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Warrior Petraeus

The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era

by David Howell Petraeus
Doctoral thesis, Princeton University, 317 pp. (1987)

The Centurions

by Jean Lartéguy, translated from the French by Xan Fielding
Dutton, 487 pp. (1962; out of print)
David Petraeus; drawing by James Ferguson

Former General David Petraeus, now retired from the United States Army and unemployed, had been a professional soldier for thirty years before he commanded troops in combat. The year was 2003, the place southern Iraq. The war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was only a few days old when Petraeus concluded that the scrambling retreat of the Iraqi army was not going to be the whole of the story.

“Tell me how this ends,” he remarked to a reporter embedded with Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division, heading for Baghdad. “Eight years and eight divisions?”

Army folklore says “eight years and eight divisions” was General Matthew B. Ridgway’s answer when asked what it would take to rescue the French from defeat in Indochina in 1954. No president who was thinking straight—certainly not Dwight David Eisenhower—would ever commit so large a force for so long a time to anything less than a matter of the first importance. Survival of the French colonial regime did not come close. What Petraeus was saying was, now we’re in for it.

Open-ended wars—getting over them, staying out of them, stumbling into them—were the constant theme of Petraeus’s life as a solider. He had been a high school teenager in the mid-1960s when General William Westmoreland was playing tennis two or three times a week in Saigon, where his formal title was Commander of the United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam, or COMUSMACV. His preferred courts were at Le Cercle Sportif, a private sports club near the Saigon River, built by the French colonial regime in the 1890s. It was there in March 1966, while the army under Westmoreland’s command was climbing toward its ultimate peak of 540,000 men, that the general suffered his only wound during four years of war—a fractured wrist suffered when he fell on the court.

Saigon conversation in the mid-1960s inevitably came around, as an evening wore on in a French restaurant over a glass of French wine, to the French defeat in their eight-year war. President Lyndon Johnson had gone forward where Eisenhower hung back, but Westmoreland did not think the French had anything to teach us. Asked at a press conference what it took to defeat an insurgency, Westmoreland answered with a single word: “Firepower.” Big-unit war backed by firepower was Westmoreland’s strategy for beating the Vietcong, and nothing ever altered his view. By temperament he was not flexible, nor was he much of a reader. His favorite book in childhood had been the Boy Scouts of America’s Handbook for Boys. But it was impossible to ignore entirely the books written by the French about their long agony, and Westmoreland kept several of the best-known on his bedside table, next to his Bible—histories by the French writer Bernard B. Fall, and a novel called The Centurions.

Fall’s best-known books were Street Without Joy, a history of the long French failure, and Hell in a Very Small Place, his account of the French defeat in a set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which decisively ended public support for the war in France.

The Centurions, by Jean Lartéguy, was a very different sort of book. The main characters were French officers captured at Dien Bien Phu. History records that their months in a jungle prison camp were horrific; at least half died. But Lartéguy focuses on a different matter—what the French officers learned from the Vietminh who had defeated them. The French higher-ups were not much interested in the Vietminh’s approach to war. Like the Americans, they believed that firepower, mobility, and professional soldiering would beat any ragtag army of guerrillas. But Pierre Raspéguy, the hero of The Centurions if there is one, listened to the Vietminh in Camp One and absorbed their rule number one. “You’ve got to have the people on your side,” he said, “if you want to win a war.”

The odds are good that nothing could have persuaded Westmoreland to look deeper, but Lartéguy and Fall never had a chance. Westmoreland told a Time magazine reporter in 1966 that he was “usually too tired in late evening to give the books more than occasional attention.”

By the time David Petraeus graduated in the top 5 percent of his class at West Point in 1974, Westmoreland had been relieved of duty, kicked upstairs for a final tour as Chief of Staff of the Army, and retired to civilian life during which he gave hundreds of speeches insisting that he had not backed a losing strategy, had not lost the war, and was not to blame for the demoralized and confused United States Army in which Petraeus began his career. Ambitious, able, and energetic young men (and since 1976, women) graduate from West Point every year, all launched into a ferocious competition for command and promotion leading toward four stars and you name it; even the presidency, as Eisenhower proved, is not beyond reach. But in this challenging company Petraeus, as portrayed in several new books, which join an impressive group of others already published in recent years, was recognized by his peers at an early moment as a man destined to make a mark in his chosen branch of the Army—the infantry.

That summer Petraeus took the physically grueling, sixty-one-day course at the Army’s Ranger School in Georgia and Florida, finishing first in his class. From Ranger School, Petraeus proceeded to Vicenza, Italy, where he was assigned to the 509th Airborne Battalion Combat Team as a second lieutenant. During the following four years Petraeus learned two things. The first was that he liked the physical challenge, danger, and camaraderie of elite combat units like the 509th that made parachute jumps all over Europe. The second was that the war that had broken the confidence of the Army in Vietnam might have been fought in a different way, and might have had a different outcome.

Petraeus liked to explain the evolution of his thinking on this point. Versions can be found in at least three books—The Fourth Star by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, published a few years ago; and the new books by Paula Broadwell, All In, and Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents. His education began when he asked about a portrait of a French military officer on the wall of a French army mess hall in the Pyrenees in 1976. The answer was General Marcel Bigeard, one of the French military officers who had been sent to a Vietminh prison camp after the fall of Dien Bien Phu.

What Bigeard learned in prison camp about fighting a revolutionary war he put to use as the commander of a brutal but successful campaign to break the back of an insurgency in Algiers in North Africa between 1954 and 1957. A lot of history attaches to the French defeat in Algeria, which Bigeard had at best delayed, but what seized Petraeus’s attention was the example of Bigeard himself, who had taught the French army in Algiers how to fight—conceivably to win—the sort of war it had lost in Indochina.

Petraeus’s French was not good enough to read Bigeard’s many books, but the man led to the war, and the war to Bernard Fall’s histories, bringing Petraeus eventually to Jean Lartéguy’s novel about Bigeard—unmistakable as Colonel Raspéguy in The Centurions. Unlike Westmoreland, Petraeus read this book not once but many times. It became a favorite of his, and of many officers close to him—so many that copies of The Centurions in English are now practically unobtainable. Petraeus often pulled the book down from a shelf close to hand to read from it for visitors. Kaplan zeroes in on a passage Petraeus particularly liked. One of the French officers is explaining how the Vietminh way of war differed from the French:

It’s difficult to explain exactly, but it’s rather like bridge as compared to belote [a similar card game popular in France]. When we make war, we play belote with thirty-two cards in the pack. But their game is bridge and they have fifty-two cards: twenty more than we do. Those twenty cards short will always prevent us from getting the better of them. They’ve got nothing to do with traditional warfare, they’re marked with the sign of politics, propaganda, faith, agrarian reform….

It was the full spectrum of the game—the nature of modern people’s war, as fought and lost by the Americans in Vietnam—that engaged Petraeus. Confronting that failure, of which the Army for years could barely bring itself to speak, has been the central work of Petraeus’s life. It is the great theme of the best of the new books, Kaplan’s The Insurgents, which relates the history of Army thinking about counterinsurgency. It is the reason Petraeus has attracted so much attention for so long, and it is what lends a somber note of broader loss to the recent end of Petraeus’s public career, which came so abruptly last fall, for reasons so entirely irrelevant to any issue of substance, that one is almost embarrassed to cite the details.

In addition to ambition and native ability, two factors can usually be found at work in the rise of a general in the United States Army—mentors and luck. Petraeus attracted the attention of an impressive string of high officers who pushed his career along. Important among them was Major General John Galvin, who arrived at Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 1981 to take command of the 24th Infantry Division where Petraeus, a new captain, had been jumped over his peers to serve as a battalion operations officer, a billet usually filled by a major.

The Fourth Star by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe offers a fine portrait of their unfolding relationship. Petraeus was an omnivorous reader, a tireless worker, and a fanatical runner. Galvin was not a runner but he was a reader and the two men quickly grew close. Petraeus thought Galvin should quit eating candy bars, run more, and get in shape. Galvin, who had a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University, told Petraeus he needed to think beyond six-minute miles and the competition of military units for best in this or that.

Petraeus pondered Galvin’s arguments during a year he spent at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was one of the few captains, a typical distinction in Petraeus’s personnel file. Finishing first in his class was another. From Kansas, Petraeus went to Princeton University for a master’s degree which he followed with a doctorate. While he was writing his dissertation he taught in the Department of Social Sciences—called “Sosh”—at West Point, and in 1987 Princeton accepted his thesis, a solidly researched and forcefully argued 317-page document entitled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.”

As Petraeus saw things, American military history in the forty years after World War II centered on two crippling misadventures—the wars in Korea and in Vietnam. The vow of officers who lived through the first was “never again,” for veterans of the second “No More Vietnams.” What made the stove hot were the political limitations imposed by civilian leaders in Washington, who wanted to take a strong stand, but feared a slide into general war with China or even the Soviet Union. In Korea this meant no determined pursuit of enemy forces across the Yalu River into China. To this rule two more were added in Vietnam—no call-up of the reserves and escalation by slow degree. Army officers detested these restrictions, which they said compelled them to fight “with one hand tied behind our backs.”

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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.

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Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama with his new national security team at the White House in April 2011, when he nominated, from left, Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, General Petraeus as CIA director, General John Allen as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, and Ryan Crocker as ambassador to Afghanistan

There are plenty of critics who say it wasn’t Petraeus but just the natural progress of events that turned the war around, bringing a radical drop-off in sectarian killings and insurgent activity. But the fact remains that the Army for eighteen months did practically everything differently under Petraeus, from moving into small outposts spread throughout Baghdad, to paying the enemy to switch sides and join the Iraqi army and national police. As the sectarian war cooled down it was accompanied by a steep drop in enemy attacks and in American casualties. No one would now be likely to say that the original Army strategy in Iraq had been a good one, or that Petraeus pursued a bad one.

Luck gave him a chance to try the same again when President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan in 2010. That tour lasted less than a year and the results were more ambiguous, but Petraeus’s two wars proved something significant all the same—big-unit maneuver and heavy firepower made as many enemies as they killed; and the Army could summon the finesse to compete with insurgents for the loyalty of the people. But that is not the end of the story. What generals can do and what presidents want are sometimes two different things.

In the end it was not General Petraeus but President Obama who decided how to bring the American war in Afghanistan to an end. The two men had appeared to be on the same page during Obama’s first months in the White House, when the president agreed to send an additional 21,000 US troops to Afghanistan. But later that summer Obama balked when Petraeus came back asking for more—at least another 40,000 troops to support a “fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.” Obama now found himself in the painful squeeze once felt by Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam—pushed by a general who promised success if he was given what he needed. Obama dug in his heels. To outsiders it might have seemed that the Army and the White House were fighting over nickels and dimes, but in fact something fundamental was at stake—the mission.

What Petraeus wanted was men enough and time enough to turn the war around in Afghanistan as he had done in Iraq. That meant winning over the allegiance of the Afghan people, the classic goal of counterinsurgency. But Obama did not like the numbers and, along with many who knew Afghanistan well, he did not share the goal. His hopes were more modest—not “success” but a smooth departure. He agreed to support a “surge” of 30,000 more troops for a limited time with a narrower mission focused on al-Qaeda itself. But at the end of eighteen months, the president insisted, a drawdown of troops would begin—how many and at what pace were left to wait on events.

There was no open break between Obama and Petraeus, then or later. When the American commander in Afghanistan resigned in June 2010, Obama named Petraeus to replace him. In April 2011 he announced his nomination of Petraeus as director of the CIA, a move that occurred just as the White House and the Army were negotiating the details of the drawdown that had been demanded by Obama. What the Army wanted and what the White House wanted differed by a few thousand troops and a few months of fighting time; the Army wanted more of each, the White House less. But behind the numbers was a deeper difference over goals. As the moment of truth approached Obama kept his own counsel while Petraeus worked the media to argue for a slow, stretched-out drawdown to give his strategy time to work.

This behind-the-scenes struggle over troop levels and mission definition is related in Paula Broadwell’s now notorious and often gushing but still useful biography of Petraeus, All In, written with the help of Vernon Loeb, a long-time specialist in security policy at The Washington Post. Broadwell is a West Point graduate who left the Army to write about counterinsurgency and later spent many months in frequent contact with Petraeus in Kabul while researching her book. At some point the general and his biographer began an affair; last fall it spilled into the open in a messy way that compelled Petraeus to resign as director of the CIA. What happened to Petraeus says much about Washington, the effect of frequent deployments on military marriages, and the insecurity of e-mail, but nothing about the harsh demands of successful counterinsurgency.

Broadwell’s account is the best so far of the tense negotiations over the drawdown, which can properly be seen as the beginning of the last act of the American war in Afghanistan. President Obama listened patiently on June 15, 2011, when Petraeus spelled out the Army’s preferred schedule for drawdown: three thousand to five thousand out by the end of the year, with the rest of the surge troops to follow at the close of the 2012 fighting season. In effect, Petraeus was asking to keep all the surge troops in the field through the end of the 2011 fighting season, which typically concludes with the onset of cold weather in November; and to keep as many as 30,000 surge troops through the end of the 2012 fighting season. Counterinsurgency needs time and troops and Petraeus was trying to hold on to both for as long as possible.

A week of concealed struggle followed. Broadwell’s account includes an e-mail exchange between Petraeus and one of his mentors, retired General Jack Keane, who told the general he thought the president wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. “Should you consider resigning?” Keane asked.

“I told POTUS I’d support his ultimate decision,” Petraeus replied. “Besides, the troops can’t quit….”

Keane was right. At their White House meeting on June 22, Obama said no. He wanted ten thousand troops out by the end of 2011, and another 23,000 out by July 2012. Petraeus “was reportedly respectful, but he was not budging,” writes Broadwell. Midsummer was the middle of the fighting season; that was too soon to pull them out. Obama said he was willing “to consider splitting the difference and leaving the [23,000 surge troops] till the end of summer.” Petraeus pressed for a slower drawdown. He

expressed concern that removing the troops before the end of the fighting season [in November] would increase risk considerably and could immobilize the campaign plan…. Obama asked whether the three extra months would make that much difference; Petraeus said he thought they would.

Everyone paying attention to the war understood what was at stake in this final meeting. The top military command was represented by Gates and Chairman of the JCS Michael Mullen. “They said,” according to Broadwell, they would support “an ‘end of summer’ timetable”—a date that preserved some fraction of wiggle room for the Army. Petraeus and his allies in the Army wanted to build on the success already achieved and stay longer.

Obama and Biden wanted to draw down not just the troops but the war itself, and to back away from grand goals. Obama’s decision, reached without sentiment after a cool weighing of American interests, marked the end of the surge in Afghanistan—the moment when the United States said enough. By year’s end it was over in Iraq as well, at an estimated cost of at least 100,000 civilian deaths and millions of internal and external refugees. It is too soon to say what the US has achieved for its effort, but nobody argues that Iraq and Afghanistan are on the road to democracy. Counterinsurgency takes patience above all, and patience with costly fighting is the one thing presidents run out of quickest.

Petraeus has been silent since his resignation. He has not yet written about the war he tried to fight or its final act, but the odds are good he is itching for his turn. The central work of his life has been learning how to fight the sort of war we lost in Vietnam. The Army swore that would be the last of its kind but it turned out to be the very kind presidents are drawn into—small wars against determined, popular movements where getting the politics right is 80 percent of the challenge. Great powers don’t much like small wars; a time comes when Americans, like the French in Indochina and Algeria and the Russians in Afghanistan, just want to get out. When Petraeus’s book arrives, as it surely will, the last chapter will be the interesting one—the one where he says what he is willing to say about Obama’s decision to wind it down. The open question is whether Petraeus ever truly believed it could end in any other way.

Letters

Did Petraeus Make a Difference? April 25, 2013

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    Simon and Schuster, 1983. 

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