Talk About Field Trips!
Monday, September 3, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq -- The briefing was top secret, limited to a group of men with titles ranging from captain to four-star general -- plus one awed 19-year-old civilian.
At first, the teenager sat outside the briefing room with a handful of reporters. Then an aide to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, poked his head out of the door and said, "Wesley Morgan? General Petraeus wants you in here."
Morgan, a sophomore at Princeton, spent his summer vacation in Iraq on a personal invitation from Petraeus. He met with the visiting then-Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, and had access to multiple classified briefings. He helped patrol streets in Baghdad. His identification card read "journalist," because he keeps a blog about his experiences, but he was treated more like one of the members of Congress or other VIPs who have passed through Iraq.
The trip was the chance of a lifetime for Morgan, an ROTC cadet who said he first became interested in military history and counterinsurgency at age 6. But Petraeus's invitation also highlights his desire to attract more people like Morgan to military service -- the guys with degrees from places like Princeton (where Petraeus himself earned a doctorate), the slightly nerdy ones who are as comfortable poring over treatises on counterinsurgency tactics as going out on patrol.
"He has studied Iraq deeply and is exceedingly well read," Petraeus said of his protege. "I love to see these types of people here."
Petraeus's willingness to be a mentor stems from a desire to position himself as the man who rebuilt the Army, people who have worked with him in Iraq and elsewhere say. He has been open about his desire to shape the officer corps into a group of highly educated thinkers and has surrounded himself with Rhodes Scholars and PhDs, a group that has come to be known as his brain trust.
"I think he's universally well known for finding smart people who are interested in doing things a little differently, and I think that's a major reason for his success," says Capt. Elizabeth McNally, a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who is Petraeus's speechwriter.
Still, Petraeus says this is the first time he has taken someone so young under his wing, with the exception of his own son, a junior ROTC cadet at MIT.
The seed for Morgan's improbable summer vacation in Iraq was planted last October, when he wrote a lengthy profile of Petraeus for Princeton's student newspaper. They spoke on the phone for two hours, with Petraeus asking nearly as many questions as he was answering, both men recalled.
The two began e-mailing regularly, and in March, the general asked: Wouldn't Wes like to spend a summer in Baghdad?
"It's amazing," Morgan said after the briefing at Camp Taji last month. "It's the weirdest summer vacation ever, but to finally get to see what's happening for myself is unbelievable."
Morgan's blog maintains an adulatory tone in discussing Petraeus, concluding that nobody understands the situation in Iraq as well as the general does. Each post is a several-thousand-word wrap-up of three or four days spent in the field in which Morgan demonstrates a deep knowledge of Army operations, slipping easily into Army jargon and painstakingly detailing conversations and sights with a sense of awe.