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
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…

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