Inside this target house, McChrystal spotted a boy about 4 years old, watching silently as the Rangers ordered the suspected insurgents to lie down. The boy, scared and confused, mimicked his father by pressing his cheek on the pavement and clasping his hands behind his head.
“As I watched, I felt sick,” McChrystal writes in his new memoir, “My Share of the Task.” “I could feel in my own limbs and chest the shame and fury that must have been coursing through the father. . . . I thought, not for the first time: It would be easy for us to lose.”
Thousands of miles away at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Gen. David H. Petraeus was putting the finishing touches on the Army’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, which preached that brute force alone could never defeat an insurgency. To prevail, soldiers had to resolve the grievances that were driving rank-and-file insurgents to fight. In other words, they had to win over the father that McChrystal’s Rangers had humiliated in Ramadi.
In the latter years of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency revolution swept through the Army. Dog-eared copies of his counterinsurgency manual could be found in the most remote outposts. The rise of his doctrine is the subject of Fred Kaplan’s engaging new book, “The Insurgents.” The title playfully refers to the Petraeus-led band of dissidents who viewed their new doctrine as an urgent assault on the Army’s culture and the American way of war. When McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in 2009, he embraced counterinsurgency with the “zeal of a convert,” Kaplan notes.
Both generals have since been relegated to the sidelines. A sex scandal forced Petraeus to step down as CIA director last fall. McChrystal was dismissed in 2010 after his aides made derogatory remarks about senior Obama administration officials to a Rolling Stone reporter. The counterinsurgency revolution that Petraeus and McChrystal championed also has largely run its course, killed off by budget cuts and America’s exhaustion with the two wars.
Yet the men remain the most influential generals of their generation, mythologized in the media as the soldier-scholar able to outrun troops half his age (Petraeus) and the ascetic warrior (McChrystal). Both set out to remake their Army and change the American way of war. And both succeeded, though not always in the way they intended.
McChrystal’s story opens with his almost preordained arrival at West Point as the son of a Vietnam-era general and traces his rise through an Army rebuilding itself to fight the Soviets on the plains of Europe. His first two decades in uniform added up to a series of near-misses. He missed the invasion of Panama, was relegated to a staff job for the Persian Gulf War and was about to jump into Haiti with his battalion when a last-minute peace deal canceled the raid.