Gen. David H. Petraeus, the most recognized military officer of his generation, retires from the Army today after roughly four decades in uniform and a career like no other.
With that in mind, we invited four defense experts to reflect on his record. Some of them have known the general up close, others from afar. To each the question was the same: What is his legacy and how has he shaped the U.S. armed forces?
For some, Petraeus will be remembered as the model statesman-soldier — commander of two wars launched by the United States and chief intellectual author of a counterinsurgency doctrine that advances American interests. But for others, Petraeus will be remembered less for his remarkable accomplishments — which are almost universally admired — than for his association with a U.S. foreign policy that, in their view, is costly, misguided and not always effective.
In other words, the story of Gen. David Petraeus is in many ways the story of America’s wars.
The experts’ submissions — mini-essays of sorts — are below.
Celeste Ward Gventer on separating the myth from the man
Michael O’Hanlon on an overachieving superstar
Christopher A. Preble on the chief strategist for unnecessary wars
John Nagl on a soldier, teacher, mentor and commander
Celeste Ward Gventer, associate director at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas
Nearly 50 years ago, historian Daniel J. Boorstin argued in an eerily prophetic book that authentic experiences in American life were increasingly being supplanted by manufactured images and “pseudo-events.” Boorstin lamented this “age of contrivance,” in which heroes are replaced by celebrities and American ideals by images.
In this environment it is difficult to separate the man Gen. Petraeus, who doubtless possesses many virtues and has accomplished much, from the constructed totem of the same name. Over the last half-decade, reporters and commentators have seemed to know no bounds in gushing over the general’s intellectual brilliance, physical prowess and even his ability to perform miracles, allegedly waking a young soldier from a coma. As one adoring article put it, “General Petraeus: Bringing Myth Back to the Military.”
Myths provide comfort and solidarity in times of difficulty, but they also mask hard realities and choices that we might better face. The widely repeated cavalry tale that figuratively places Gen. Petraeus on horseback, riding with counterinsurgency manual in hand to snatch victory in Iraq from the jaws of defeat, has allowed the public and policymakers to sidestep the most important questions about the war in Iraq, as well as the one in Afghanistan.
What is the real strategic payoff to the United States from these conflicts? What do these wars tell us about U.S. interventions abroad? What are America’s fundamental national security interests, the best means to pursue them, and at what cost?
Our myths have swaddled these hard questions in comfortable homilies and snug maxims, assuring us that there is a formula for success: The right general plus the right manual equals “victory.” They also place extravagant expectations on human beings who possess virtues and vices, experience moments of success and failure, and who act both brilliantly and foolishly. Neither the public nor the object of its acclaim is well served.
Gen. Petraeus is clearly an exceptional person and a fine military officer who will continue to serve his country honorably. But perhaps even he would agree that we must separate the man from the lore, and face head-on the strategic challenges before us.
As Boorstin wrote in the preface to his book, “The Image: or What Happened to the American Dream,” dispelling the “thicket of unreality” we have created “will not give us the power to conquer the real enemies of the real world ... [b]ut it may help us discover that we cannot make the world in our image.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Bob Costas once said about the greatest basketball player ever to live that “Michael Jordan is not just a superstar, he’s an overachieving superstar.” That is the best way I can describe Gen. Petraeus, a good friend and former graduate school classmate.
What Costas meant, of course, was that in addition to being perhaps the most gifted player ever to step on the court, Jordan also wanted to succeed more than almost anyone else around. Perhaps there were a handful of other players who were equally tenacious, but not more than that, and the combination of talent with drive made Jordan one of a kind.
It is hard to capture a whole career in a short essay, and to add new insights about a public figure who has been so closely watched and avidly studied for half a decade. But perhaps the best thing I can add to the commentary about Petraeus is this: He is most striking to me for his sheer doggedness, his consistency and his positive energy.
Some might wonder how he could be so brilliant as to have figured out Iraq and made the “surge” work. Yes, he is brilliant. But he didn’t spend a lot of time wondering whether the Sunni Awakening, or the Sadr militia’s ceasefire, or the buildup in Iraqi forces, or the greater cooperation from Prime Minister Maliki and a new crop of subordinate leaders, or the increase in U.S. forces together with improved military tactics was the key to success, above all the others. Many of us back home debated such things.
P4, as he is often known, didn’t waste time on such matters. He just tried to make all of the above factors work as well as they could, all the time, with incessant energy and effort.
Petraeus also empowered subordinates. He has the attention to detail of a micromanager, but in fact he is not a micromanager. He encouraged junior officers and others in the field to be “pentathletes,” handling everything from military tactics to unit leadership to political relations with Iraqis and later Afghans with élan and initiative.
If we succeeded as a nation, particularly in Iraq, it is largely because he encouraged and helped those under his command to succeed.
Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute
Gen. David Petraeus has served honorably, and well, for roughly four decades, and he is generally recognized as one of the finest officers of his generation.
In contemplating his legacy and how it has shaped the force, two key episodes stand out: his initial doubts about the Iraq invasion and his eventual enthusiasm for more Iraq-style nation-building missions as reflected in the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine that bears his imprimatur.
It is easy to forget that Gen. Petraeus was first introduced to millions of Americans long before he took command in Iraq. As he prepared to lead the 101st Airborne Division across the border separating Kuwait from Iraq in March 2003, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus turned to Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson and asked quizzically, “Tell me how this ends.”
It was a good question because it leads to others, most of which the Bush administration failed to ask, let alone answer. What political end is our invasion supposed to achieve? Does that end advance U.S. security? Can we accomplish it at reasonable cost?
Our experience in Iraq shows that achieving even a modicum of stability exacts a cost to our security far greater than its benefit. Among the most important lessons drawn from the war in Iraq is that we should leave the problem of repairing weak and failing states to the people living in them. But Washington came mostly to a different conclusion, and for that David Petraeus deserves much of the credit or the blame, depending upon one’s perspective.
Rather than continuing to ask how a particular war was likely to end, and therefore testing the proposition that it was worth fighting in the first place, Petraeus perfected the art of fighting unnecessary wars. If Iraq was likely to end badly, the solution was better planning, more money and more time. And if Iraq ultimately could be made to work, then the model could be replicated elsewhere. Armed nation-building was an often thankless task, but Petraeus concluded that it was a vital one, and therefore one that the Army and Marine Corps must learn and perfect. This required more boots on the ground, and that the troops stay in country longer.
But the effort to perfect our ability to defeat insurgencies and order chaotic states has prevented us from noting how rarely these skills are needed.
I hope that Gen. Petraeus’s legacy leads to fewer foreign wars, and reflects the wisdom and caution that he revealed in a private moment before the start of the Iraq war. I worry that the opposite will be true, and that our brave men and women in uniform, following the doctrine that Petraeus drafted and promulgated, will fight more wars, in more places, but with precious little to show for it.
John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security
As the remarkable Army career of Gen. David Petraeus draws to a close, it is clear that he has affected the lives of countless individuals, reshaped the U.S. Army and changed the course of history.
Even before Petraeus captured national attention, he was known as a legendary professor at West Point, finishing his doctoral dissertation in two years while teaching full time and putting enormous efforts into mentoring young cadets. At the time, I was a cadet at West Point, and Petraeus was among my mentors. When I later returned to West Point to teach in a cohort of some 30 Army officers, half of them seemed to have interacted with Col. Petraeus.
Petraeus, of course, has gained recognition less for what he has done in the classroom than on the battlefield. In Iraq, sooner than most, he recognized that the hard part would come after Saddam fell, and when his suspicions of postwar chaos were confirmed, he was assigned the thankless task of rebuilding the Iraqi army, giving his command the moniker “Phoenix” to symbolize an army — and a country — rising from the ashes.
After getting the Iraqi army on its feet (if somewhat unsteadily), Lt. Gen. Petraeus was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in what was widely seen as exile for an officer whose profile was bigger than was good for him. He chose to see the assignment as a chance to reshape the way the Army thought about counterinsurgency, then still a bad word in the Pentagon. Later, as commander of Multi-National Command-Iraq during that war’s darkest hour, he implemented his doctrine.
I was asked at the time whether I thought it was too late for counterinsurgency to work in Iraq. I estimated the chances of success at one in six, but concluded, “If there’s a man on the planet who can make it work, it’s Petraeus.”
After turning the tide in Iraq, Petraeus was called to take command of another theater of war, replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. Not hesitating to take a demotion from his current position at CENTCOM, and without informing his wife that he was going back to war, Petraeus demonstrated the kind of respect for civilian authority that is the essence of the United States Army.
Although it is too soon to say Petraeus was able to turn the tide in Afghanistan, it seems fair to suggest that he deserves to be mentioned with Grant and Eisenhower as American generals who have commanded successfully in two theaters of war.