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Warrior Petraeus

Thomas Dworzak/Magnum Photos
General Petraeus with US and Iraqi troops in Samarra, north of Baghdad, 2007

In his thesis, Petraeus examines in detail what the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) recommended in various crises where military action was an option. For a decade after Korea, and again after Vietnam, the generals cautiously hid behind a position of “all or nothing”—go in big, do the job, and get out quick, which frightened civilian leaders, or…do nothing. What the Army wanted was “steel on target”—an enemy they could find and blow away. What the Army feared was Vietnam’s quagmire—military operations against an elusive enemy who disappeared at will back into the population.

Drawing on his reading of Lartéguy, Fall, and others, Petraeus considered this fear exaggerated, and he structured his Ph.D. thesis to cure the Army of its “so-called Vietnam syndrome.” But he was careful not to point out where the higher-ups had gone wrong. “Maybe,” he offered cautiously, “America’s doctrine, tactics and personnel practices were inappropriate.” Westmoreland might have read that passage three times without noting that the finger was pointing at him. What Petraeus tiptoes around is spelled out in Lewis Sorley’s fine biography of Westmoreland, and in a new book about the war on the ground by Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam.

The root error behind Westmoreland’s failure was the general’s belief that the enemy’s main force units were the problem, and that he could hammer out a win with a strategy he called “search and destroy.” The idea was General William DePuy’s, who had noted a ten-to-one kill ratio that favored Americans in early battles of the war. “We are going to stomp them to death,” DePuy told a reporter. With firepower and big-unit operations Westmoreland conducted a relentless “war of attrition” for the next two years, pursuing the fabled point on the graph where Americans were killing Vietcong faster than the enemy could replace them. In April 1967, Westmoreland told Lyndon Johnson in the White House, “It appears that last month we reached the crossover point.”

It wasn’t true, then or ever. DePuy’s “biggest surprise,” he said later, was Hanoi’s willingness to “continue the war despite the punishment they were taking.” The numbers were indeed staggering. The ten-to-one ratio DePuy had noted held roughly true throughout the war—58,000 dead soldiers for the Americans, about 600,000 for Hanoi. But Hanoi never wavered. “I was completely wrong on that,” said DePuy.

But this tidy version of Westmoreland’s root error fails to address the full range of what the failure did to the Army, which in turn reflects the full horror of what the Army did to the Vietnamese. Here Nick Turse, a journalist and historian who specializes in military subjects, reminds us again of what Americans mainly prefer to forget. His title comes from the orders issued by Captain Ernest Medina before an attack in March 1968 on a Vietnamese village variously known to history as Pinkville, Son My, and My Lai.

“Are we supposed to kill women and children?” one of his men asked.

“Kill everything that moves,” the captain replied.

What Turse demonstrates in his harrowing book is the direct connection between Westmoreland’s pursuit of “the crossover point” and the killing of Vietnamese, not only at My Lai but throughout the country, in frightening numbers. After every battle MACV would release an official “body count”—the number of enemy killed, often accompanied by photographs of rows of bodies in black pajamas. Success in battle was a high body count, which helped officers get promoted and soldiers get leave. Turse recounts in sickening detail the spread of a body-count culture that accepted any body for the count—if it’s Vietnamese and it’s dead, the saying went, it’s a Vietcong.

Pretty soon all branches of the military were generating ever-higher body counts, whether from helicopter gunships, artillery firing “harassment and interdiction” rounds into the jungle at random, jets dropping napalm in “free-fire zones” where everything was fair game, soldiers attacking villages on the ground, or Navy patrol boats on the Mekong River. One ghastly six-month-long operation called Speedy Express resulted in tens of thousands of confirmed kills in the Mekong Delta, many in “battles” where the kill ratio climbed steadily—twenty-four to one in December 1968, sixty-eight to one in March 1969, 134 to one in April—sure sign the dead were mainly unarmed, which meant they were mainly civilian. It made no difference. Speedy Express was followed by backslapping all around.

How many Vietnamese civilians were killed during the eight years of the American war? Turse notes the difficulty in coming up with a firm figure. For obvious reasons the Army made no attempt to keep a running tally but after the war the Pentagon guessed the total might be 195,000. A Senate committee in 1975 suggested 415,000. A study in 2008 by health professionals at Harvard and the University of Washington thought the number of Vietnamese dead, soldiers and civilians alike, was around 3.8 million. The government of Vietnam has officially estimated the dead at three million, including two million civilians. If you think these high numbers are probably exaggerated, and if you do not like wondering why the Army killed so many people but lost the war, and if you feel this is all ancient history and it’s time to move on, then you are reacting pretty much the way the Army did. “No more Vietnams” was the Army’s version of lessons learned. It never wanted to hear the word “counterinsurgency” again.

American generals and their presidents have shared a common fate over the last seventy-five years; they are mainly remembered for their wars—presidents for the wars they pick to fight, generals for how they fight them. The last decade of Petraeus’s career contained both of his wars—in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Petraeus missed the first Persian Gulf war—he had been shot through the chest in a training accident—but he was on hand for the second in 2003 when he led the 101st Airborne Division to Baghdad. With heavy bombing from the air, followed by the quick advance of armored units, this was exactly the sort of war the Army had trained and equipped itself to fight after Vietnam. Saddam’s army, already severely weakened by the first Persian Gulf war in 1991 and a decade of sanctions, was no match for the Americans and soon dissolved.

After the fall of Baghdad, with its reassuring resemblance to the fall of Berlin in 1945, at least until the looting started, Petraeus was dispatched 225 miles north to the city of Mosul, third-largest city in Iraq, to confront the sort of war the Army hated. Unlike Washington officials, who expected to be bringing troops home by autumn, Petraeus sensed at the outset what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld continued to deny for many, many months—the fall of Baghdad was not the end of the war, but the beginning of an insurgency. Confronting Petraeus in Mosul was a city in chaos where Arabs, Kurds, and Turks were turning on each other in the opening skirmish of a Shia–Sunni sectarian conflict threatening to turn into a full-scale Iraqi civil war—a threat still not decisively resolved.

The history of the war in Iraq deserves and will doubtless be the subject of a thick study, most of which will be devoted to politics and social setting—say 80 percent to politics and 20 percent to military action, which is roughly what counterinsurgency strategists think is the right mix, including Mao Zedong, the Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, Petraeus’s favorite French writers, and a host of Americans who became his friends and allies over the years.

Petraeus’s small piece of the opening phase of the Iraq war—his year in Mosul, 2003–2004—seems to have got the mix about right. He had been reading and writing about insurgencies for thirty years and he put his knowledge to work. At the top of his to-do list were money, politics, electricity, and jobs—all the daily grind of getting a city up and going after war had turned the country upside down. In the background there was plenty of shooting, soldiers on patrol, nighttime raids, and the like, but Petraeus’s effort was mainly—say 80 percent—devoted to buying and talking peace. “Money is ammunition,” he liked to say.

Some commanders in other cities did roughly the same, but most had the mix reversed, devoting 80 percent of their effort and attention to “kinetic” operations, by which the Army means going out in force to kill or capture bad guys. There was no common approach to the situation during the first year, which had not even received a commonly accepted name. Rumsfeld flatly refused to allow the word “counterinsurgency” to be uttered inside the Pentagon. When Petraeus rotated out at the end of his year, things looked better in Mosul than they did in a lot of Iraq, but a year later, after a different commander with fewer soldiers following a different approach, what Petraeus had built was coming undone. The same was apparent in Iraq as a whole.

The rest of the story closely follows the history of President Bush’s two wars. Each began with a quick victory followed by a long period of feckless neglect in Washington while the Sunnis in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan organized insurgencies. Petraeus was sent to Iraq for a second tour trying to build military and police forces, a tougher nut to crack than Mosul. In the fall of 2005 Petraeus was assigned to command the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a sprawling entity that the departing commander called the Army’s “engine of change.” Among its many responsibilities were the writing of Army manuals, running the Army’s schools for officers, and defining Army doctrine—the accepted “school solution” to every military situation in which the Army might find itself. John Nagl, a younger officer Petraeus had known for twenty years, told him that now was the moment to rewrite the manual on counterinsurgency. At Fort Leavenworth Petraeus felt the themes of his life coming together. “Holy cow,” he thought. “They’re putting an insurgent in control of the engine of change.”

The writing of the US Army’s official Field Service Manual 3-24 on counter-insurgency operations is the subject of The Insurgents, to which Fred Kaplan brings a formidable talent for writing intellectual history. It is one of the very best books ever written about the American military in the era of small wars. Like Kaplan’s earlier book, The Wizards of Armageddon,* an authoritative history of American thinking about nuclear weapons, The Insurgents is filled with the names of an obscure fraternity—men and a few women whose passion has been for thinking about the kind of war the Americans lost in Vietnam.

After a year of writing, the manual appeared at a fortuitous moment when four things coming together gave Petraeus his moment on the stage of history. The first was a sectarian killing spree in Baghdad, where a hundred or more bodies were being dumped on the city’s streets every day. Second was President Bush’s decision in December 2006 to put a new commander in Baghdad with a new strategy for fighting the war. Third was the willingness of Robert Gates, the new secretary of defense, to send five brigades of additional troops to Iraq to support the new strategy. And last was the agreement of Gates, retired generals, and a platoon of trusted White House advisers that Petraeus was the inevitable man.

  1. *

    Simon and Schuster, 1983. 

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