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The Long, Blinding Road to War

"It's possible, even probable that we'll hold in place for a while," he continued. "The original timeline called for us to be at this point in 47 days, so we're here far ahead of schedule in that sense."

"Do the Iraqis have the ability to counterattack?" I asked.

"They do. Their losses would be very high. But we're in danger of running out of artillery ammunition."

Resupply was difficult because of the weather and insecure convoy routes. One Marine unit supposedly was down to a day's supply of food. The 3rd Infantry Division had ample fuel, but had not been resupplied with food or water since leaving Kuwait and was "black" -- dangerously low -- on those necessities, as well as on ammunition. The division on the previous day had reported prolonged, ferocious combat, with nearly a thousand Iraqis believed killed in the Euphrates River valley around Najaf. As for the 101st, with its helicopters grounded by bad weather, the division was largely immobile because many of the trucks needed for transport had yet to arrive in Kuwait.

The weather, Petraeus said, was "about as nasty as anything I've ever seen." He gave a fleeting smile. "At least, it's not cold."

He hooked his thumbs into his flak vest and adjusted the weight on his shoulders. "Tell me how this ends," he said. "Eight years and eight divisions?" The allusion was to advice supposedly given the White House in the early 1950s by a senior Army strategist upon being asked what it would take to prop up French forces in South Vietnam. Petraeus's grin suggested the comment was more droll quip than historical assertion.

"You're really into something now," Petraeus added, as he pushed through the tent flap toward his Humvee.

"So are you," I said.

Always 'Going for It'

That brief episode in the Iraqi desert marked a key moment in the making of a combat general. Then 50 years old, Petraeus belonged to a small brotherhood of senior commanders who first joined the service at the nadir of the Vietnam War, then endured a battered and disheartened postwar military, and now had inherited leadership of the armed forces when the nation seemed to need its Army more than at any time since World War II. After a quarter-century of keeping faith and learning the art of command, their hour had come around -- in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and on whatever battlefields seemed sure to follow.

Although he had been a soldier since reporting to West Point at age 17 in July 1970, and had served in Haiti and Bosnia, Petraeus had never seen combat before. As an embedded reporter who spent virtually all day, every day at his elbow, I was able to witness the anxieties and perturbations, the satisfactions and enormous responsibilities of commanding 17,000 troops under fire. Even for someone who had spent a lifetime around the U.S. Army -- my father was a career officer -- this vantage point was uniquely intimate. I watched Petraeus and his subordinates wrestle with a thousand tactical conundrums, from landing helicopters in a dust bowl to capturing several large cities.

I also watched them wrestle with the strategic implications of the 21st-century military they now commanded, an expeditionary force that darts from one brush-fire war to another, safeguarding American interests around the globe. The task seemed both monumental and perpetual, and that pesky query Petraeus first posed in the swirling dust on March 26 became a private joke between us: "Tell me how this ends."

"The devil is in the details," Petraeus often observed, and his own biography was both unusual and preparatory for the role of a modern major general. His father, Sixtus Petraeus, a Dutch sea captain, had taken refuge in New York when World War II began, then married a Brooklyn woman whom he met at the Seamen's Church Institute. After commanding a Liberty ship through the war, the elder Petraeus eventually gave up sea duty to work for a New York power company. He settled in Cornwall, a few miles north of the U.S. Military Academy, where his son graduated near the top of the class of 1974. The young officer married Holly Knowlton, daughter of West Point's superintendent.

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