Book review: 'The Fourth Star' by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe

By John Whiteclay Chambers II
Sunday, December 20, 2009


Four Generals and The Epic Struggle For the Future of The United States Army

By David Cloud and Greg Jaffe

Crown. 330 pp. $28

What makes an effective wartime general? Hardly an academic question when the United States is ramping up its military efforts in Afghanistan. In "The Fourth Star," David Cloud, former Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, and Greg Jaffe, who covers the Pentagon for The Washington Post, probe this question through the eyes and careers of four distinguished officers who joined the army as second lieutenants after Vietnam and rose to the highest rank -- four-star general -- during the Iraq insurgency.

This insider's view of officership and the operation of the U.S. Army is based primarily upon interviews with the four generals -- John Abizaid, George Casey, Jr., Peter Chiarelli and David Petraeus -- and their families, subordinates and others. Cloud and Jaffe are gifted writers, who use their access to these senior commanders to good effect. They provide a lively, personalized account of the successes and setbacks of the four highly able and ambitious servicemen as they climb the military career ladder.

The four officers had diverse backgrounds and advanced along different career paths in the Cold War army. Petreaus and Abizaid graduated from West Point. Casey and Chiarelli were ROTC graduates. All except Chiarelli, an armor officer, were infantry and airborne. Both Chiarelli and Petreaus served as instructors in West Point's social sciences department, a font of innovative military thought. All four held a succession of unit commands with conventional forces and had some staff assignments in the United States and Europe. All had advanced degrees, but only Petreaus earned a doctorate. Abizaid was the only one who had led troops in combat before the Iraq War.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chiarelli commanded the 1st Cavalry Division and Petraeus the 101st Airborne Division. Abizaid was Gen. Tommy Frank's deputy at Central Command, and Casey was director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. Although victorious in the conventional warfare that overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime, the army was unprepared for large-scale insurgency. The authors show how the army eventually transformed itself by adopting an effective counterinsurgency strategy in the midst of a bloody civil war. It is a story of great personal achievement but also of failure.

Casey was put in charge during the initial phases of the insurgency. His relentless work ethic and efficient management had helped him vault ahead of other Pentagon generals. As he took command, he received mixed signals. While President George W. Bush's speeches emphasized bringing democracy to the Muslim world, the authors report that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, uninterested in remaking Iraq, directed Casey to get the troops home quickly and avoid the temptation to do too much, which, Rumsfeld said, would only delay the Iraqis' taking charge. Casey went to Iraq without talking to Bush, who, in an overreaction against President Lyndon Johnson's micromanagement in Vietnam, left his new commander without any direct instructions from the commander-in-chief.

As commander, Casey sought to avoid another Vietnam quagmire, but, although the authors sympathize with his plight, he received much of the blame for the casualties incurred during the Iraq chaos. Abizaid, his superior at Central Command, had long emphasized the limits of military force in the Middle East, and, in light of Rumsfeld's goals, both men maintained the policy of curtailing the role of American forces, withdrawing them into fortress-like bases and turning responsibility over to the Iraqi authorities, primarily Shiites, despite the escalation of violence.

In the authors' account, Casey's and Abizaid's successors, Chiarelli and Petraeus, emerge as prescient leaders, advocating effective counterinsurgency policies. Those policies ultimately included sending American troops back among the Iraqi people on a sustained basis, protecting the population, working on projects to improve services, intensifying training of the Iraqi army and police, and undertaking efforts at reconciliation with former Sunni insurgents.

After the Democrats gained control of both the Senate and House in the 2006 elections for the first time in a dozen years, Rumsfeld resigned and Bush decided over Casey's and Abizaid's objections to send a "surge" of 20,000 more troops to Iraq and seek a new policy. Casey was promoted to army chief of staff, Chiarelli became vice chief, Abizaid retired, and Bush named Petraeus the new commander. With a free rein, Petraeus dramatically altered course, implementing a new counterinsurgency policy of re-engagement with the population as well as reconciliation with many former insurgent groups. Although some junior and mid-level officers had initiated similar changes earlier, Petraeus had the persistence, personality and authority to implement the new policy countrywide. Demanding concrete evidence of improved services to Iraqi communities and engaging in sharp confrontations with Iraqi authorities, he got results.

Effective counterinsurgency helped to reduce the violence and U.S. casualties. It also allowed the army to claim that it had achieved its mission of helping secure a functioning, elected Iraqi government. American troops appeared to be on schedule to end their combat role in 2010. Just how the new counterinsurgency doctrine will affect the future of the U.S. Army and U.S. national security is under debate. This month, President Barack Obama announced a surge of nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops to implement a counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former special operations commander.

Cloud and Jaffe have produced a worthwhile and fascinating account packed with many insights about officership, promotion and command in the army and civil-military relations. However, the authors note only in passing the larger political framework behind the military questions. The Bush administration made the decision to go to war in Iraq with a limited number of troops despite significant dissent within the army. The subsequent insurgency and civil war killed or wounded more than 30,000 American servicemen and women as the administration and Gens. Casey and Abizaid continued a failed policy. But changing political conditions can also affect generalship. By 2007 with the Democrats taking control of both houses of Congress, Bush was so weakened politically that Petraeus, the savvy new commander in Iraq, could significantly change policy in ways that his predecessors could not for lack of insight, will or political ability.

John Whiteclay Chambers II teaches history at Rutgers University and is editor-in-chief of "The Oxford Companion to American Military History."

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