By all accounts, the present-day United States military is the best—that is, the most capable—in all the world. In the estimation of their countrymen, today’s American warrior (the homelier term G.I. having now gone the way of doughboy) may well be the best of all time. Yet America’s Army doesn’t win. Except for small-scale skirmishes, it hasn’t since World War II.

In terms of providing its army with bountiful resources, no nation comes even close to the United States. In terms of willingness to commit that army into action, no nation (except perhaps Israel and the United Kingdom) compares. Yet the roster of victories achieved by the United States Army since 1945 is an abbreviated one: the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), and Panama (1989). Twenty years ago, observers might have added the Persian Gulf War (1991) to that list. Unfortunately, the brief and seemingly glorious encounter that was Operation Desert Storm turned out to be a mere preliminary bout.

Forays ending in something other than victory—i.e., conclusive operational success yielding desired political outcomes—have been both more numerous and of greater moment. The Cold War provided the occasion for one costly draw (Korea) and one humiliating defeat (Vietnam). The post-Cold War era has included one outright failure, the embarrassing if quickly mythologized Somalia intervention, along with two wars of middling size, long duration, and ambiguous outcome. Whatever verdict historians ultimately render regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, they are unlikely to classify them as roaring successes. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that these two badly managed wars may have rung down the curtain on the so-called American Century, with the self-described “world’s only superpower” now facing irreversible decline.

The United States Army is like one of those chronically underperforming professional sports franchises: the team looks good on paper but somehow doesn’t quite get the job done. Despite a huge payroll, a roster loaded with talent, and an enthusiastic fan base, performance on the pitch falls short of what’s needed to win championships.

What explains this gap between apparent potential and actual achievement? When Americans send their army to fight, why doesn’t it return home in triumph? In The Generals, Thomas R. Ricks ventures an answer to that question, with his book’s title fingering the chief culprits.

Writing in 1932, the soldier-historian J.F.C. Fuller identified the essential attributes of successful generalship as “courage, creative intelligence and physical fitness.” A prize-winning journalist best known for his cogent analysis of the Iraq War, Ricks does not question whether senior American military officers can do the requisite number of push-ups and sit-ups to demonstrate their physical vigor. Yet since World War II, he argues, the quality of creative intelligence found in the upper echelons of the United States Army has declined precipitously. So too has the quality of civil-military interaction—the dialogue between senior officers and senior civilian officials that is essential to effective war management. Here the problem stems at least in part from pronounced lapses in moral courage. Together, these failings at the top explain why an army that seemingly ought to win doesn’t.

Ricks also offers an explanation for why this decline occurred: the Army officer corps no longer polices itself, at least not its upper echelons. Back in World War II, generals fired generals who performed poorly. Today that is no longer the case—indeed, it hasn’t been for several decades. The demise of this ethic of professional accountability has created an environment in which people getting to the top are patently unqualified for the responsibilities that await them. Worse, even when they screw up they get a pass—and sometimes even get promoted.

To become a general officer is to join an exclusive club. As with many clubs, ranking members decide whom to admit, restricting entry to those who satisfy the criteria for being the right sort. In American military vernacular, Ricks writes, the key is to be deemed a “good guy.” The good guy projects the right attitude, strikes the right pose, and recites all the right clichés. Good guys are team players. They don’t rock the boat. They get ahead by going along. In practical terms, demonstrated adherence to orthodoxy becomes the premier qualification for admission. Heretics need not apply.

And according to Ricks, once you’re in, you’re golden: with membership come privileges and protection. So when events expose the limitations of a William Westmoreland in Vietnam or a Tommy Franks in Iraq, other senior officers cognizant of those shortcomings keep mum. Sergeants or captains falling short in the performance of duty might feel the axe; not so with the generals said to be responsible for what the sergeants and captains do or don’t do. General officer responsibility turns out to be more nominal than real. Reflecting on the Iraq War, one disenchanted American officer put it this way: “As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” Needless to say, that officer’s invitation to join the club never arrived.

 

It didn’t use to be that way. At the outset of World War II, Ricks writes, George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, established strict standards of general officer accountability. In the field, commanders like Dwight D. Eisenhower enforced those standards, ruthlessly sacking division and corps commanders found wanting. Meanwhile, those generals who demonstrated a capacity for combat leadership—among them J. Lawton Collins, James Gavin, and Matthew Ridgway—reaped rewards: swift promotion and assignment to positions of greater responsibility. For Marshall, war was the ultimate Darwinian environment, separating fit from unfit (or perhaps lucky from unlucky). The clash of arms rendered judgments; Marshall’s system accepted those judgments as authoritative.

Did this Marshall system actually exist? The case that Ricks advances for answering that question in the affirmative falls short of being conclusive. His approach is nakedly didactic: The Generals consists of a series of chapter-length profiles, each focusing on a particular senior officer whose personal qualities, performance of duty, or ultimate fate reveals something about the evolution of American generalship. The individuals to whom the author directs attention form a motley, even whimsical, group. Some are colorful, others bland. Some—George S. Patton for example—meet anyone’s standards for historical importance. Others—raise your hand if you’ve heard of Terry de la Mesa Allen—qualify as marginal. But the key point is this: tinker with the cast of characters and you’re likely to reach different conclusions.

Even some of the figures Ricks uses to build his argument cast doubts about the Marshall system’s efficacy. Mark Clark offers a case in point. Ricks correctly identifies Clark, the erstwhile liberator of Rome, as a petty, if exceedingly ambitious, officer of negligible ability, “disliked and distrusted by subordinates and superiors alike.” In a crisis, Clark’s practice was “to blame everyone but himself.” If the Marshall system worked as Ricks claims, he ought to have been sacked. Yet as a personal friend of Eisenhower, Clark flourished, achieving four-star rank and remaining a blight on the Army for years to come.

More problematic still is the case of Douglas MacArthur, who presided over the Southwest Pacific theatre of operations with an imperial disdain for whatever George Marshall (not to mention Franklin Roosevelt) might want. In a 2010 blog post, Ricks fingered MacArthur as “the worst general in American history.” Here he concedes that MacArthur “stood outside of” the Marshall system. Yet a system of accountability that allows the worst (not to mention most narcissistic) general in U.S. history to run roughshod over his superiors while cultivating an undeserved reputation as a Great American Hero may not actually qualify as a system at all. Some exceptions confirm the rule; others expose the rule as fiction.

Still, even without enshrining World War II as some sort of golden age of American generalship, Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and the rest of them (even including he likes of Clark and MacArthur) did get the job done. The war ended with the United States on the winning side. We may wonder how much credit for that outcome is due to superior U.S. military leadership as opposed to German strategic folly, Japanese economic weakness, and the extraordinary resilience of the Red Army. But that is not the question that Ricks wishes to entertain here.

Instead, according to the story he chooses to tell, the leadership system that had produced victory almost immediately began to decay. By the onset of the Korean War, it had all but ceased to exist. In choosing subordinates, MacArthur, the dominant figure during the war’s early stages, preferred cronies and courtiers. The only creative intelligence he valued was his own. Rather than competence or independent judgment, therefore, sucking up to the boss determined who flourished under his command. After President Harry Truman had finally had his fill of MacArthur’s insubordination and dismissed him, Ridgway sought to reinstate Marshall’s standards, but with a twist: rather than being fired outright, failed commanders were quietly transferred. Shielding generals, and the Army, from embarrassment was becoming a priority.

Worse was to come. In the wake of Korea, a new “corporate model of generalship” emerged, embodied by Maxwell Taylor and by Taylor’s protégé William Westmoreland, officers who were smooth, bureaucratically savvy, intellectually shallow, and less than honest. Taylor “made a habit of saying not what he knew to be true but instead what he thought should be said.” Westmoreland displayed a similar tendency to shade the truth, especially on matters affecting his own image and reputation. Among senior officers, plain speaking was becoming a lost art. The Army, writes Ricks, “was fast becoming a collection of ‘organization men’ … who were far less inclined to judge the performance of their peers.” Generals “were acting less like stewards of their profession, answerable to the public, and more like keepers of a closed guild.”

Here for Ricks lies the key explanation for why Vietnam became such a debacle: Army generals screwed it up. They misconstrued that war’s actual nature. They employed methods (“search and destroy”) that were wrong-headed, unnecessarily brutal, and massively counterproductive. Attempting to deceive and manipulate their civilian masters, they helped create a poisonous civil-military relationship. And with Marshall’s standards of accountability now fully abandoned, they prospered. Senior officers who ran the army into the ground as they led it to defeat reaped rewards, winning medals and promotions. Westmoreland’s fate was emblematic: Ricks suggests that Marshall would have canned him; yet after four years of mismanaging the Vietnam War, Westy ascended to Marshall’s old job as Army chief of staff.

From their experience battling insurgents in Southeast Asia, army generals took one lesson: never again. That apart, they learned next to nothing. Indeed they wasted no time in concluding that the war had nothing to teach.

In recounting how the Army recovered from Vietnam, Ricks rightly emphasizes the contributions of Gen. William DePuy. Today a forgotten figure, DePuy may well rank as the most consequential U.S. military officer in the last quarter of the 20th century, both as chief architect of the Army’s post-Vietnam reforms and as the senior officer most insistent on declaring the entire Vietnam experience irrelevant.

DePuy’s interest in burying that war was understandable: as Westmoreland’s operations chief he had devised the concept of “search and destroy,” confident that superior U.S. firepower would bludgeon the Communist insurgents into submission. In effect, DePuy in the 1960s applied to a Vietnamese civil war methods that Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman had employed during the American Civil War in the 1860s: grind the enemy down until he gives up. Yet the two wars were utterly dissimilar. DePuy’s approach badly underestimated the capacity of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army to absorb punishment and still carry on. And in a contest where the prospects of success turned on winning the support of a contested population, it employed means that victimized and alienated that population.

Yet the abject failure of that concept in Vietnam—a failure above all of creative intelligence—prompted little soul-searching on DePuy’s part. Nothing that had occurred there altered his pre-existing conception of warfare. Stripped to its essentials, that conception reduced combat to a series of discrete, measurable tasks. In DePuy’s eyes, to master tasks was to master war itself. Paying lip service to war’s human dimension, disdaining its political aspect altogether, DePuy’s approach—which became the Army’s approach—pretended to a sort of pseudo-empiricism, as if war were akin to a large-scale industrial enterprise.

Demanding compliance with prescribed formulas, checklists, and decision matrices, DePuy’s Army had little use for critical thinking or independent judgment. This was the Army that in 1991 fought Saddam Hussein and then in 2003 came back for a second go—an Army led by “good guys” who had mastered minor tactics but were intellectually complacent, strategically illiterate, and wore their antipathy for politics like a badge of honor.

Against Saddam’s undistinguished legions, this proved good enough to win battles but nowhere near good enough to win wars. Against the more resolute opponent that American soldiers confronted in occupying Iraq (and Afghanistan), it wasn’t good enough to win anything. Iraq after 2003 became the war that DePuy’s Army had been so intent on avoiding: it was Vietnam redux. Yet generals imbued with DePuy’s mechanistic approach to warfare proved no more adept at grasping the problem actually at hand than had the prior generation of senior leaders who all but destroyed the army they professed to love in their vain pursuit of an ever bigger body count.

 

Generals who had come of age in DePuy’s army took for granted the superiority of American military technique. They did not question its relevance to the battlefield that they confronted in Iraq. For this generation of senior leaders, creative intelligence amounted to bearing down harder in the face of resistance, an impulse that found its ultimate expression in the madcap effort to lock up every military age Iraqi male in places like Abu Ghraib prison. To remove from circulation every potential “terrorist” was to assure ultimate victory: here was the modified version of body count.

In painful detail, Ricks recounts the failings of successive U.S. commanders in Baghdad and of the equally lackluster four-stars back in Washington who had little to offer to civilian leaders badly in need of competent military advice—even if they were slow to acknowledge that need. The roll call of generals that Ricks singles out for spanking—the “dull and arrogant” Tommy Franks, the clueless Ricardo Sanchez, and the slow-on-the-uptake George Casey (“up to his ears in quicksand and he doesn’t even know it”)—certainly sustains his overall thesis. Not since Irvin MacDowell, George McClellan, John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and Joe Hooker subjected the Army of the Potomac to serial abuse had American soldiers suffered under such mediocre leadership.

Extending that comparison would find David Petraeus serving as the Iraq War’s equivalent of Ulysses S. Grant, the general who turns looming failure into victory. Yet Ricks won’t go that far. Rather than winning the Iraq War, he writes, Petraeus succeeded in merely “putting a new face on it.” He applied the tourniquet that slowed the loss of blood. The tourniquet held just long enough for Washington to declare the patient stable and hastily leave the scene of mayhem that the United States itself had unleashed.

Furthermore, the Petraeus Moment by no means inaugurated a full-fledged renaissance of American generalship. According to Ricks, Petraeus’s ill-concealed ambition and operating style, more than slightly reminiscent of Taylor or Westmoreland, had always marked him as an “outlier.” Petraeus assiduously courted journalists. Devoting considerable energy to winning favor among politicians, he achieved rock-star status on Capitol Hill. In recruiting staff, he surrounded himself with fellow Ph.D.’s, seemingly valuing academic credentials over experience gained while leading troops in the field. None of these qualify as standard “good guy” attributes.

May/June 2013 issueAs a consequence, Ricks depicts Petraeus as a one-off. When he departed from active duty to become CIA director, the Petraeus Moment ended. Were there doubts on that score, the sex scandal that booted “King David” out of Langley quashed them. The result was an Army left in the hands of senior officers no more interested in critically examining their service’s (or their own) performance in Iraq and Afghanistan than DePuy had been interested in critically examining his service’s (and his own) performance in Vietnam. To judge by the evidence that Ricks assembles, the present generation of senior officers may lack a capacity for introspection, but its members suffer no shortage of self-esteem. “I think we’ve got great general officers,” remarks one Army four-star quoted by Ricks, insisting that anything that had gone amiss in Iraq was clearly the fault of civilian politicians.

For this very reason, the eminently sensible suggestions for improving the quality of senior military leadership that Ricks offers in concluding his account—in essence restoring the professional ethic that produced George C. Marshall and that he himself subsequently sought (however imperfectly) to uphold—have little chance of implementation. The successors to the generals once so keen to forget Vietnam are now hell-bent on forgetting Iraq and can’t wait to do the same for Afghanistan. They are “good guys,” able to do their push-ups and sit-ups. Just don’t look to them for much by way of moral courage or creative intelligence.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.