"The Generals" focuses on the Army with only glancing references to other services. But those glances are instructive. The Navy has an aggressive history of relieving ship captains for losing the confidence of superiors; the only senior officer relieved during the land assault on Baghdad in 2003 was a Marine colonel whose replacement was ordered by a Marine general.

Much of "The Generals" delves into World War II and the partnership of Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, the Korean War where Douglas MacArthur went from national hero to "troublesome blowhard," and then Vietnam and William Westmoreland's failures.

Ricks admires those generals — Matthew Ridgway in Korea, Creighton Abrams in Vietnam and David Petraeus in Iraq — who were sent in to fix the mess created by their predecessors. Ricks shows in fine detail how Ridgway — not a man given to humility or collegiality — went about rescuing and downsizing the U.S. objectives in Korea, in part by relieving MacArthur sycophants.

The modern Army's lack of strategic thinking — what to do the day after the battle has been won — worries Ricks.

"We now are living in an era of strategic uncertainty…Old adversaries have disappeared or are diminishing, and new ones may be emerging. In addition, nonstate foes, such as terrorists, loom much larger in American calculations than ever before," the author writes.

If there is a bright spot in Ricks' analysis, it is the rise of strategic thinkers, general officers with combat leadership but also the ability to adapt and see the "bigger picture" of geopolitics and civilian-military relations.

Ricks names as exemplars Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Petraeus, now head of the CIA; and Marine Gen. James Mattis, who led Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq and succeeded Petraeus as commanding general of the U.S. Central Command.

Still, Ricks worries that the Army has "not steeled itself and launched a soul-searching review of its performance in Iraq and Afghanistan" so that its performance improves in the next war and fewer U.S. troops have to die while their generals dither.

"But as long as it cares more about not embarrassing generals than it does about taking care of soldiers," Ricks concludes, "it is unlikely to undertake such a review."

tony.perry@latimes.com