In classrooms of the U.S. Army War College here, portraits of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. George G. Marshall and Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan -- officers whose bold thinking left a lasting mark on American military strategy and policy in this century -- peer down at students who will be tomorrow's generals.

Whether there are any new Marshalls or MacArthurs among these officer-students nobody knows. But there are reasons to doubt it.

With events in Iran and Afghanistan suddenly forcing public attention back to matters of military preparedness, the question of what kind of generals these future leaders will become takes on added importance.

Will they be capable of thinking broadly and deeply like the men pictured on the walls here, able not only to lead armies but help shape wise national strategy in a world where future battlefields are increasingly hard to predict and pronounce?

Will they understand the lessons of Vietnam? Will they have the self-confidence and courage to speak up if the military is asked to pursue ill-conceived strategies?

The commandant of the college, Army Maj. Gen. DeWitt C. Smith, is widely viewed and respected as one of the most thoughtful men in uniform, and he is a man with considerable admiration for the type of officer who passes through here.

"In a technical sense and in a military sense, they are infinitely more capable than we were when we entered World War II," says the general, a native of Bethesda who ran off to join the Canadian army as a private in 1939 because he didn't think the United States was reacting fast enough to Hilter.

The 230 or so student-officers admitted annually for a 10-month academic year of study are the cream of the Army's officer corps -- the top 4 or 5 percent in terms of experience, training and brain-power. Two-thirds have master's degrees, a few hold doctorates. Most are senior lieutenant colonels, average age 42, with another 10 to 15 years of service to go. One in four eventually will pin on a general's stars.

Yet while the selection process is good, something is missing in the ranks of military leadership, something that nags at Smith and others who teach here.

"There remains a question whether we are producing enough strategists, people who can reflect as well as react, people who can put their profession in a broader context, who think big and conceptually," the commandant said during a lengthy interview in his office.

"In that sense," he says, "the jury is still out."

The reasons are varied. In recent years, all the services have put heavy emphasis on training managers and technicians, officers who could handle the big, expensive and highly technical new weapons of war.

And, increasingly in recent decades, thinking about broad strategy -- such as how to counter insurgencies or how to use small atomic weapons -- has been done by civilians, ranging from former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger to battalions of civilian analysts in the Pentagon.

Around a conference room table here, faculty members acknowledge that few, if any, uniformed figures in recent years have achieved the public stature of Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, for example, in terms of intellectual impact on national defense debates. Taylor's book, "The Uncertain Trumpet," written in 1959 during a period of retirement, was sharply critical of Eisenhowever administration defense policy.

But the main problem, says Smith, is that since World War II, the Army has either been at war, on the brink of war or busy trying to deter war and the leadership has not really been granted time to think of the long term and reflect.

Keeping a peacetime Army as big, widely deployed and heavily equipped as today's is a horrendous job, he says, "and that has had its effect on the time and ability of a generation or two of military officers to enter in any major way into the strategic thinking process, into writing, or even into speaking."

The War College is meant to help promising mid-career officers learn to think in very broad terms. But it may be 10 years to the top once they leave here and not enough time for reflection once they get there, Smith believes.

Furthermore, he says, "there has been some confusion as to what is right, proper and necessary" in terms of military leaders expressing their views publicly. Some, he believes, didn't want to appear as "bugle-blowers or narrow-minded militarists," or didn't want to appear insensitive to the full range of national issues. "One of this, I fear there has been too little speaking out in sober, serious and responsible ways," he says.

As an example of where the national debate over strategy is not working, where it hasn't got through to the public, Smith points to the decline over the past seven years in the size of the U.S. reserve forces -- men who are no longer in the active Army but are in reserve units, the National Guard or available as individual reservists. The shortage now amounts to more than 700,000 troops, forces already trained that would be needed quickly to back up troops on the line.

The reserves, he said, "are, in a sense, the alternative to nuclear war, and I don't know anything much more important than that."

To the extent that the United States has adequate reserves, a selective service system that can be quickly put into use if necessary and other elements of an ability to mobilize, U.S. resolve will be understood by the Soviets. This, he says, not only helps deter war but would let the United States fight a sustained conventional war, rather than being forced to push the button if deterrence fails.

Contributing to the failure to solve the reserve problem, Smith believes, is too much of a focus in the defense establishment on "first things first. You can pursue that thesis forever and you'll never get all the first things connected with an active-duty force perfect. But you can always use it as an excuse never to turn to the back-up forces," the reserves.

Not long ago, Smith recalled, he spoke to a senior civilian defense official about "what I believe to be the grave inadequancies in the reserve structure . . . and that this had a potentially serious impact on the effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces. He didn't know what I was talking about," the general said of the civilian, "and really didn't want to learn. He's not alone."

Each year the nation's top generals and admirals troop to Capitol Hill to express their views on a whole range of military issues. Smith believes that of those leaders "some do and some don't" express those views frankly.

"I think in an effort to be understanding and cooperative, there must, over the years, have been some watering down by some of our military leaders of their approaches to problems.

"There is a can-do spirit, which can be a very dangerous spirit. If it were just an affirmative attitude toward overcoming difficulties, I would say it's good. But the can-do spirit that I speak of gets implanted in lots of military heads too deeply and it says 'no matter what, I can do it.' And so you may have had over the years people saying 'yes, we can defend Europe with what we've got,' or 'yes, we can do this with what we've got,' and I don't think cold, rational judgments would have supported those statements."

In effect, the general argues that while military officers must be keenly aware of their place as civil servants in a civilian-run democracy, that there are times when failure to say what they know, or to think about whether the United States can do what it says it can do, can be as troublesome as an excess of military zeal.

Of all the military leaders who have made a dent on U.S. policies, most historians agree that it was a Navy man, Adm. Mahan, who was closest to a true strategist, an officer whose views and writings on sea power and its impact on national affairs in the 1890s influenced this and other countries for decades. There have, however, been many other officers whose breadth made major contributions to effective strategy, which basically boils down to figuring out what should be done, how to do it and with what forces and techniques.

Smith argues that the large number of outstanding leaders who emerged during World War II was in part attributable to the fact that officers such as Dwight Eisenhowever and George Patton had stayed in the Army in the 1920s and '30s, when virtually no public attention was paid to the military, and had had time to think and even walk over future battlefields.

Today, he feels, there are new things to think about. "I don't know that everything we do, and how we are deployed in Europe and Asia, is the way it ought to be. And I'm not certain anybody else does."

There is a whole generation of extraordinary new military technology ranging from new ammunition to night-vision devices that not only may lead to new tactics but perhaps could lead to whole new strategies.

Has anyone thought, Smith wonders, about what should be done about increasingly mechanized armies that run on scarce fuel with the potential for the oil pipeline to be cut? That could have a major impact on how national defenses should be organized.

The coffee tables and shelves in Smith's office, and in the classrooms, are covered with newspapers, magazines and books. At 59, Smith has had both a distinguished combat and staff career. But he is perhaps most well known as a student of the military role within a democracy and his feeling that to get the broad-minded strategists, officers must understand the deeper purposes for which the military exist and the political, economic and social factors that affect the reasons they fight.

"We're trying not to be trendy. We're trying to build a solid background off of which you can bounce any situation," says Col. Zane Finkelstein, a faculty member who presides over a colloquium on "American Ideals in Transition."

The aim is not to turn out poet-generals. The curriculum is laced with military command and strategy seminars.

But there are also seminars by visiting civilian experts on American politics, the national purpose, the press, the constitution and legal system, minorities, women in society, the federal budget, special interest groups, economics and a series of lectures on all regions of the world.

For some, Smith says, it is just a refresher course on America. For others, "it's a real eye-opener."

Smith has been here five years now, longer than any commandant in the school's 68-year history. He was called out of retirement two years ago by the Army chief of staff to come back and run this place again.

Under him, it is a school without tests, without grades and even without a list of those who graduate "with distinction" in comparison to their classmates.

The idea is to whittle away at careerism, to remove the focus on one's self, the fear of saying something silly that inhibits free thinking in a group worried about competition. The quality the military cannot do without, says Smith, is "selflessness."

There are "no school solutions" here. No answer is the "right" answer. "Only fools are rigidly doctrinaire and they generally become the fathers of such things as the Maginot Line," Smith says.

One 16-week seminar here deals with Vietnam, a big subject, and one on which Smith says final judgments may still take some time to unfold. But as for the lessons that Vietnam has already imposed he says:

First, it is absolutely essential to determine what the vital interests of the United States are. "I don't believe now that the U.S. had a vital interest, in the fullest definition of that phrase, in Vietnam. We had an interest, but not a vital interest as I would define it."

Secondly, the people of the country must understand what we are doing. The constitutional process must work. A Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which opened the door to the expanded U.S. involvement in 1965, is "not enough."

With respect to the military, "we must stand in there and be counted with respect to how to fight, with respect to the costs of war and what we can achieve.

"I don't believe that ever again the military ought to give any kind of support to a strategy of attrition, or trading an American life for another life.

"I don't think ever again it ought to do anything other than face it head-on and say 'you're asking us to do this, and it will take this, and if we do that the price is unacceptable and I cannot support it.'"

We need that kind of expression of opinion, Smith says. "I don't think we had enough of it."

Finally, he says, "we may have learned some old-fashioned things, like land and area do matter and that you just can't sit back in isolated bases, strike out at the enemy and pull back. You can't reasonably expect youngsters from a free society to die to take the same hill ten times."