If General Petraeus is the most fascinating person of the year, what was Norman Schwarzkopf?
-- Barbara Walters, announcing her
Most Fascinating Person of the Year
Most Fascinating Person of the Year
Huh? That's what made General Petraeus "the most fascinating person of the year"? Seriously? "No one is free of human frailty or immune to reversals of fortune"? Oh, for goodness' sakes!
As it happens, I was already thinking about Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the commanding genius of Desert Storm. A man who came pretty much out of nowhere as far as most of us were concerned, did what he had to do (as the Guardian's Michael Carlson put it, "[His] design proved as effective as he had convinced his superiors in Washington it would be"), and yes, did get the celebrity-makeover treatment in the aftermath.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf (1934-2012)
Does anyone else have this feeling that there is some kind of sea change in the "aura," or the image projected, or something, as between "Stormin' Norman" (a nickname I gather he hated, as well who in his right mind wouldn't?) and this whole race of generals that has followed, whose careers seem, if not entirely "about," then at least heavily concerned with, creating cults of personality built aroud -- ta-da! -- their very own personal generalissimo selves?
I trust I don't have to call the roll. One by one they've been caught with their uniform pants down as it were, playing the public-relations card in a campaign of self-glorification that reminds me of nothing so much as the imperial hi-jinks of I, Claudius.
AWHILE BACK I MEANT TO RETURN TO THE
QUESTION OF HOW GOOD PETRAEUS WAS
Specifically, I intended to return to Dexter Filkins's December 17 New Yorker piece "General Principles: How good was David Petraeus?"
Filkins is looking at Petraeus's performance in Iraq in the first place through the eyes of Thomas Ricks's view (as expressed in his new book The Generals) of the disastrous failures of his predecessors running the show for us there.
Which brings us straight back to the cult-of-personality and military-politics bullshit. And I don't think we can have any illusion about the politics involved throughtout the ranks of the military. After all, has there ever been any sort of human hierarchical system that functioned without politics?
Ricks argues, convincingly, that what changed in the military was the practice of firing commanders who failed to deliver results. His starting point is General George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during the Second World War, who culled underperforming generals and promoted the better ones, constructing a ruthlessly efficient fighting force. The practice withered during the Vietnam War, replaced with micromanagement by civilian leaders. (Recall photographs of Lyndon Johnson choosing bombing targets.) With even the most mediocre generals moving upward, the Army ossified at the top. Sanchez was not the exception; he was the rule. “Like the worst generals of the Vietnam era, he tended to descend into the weeds, where he was comfortable, ignoring the larger situation—which, after all, was his job,’’ Ricks writes. Yet Sanchez paid no price for his failures, Ricks notes: “The vocabulary of accountability had been lost.”
In Iraq, the generals, and increasingly their troops, trapped themselves inside their bases, cut off from the country they were trying to occupy. When their strategy didn’t work, they tended to redouble their efforts—capture more insurgents, turn over more neighborhoods to the Iraqi Army—and justify their actions in the impenetrable jargon that modern officers use with one another. Iraqi insurgents became “A.I.F.” (anti-Iraqi forces), Al Qaeda in Iraq was “A.Q.I.,” and a car bomb was an “S.V.B.I.E.D.” (suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device). Petraeus revelled in the jargon—among junior officers, his PowerPoint presentations were spoken of in reverent tones—but, at least in his case, the fancy terms were suggestive of his knowledge, and not the end of it. My own snap test for measuring an American general’s perceptiveness was how he pronounced Iraqi names. In 2006, I heard General J. D. Thurman, the commander presiding over Baghdad, pronounce the name of the Iraqi Prime Minister three different ways in a single interview, all of them incorrect. General Thurman apparently wasn’t talking to Iraqis—or, if he was, he wasn’t listening.
Petraeus was smarter and quicker than most of his colleagues. He wasn’t a rebel, at least on the surface. He loved the Army and relished its history, and the trappings and the medals, and, in talking to reporters, he was careful never to go too far. He didn’t have much combat experience, but that seemed to make it easier for him to see beyond the daily slog of killing insurgents. He had a Ph.D. from Princeton—dissertation title, “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam.” (This did not necessarily help his career, Kaplan writes: “He was aware of his reputation in certain circles as a schemer, a self-promoter, and, worst of all, an intellectual.”) He was preternaturally, pathologically competitive. Once, inside a building in Baghdad, Petraeus, then in his early fifties, challenged me to race him up the stairs. (He won.) Another time, he dared me to join him on a morning run in the Green Zone, accompanied by an armed guard. When the run was over, Petraeus initiated a pull-up contest, and did seventeen, an astounding number. “You can write that off on your income tax as education,’’ he said.
His emphasis on physical fitness sometimes seemed like a postmodern version of Hood’s courage: if our generals were not going to face physical danger, they could at least do more pushups than the men who would. Reporters loved it, and so did Petraeus’s fellow-soldiers. Being physically strong still matters in the U.S. Army. . . .
Clearly some that personal-fitness stuff has military applications. But we hear endless tales of the supreme fitness of our fighters in Afghanistan, the suggestion being that they are super-fitness cultists, and that seems to have very little to do with achieving success at whatever the heck our military objectives have been in Afghanistan -- one obvious problem being that we don't ever seem to have figured out just what our military objectives are in Afghanistan.
I'm not even sure I'm being fair to this modern run of generals and their obsessive personality cultism. More than anything it seems to express the kind of Type A personality we would probably all agree is quite a useful thing in a high-stakes, high-tension occupation like military command in a theater of war. And so it seems silly to set up criteria for manners and decorum in generals, just as it would be as applied to say, NFL linebackers.
That said, it also seems clear that all of General Petraeus's prattling on about the paramount of discipline was kind of nonsense. Or maybe he himself once had it and then somewhere along the way decided to chuck it in favor of gratifying his immense manliness.
BUT TO RETURN ONCE AGAIN TO THE
QUESTION OF HOW GOOD PETRAEUS WAS . . .
I'm offering only some of Dexter Filkins's evaluation, and even the part I'm offering is long, because the question turns out to be quite complex, having so much to do with surrounding circumstances -- the people who preceded him in command, the people he commanded, the circumstances on the ground in the theater of war he commanded, and so on. You'll note at the end Filkins's clear suggestions that very little of what made Petraeus successful in Iraq (successful, that is, within very carefully defined terms), proved to have virtually no application to Afghanistan, again in consideration of that same range of factors that made the strategy workable in Iraq.
In the weeks since Petraeus’s resignation, some of his detractors have argued that his accomplishment in Iraq was merely to put an acceptable face on defeat. This is absurd. Petraeus was asked to shepherd a disastrous war; his achievements are real and substantial, and shouldn’t be obscured by something as irrelevant as an extramarital affair. By 2006, Iraqi society was disintegrating, and there were growing signs that the country’s neighbors—Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria—were preparing to intervene more forcefully. It seemed possible that Iraq would implode and take the whole region down with it. If Petraeus and his band had not got their chance—and, reading Kaplan’s book, it seems a miracle that they did—things could have gone terribly worse.
So how much of Petraeus’s success was due to Petraeus? He was smart, and he was diligent, but was that enough? “I have plenty of clever generals,’’ Napoleon purportedly said. “Just give me a lucky one.” Indeed, the crucial lesson of the surge is that it succeeded only because other things in Iraq were changing at exactly the right time. The most important of these was the Awakening, the name given to the cascading series of truces made by Sunni tribal leaders with their American occupiers. Many Sunnis were appalled by the sectarian attacks—and were also fearful of genocide at the hands of the Shiite death squads. They asked the Americans for help, and U.S. officers, sensing a chance to turn the tide against Al Qaeda, seized the opportunity.
By the time Petraeus arrived, the Awakening had already begun. Still, he made the decisive choice not just to make peace with the former insurgents but to pay them not to fight us. The program, called the Sons of Iraq, put a hundred thousand gunmen, most of them Sunni former insurgents, on the payroll, for three hundred dollars a month each. The idea strongly echoes the Army’s counter-insurgency field manual, drafted under Petraeus’s supervision: “Offering amnesty or a seemingly generous compromise can also cause divisions within an insurgency.” In this case, at least, it was a genteel way of describing old-fashioned baksheesh. By the end of 2007, the Americans were holding bicycle races with their former enemies.
Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not. With the Sunni insurgency neutralized, the Americans were free to turn their firepower on the Shiite militias. After a series of assaults by the American and—surprise—Iraqi militaries, the Mahdi Army was on the run. Petraeus said to me in 2008, “As the Al Qaeda threat is gradually degraded, the reason for the militia is no longer there.” He was preparing to depart Iraq, and his experience there had aged him visibly. When I told him how dramatically Baghdad had improved, he seemed relieved but also surprised, as if he’d had no time to notice.
One more factor helped the surge: the Sunni and Shiite gunmen had made their neighborhoods confessionally pure; Baghdad was no longer the mixed city it had been for centuries. The civil war was a bloodbath, but it had the unintended effect of making it easier for the respective groups to protect themselves.
What does all this mean? For one thing, it made Petraeus’s success in Iraq very Iraqi; that is, hard to export. In 2009, on assuming office, President Obama pursued a fairly strict strategy of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan; Stanley McChrystal, who served as the presiding general until he was fired after he and his aides spoke too frankly to a reporter from Rolling Stone, shared many of Petraeus’s precepts. The idea was that if the Americans and their protégés in the Afghan Army could establish themselves in the villages, the Taliban would wither away. Obama sent in more than fifty thousand additional troops, and, for thirteen months, Petraeus himself led the effort.
[Paula] Broadwell’s book [All In: The Education of General David Petraeus] focusses almost exclusively on Petraeus’s time in Afghanistan; she dutifully records his movements, utterances, and hopes, and, to a lesser extent, those of the American forces. She spent almost no time thinking about, or talking to, the Afghans, whose allegiance we are presumably fighting for. “Petraeus believed that abandoning Afghanistan again would have disastrous consequences for America and for the region,’’ Broadwell writes. “It was vital that Afghanistan not once again be a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda. He would never give up.” But so what? The crucial question is whether his ideas—the ones enshrined in the counter-insurgency field manual—will carry the day in Afghanistan.
Increasingly, it seems that they will not. . . .
JUST ONE LAST NOTE . . .
Did anyone ever feel the impulse to glorify, or even evaluate, Norman Schwarzkopf's personal philosophies and fitness and discipline and other gurulike attributes?