as existing only between segregationists and integrationists, Ricks wisely and consistently highlights the important tensions and cleavages that existed within the civil rights movement itself. Far too many examinations of this history gloss over such conflicts ... To his great credit, Ricks does not refrain from criticism of even the most esteemed civil rights figures when he believes that their strategic and tactical decisions warrant it ... Waging a Good War does, however, sometimes miss the mark. Ricks offers a blizzard of war analogies, routinely breaking the narrative momentum in order to usher military and diplomatic leaders onstage ... Too often, Ricks uses the military prism to reach conclusions that will be familiar to even the most casual student of civil rights ... Ricks’s reading of events also occasionally descends into the platitudinous, offering insights that apply to almost any pursuit ... These reservations, though, do not negate the significance of Ricks’s powerful analytical frame. The book could prove highly influential, inspiring scholars to use the lens of military history to re-examine the victories and defeats of other consequential social movements.
Ricks takes us inside the often tense, sometimes fractious inner circle of civil rights leadership. Nor does he sugarcoat the sexism in the movement ... What lessons are we to learn from Ricks’ military analysis of the Civil Rights Movement? It may be that any political movement lacking an all-encompassing strategy and specific tactics is likely to fail. Conversely, those skillfully employing his prescribed roadmap may succeed. But such action can be applied by dictators as well as democrats. Philosophy, perhaps even more than strategy and tactics, must underpin any movement for change.
... an intriguing analogy swept along by Ricks’s impressive storytelling skills. It also misses one crucial point. Ricks is certainly right to say that the best militaries have clear goals and tactics that they execute with precision. But that’s true of any successful organization, from the well-run grade school around the corner to the massive corporation that puts a package on your front step the day after you clicked your order into a shopping cart. What sets the military apart, what lies at its core, is its commitment to using violence to pummel its opponents into submission. The Union Army didn’t turn the course of the Civil War at Gettysburg purely because it had an effective plan, but because it littered the ground with Confederate corpses ... That’s where Ricks’s analogy breaks down, not on the movement’s mechanics but on its mind-set. Imagine a commanding officer marching his unarmed troops toward the enemy lines on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, knowing that they have no way to defend themselves from the assault to come, and believing that through the resulting horror they might achieve something transcendent. It’s impossible to do because militaries operate on a fundamentally different imperative than the movement did. Armies are forces of destruction, as the past century’s dark history makes clear. The movement was a moral crusade, driven by a radical faith that the soul of America could be redeemed by ordinary people willing to take the terrible weight of its racism on their shoulders.