General David Petraeus, the U.S. general charged with overseeing the transition of power from the Coalition military authorities to the Iraqis poses June 21, 2004 in Najaf, Iraq. (Brent Stirton/GETTY IMAGES)

With one celebrated former general under fire for an extramarital affair and another current commander getting questions about “flirtatious” or “potentially inappropriate” emails, it’s been military leaders’ personal lives, rather than their professional standards, which have been making news.

But the real scandal of military leadership these days, says Tom Ricks, the author of the new book The Generals , is the lack of accountability that exists in the military when it comes to the on-the-job performance of its top brass. Ricks is a former reporter for The Washington Post and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His new book examines the military’s increasing unwillingness, since World War II, to fire or relieve its generals of their duties. On Leadership columnist Jena McGregor spoke with Ricks about why there’s greater tolerance today for poor behavior, the problems that has created and what the solutions might be. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

On Leadership: In light of how little controversy surrounded what you describe as the poor leadership of several generals during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, what do you make of all the attention being paid to the Petraeus affair?

Tom Ricks: You don’t want people to get away with immoral or unethical behavior, but you really want to focus on professional competence. Soldiers in wartime will put up with an awful lot if they feel they are being led competently. In wartime, in combat, one wants to survive. And if they’re not going to survive, they want to know at least that their lives are not thrown away by some guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

So I think the real scandal is not David Petraeus’ sex life, but the people who preceded him in Iraq who led the military badly. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the real scandal is not whether a Marine general is flirting with a woman by email. The real scandal in Afghanistan is that we’ve had 11 commanders in that war in 11 years. That’s a lousy way to run a war, because the new guy comes in and by the time he gets to really understanding the situation and knowing what’s going on, it’s time for him to get ready to go home.

You wouldn’t try to have 11 CEOs of a corporation in 11 years. In World War II, you can’t imagine rotating Eisenhower home in January 1944 and saying “it’s time to give somebody else a chance to command out there, Ike.” We’ve been running our wars with a kind of inattentiveness and recklessness, and we’ve run into a situation where we care more about the sex lives of generals than the real lives of soldiers.

Do you think the president should have accepted Petraeus’ resignation?

No, I wish he hadn’t. I think it was a possibility for a teaching moment. First of all, it didn’t have to be public. They could have said “let’s try to keep this quiet. Dave, you go home, make amends to your wife, do what you need to do, and then you go back to work. That’s your punishment. You don’t get to leave your job.” And had it publicly leaked out down the road, I think you could just put out a short statement saying the president was aware of this, it’s a private matter, and he’s confident that Gen. Petraeus did not compromise national security.

We’re in a steady descent into a world in which there is no privacy, in which the FBI is investigating lovers’ quarrels, while, if I understood this correctly, there were 57 American casualties in Afghanistan last week—that is, killed or wounded. That worries me much more than what Gen. Petraeus may have been doing with one woman, between two consenting adults.

Military leaders garner more respect from the general public than leaders in many other fields, and the business world—both via corporate training programs and business school academics—tends to lionize the military when it comes to teaching leadership. Yet your book explores why the leadership at the top of the military is really problematic. Why do you think that discrepancy exists?

The U.S. Army is a great institution. The rebuilding of the U.S. Army after the Vietnam War was an epic struggle and was enormously successful. Today we have great frontline soldiers. They are well equipped, they are well trained and they are in cohesive units.

The problem is at the very top. This magnificent rebuilding of the U.S. military after Vietnam really did recreate the force, but they kept the old head. The one thing they didn’t really change after Vietnam was how they shaped their generals. What we got was a generation of officers who thought tactically and not strategically. It’s the difference between being trained and being educated. You train people for known attacks. You educate people for the unknown, the complex, the ambiguous, the difficult situation.

Much of the book refers back to George Marshall, who led the Army during World War II. How would you characterize his style of leadership?

George Marshall was a good man and a great man and a decent man. He was not a nice man. He couldn’t afford to be nice. He took advantage of the crisis to get rid of 600 officers he considered “dead wood.” He had a system during World War II under which generals had about 90 days to succeed, to get killed or to be relieved and move into some other job. It’s a system of extreme accountability.

Marshall believed that generalship should be extremely difficult, that generalship should be extremely stressful—both physically and intellectually—and that not everybody can do it. So he expected a certain percentage would fail. He saw relief of an officer not as an extraordinary event, nor necessarily as a career ender. It happened all the time and it was a sign the system was working. Today, perversely, the Army sees relieving an officer as a sign that somehow the system has failed.

Why did the Army pull away from that approach?

The first reason is that in these smaller wars that follow World War II—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—it’s hard to say what success looks like. The second reason, I think, is bureaucratization. It’s the natural inclination of bureaucracy to protect its own interests. In World War II, Marshall profoundly believed that the lives of soldiers and the interests of the nation were more important than the careers of officers. But by Vietnam, the Army is running the war for the benefit of its officer corps. This is not a thought that was original with me. It was actually said first by Gen. William Depuy, who said we ran the Vietnam War so officers could punch their ticket in combat command.

It’s a bureaucracy that has become increasingly attuned to its own interest. Everybody looks out for each other. Mediocrity is tolerated. And when you tolerate incompetence, you get an incompetent organization. Eventually, not only does it not know what success looks like, it doesn’t know what competence looks like. It doesn’t know what good leadership looks like.

You reference a Harvard Kennedy School of Government study that looks at the frustrations of junior officers. Within the Army, is there a fear—even a false one—that they have a pipeline problem? That if the Army relieved more generals, there wouldn’t be enough talented people in line to replace them?

No. You have a military with a total of 1.6 million people on active duty, but you’ve only got a few hundred senior generals. I don’t think you need to get rid of that many. One or two removals would send a message to the others. These are smart, hardworking, determined people. They would change their behavior if that started to change.

Some corporations use a “forced ranking” system in performance reviews, in which a certain percentage of managers or employees are pushed out. There is always, in other words, a need to winnow the ranks. Could the military benefit from this?

Yes, and in fact, it’s a system the military had in World War II. In The Effective Executive , Peter Drucker cites George Marshall. He says you don’t do anybody any favors by leaving people in their jobs if they’re failing. If you leave them in place, you’re not being fair to the executive’s subordinate. You’re not even being fair to the leaders themselves.

The epilogue of your book includes an exhaustive list of changes the military needs to make to improve its senior leadership, from adding more accountability to considering “360-degree evaluations” to not retiring officers so early. Which ones are the most critical?

There’s only one that’s absolutely critical, and that is to enforce accountability. It’s also the one that I think is the most difficult to achieve, because a bureaucratized general officer corps will not enforce accountability by itself. We have a Congress that doesn’t know what military effectiveness looks like and we have a media that doesn’t know anything about the military any more. We have an American public that doesn’t understand the military. We don’t—oddly enough, for a country that’s been at war for 10 years—we don’t know much about war anymore.

The tragedy to me is everybody these days says they support the troops, but one way to support the troops is to give them good military leaders, and we don’t. These wars today, they’re not World War II.  But a soldier who gets blown up by an IED in Afghanistan is every bit as dead as a soldier machine-gunned by the Germans on Omaha Beach. And he’s every bit as deserving of good leadership as his predecessors were.

Several of the suggestions you make in the epilogue have to do with giving officers more exposure to the world outside the military through granting leaves of absence, sending rising officers to elite universities or assigning new generals to a one-year course of preparation, such as living overseas in a developing country for a year of “broadening.” Why is that important?

It’s most helpful not in leading to accountability but in encouraging critical thinking. It’s about going to a university and finding all your basic assumptions about life and about the United States challenged by intelligent people who just believe differently than you do. When you go to the Army War College, you’re surrounded by people like you who think like you. When an officer goes off to Harvard, he’s going to find anti-military people, he’s going to find socialists, he’s going to find anti-American people and he will have to think a lot harder. That’s very good at enabling people to think critically, to understand difficult, complex, ambiguous situations.

And there is nothing more difficult, ambiguous and complex than today’s wars. They are a lot more complex, politically, than dealing with the Soviet Union. That was when strategic thinking atrophied in the military. The Soviet Union was almost the perfect enemy: It was big, dumb and slow. The strategy was pretty clear. We were going to contain them until they collapsed. If we had to fight them, we were going to fight them in certain places and in certain ways. Now, we don’t even know who the next enemy might be, where the next war might come from, what are the best ways to deal with these complex enemies. That requires a lot of hard thinking. Not everybody’s going to be capable of it.

The comprehensive review you think needs to be done, which really steps back and analyzes the performance of generals and of the institutions that put them in power – what do you think it might take to make that happen?

I fear it might require some sort of catastrophic event. But Secretary Leon Panetta did announce recently that they are going to review the professionalism of military officers. The phrase that struck me in Panetta’s statement was “stewardship” of the profession. If you’re a steward, you are responsible for the public. The phrase Panetta used speaks to both personal and official behavior.

If you are a professional by definition—military, clergy, medical, law—you’re not doing it simply to make a buck. You have a higher purpose. So one aspect of stewardship is the question of whether it is proper for retired generals to go make millions of dollars in the defense industry and sell products to their former subordinates. That’s a legitimate question about professionals. Another one might be, is it proper for retired generals to use their names, their ranks and their services in endorsing political candidates? What I’m hoping is that this phrase in the Panetta statement is going to be interpreted quite broadly to include a range of behaviors and questions.

So you’re encouraged that such a review could improve top leadership?

It gives me some hope. Encourage is too strong a word.