Journalist and Pulitizer prize winning historian Rick Atkinson
made a prescient decision when he chose to write a book about Maj. General David H. Petraeus, the commander of the Army's 101st Airborne division in Iraq. In The Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat
is garnering praise, and should be widely read now that Petraeus will soon become the most prominent American official on the ground in Iraq.
The similarities between Petraeus and Wesley Clark are uncanny. Both are widely considered as brilliant and driven intellectuals devoted to the military. Each represents the best of a generation of army officers who rebuilt the military after its post-Vietnam nadir. Petraeus, who entered West Point in 1970, entered active service too late to serve in Vietnam. Despite serving in Bosnia and Haiti, he had never experienced combat before Iraq. (Lest anyone think that not seeing combat precludes one from being a top-notch general, remember that George C. Marshall never participated in combat.) Petraeus is legendary for his physical toughness, discipline, and capacity for work. Between a series of high profile staff appointments he earned a PhD in international relations from Princeton. And like Clark when he was at NATO, Petraeus approached his mission in Iraq as more an extension of politics than is customary with the Army's top brass.
After leading the 101st in the capture of Baghdad, Petraeus moved his unit into Mosul, where he exercised authority over northern Iraq.
His tenure was notable for extensive and often innovative efforts to revive civic life
in northern Iraq. Soldiers from the 101st organized local elections; trained 20,000 police and security officers; helped the Iraqis negotiate oil-for-electricity deals with Syria and Turkey; encouraged international trade; and spent $57 million in underwriting more than 5,000 projects, from refurbishing 500 schools, dozens of medical clinics and Mosul University to planting trees, fixing roads and rebuilding other infrastructure.
They also trapped and killed Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, last summer in a smoking volley of TOW missiles. Posters in the 101st barracks asked, "What have you done to win Iraqi hearts and minds today?"
Petraeus was widely praised for his vision and the performance of his troops. As Newsweek observed four months ago,
No U.S. commander in Iraq has done a smarter job than Maj. Gen. David Petraeus. Practically every military observer agrees: in the seven months since his troops took charge in the northern city of Mosul, the 101st Airborne Division commander has put in a flawless performance. That's what's most troublesome...
As the general remarked to NEWSWEEK last week, "It's difficult to be kind when you're getting shot at"...
"We're all contending with the `man on the moon' problem," says Petraeus. "The locals say, `You're capable of putting a man on the moon, and you haven't given me a job'."
The general is philosophical about their resentments. "Try as we will to be an army of liberation, over time they will take you for granted. And as hard as you may try to repair any damage that's ever done, or avoid inconveniencing people, it's inevitable when you're conducting military operations that there will be some of this." No one understands better than a career soldier the limits of what armed force can achieve. It's one of the fundamental axioms of guerrilla warfare: an insurgency can be contained by military means, but it can be defeated only by political means.
As Newsweek observed in another feature on Petraeus, he is the kind of military officer the United States will need
to fight the dirty wars of the future. But the military establishment, especially the Army brass and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have been reluctant to take on the messy jobs of nation-building and peacekeeping that go with stamping out guerrilla movements. In truth, defeating insurgencies is very hard. The preferred method down through the ages has been extermination--genocide and the elimination of whole villages and tribes. Such brutal tactics are not an option for a democratic superpower being closely watched by TV cameras. American armed forces must be ruthless at times but also sensitive to local feelings and the wounded pride of the conquered.
One might wonder, in light of the Pentagon's general distrust of nation building, why Rumsfeld and crew would entrust Petraeus with such responsibilities.
The selection of Petraeus
, which has not yet been announced, is "all part of the thinking about the transition" to Iraqi sovereignty in 90 days, said a spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld who confirmed the choice but declined to be identified.
Essentially, Petraeus is being given charge of a major component of the U.S. exit strategy for Iraq -- developing Iraqi forces strong enough to maintain security and thereby permit the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
It's probably an accident that the DoD would support such an obvious candidate who might actually be capable of and inclined to doing a good job. But ultimately, no matter how suited Petraeus may be for this job, it's the job itself that's the problem. What makes Petraeus so impressive is that he seems to realize that this may be in charge of a no-win endeavor.
"Tell me how this ends?'"
Through the sandstorms and skirmishes, the street-to-street fighting in Najaf and then the collapse of Baghdad, [Petraeus] kept posing that question to himself and to Rick Atkinson...It was the right question -- the essential question for any soldier who's in harm's way -- and it was the question that Petraeus, along with many of the other thoughtful, professional, superbly trained and highly motivated field commanders in the United States military, knew had not been answered as they went to war last year.
In the field, you couldn't afford to indulge Washington's delusions about Iraqi gratitude, much less its ideological opposition to nation-building. ''I don't see how you avoid it,'' Petraeus says...
With the perspective of several months, I suspect that privately Petraeus would now frame his thoughts as "I don't understand how the civilian leadership in Washington thought they could be successful in Iraq without embarking on nation building." As we all know, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest gave less thought to what would happen after the war than did some of those officers, like Petraeus, who were most responsible for the war's early success. Good luck to Petraeus, who is more likely than anyone else to pull off a miracle and oversee a successful transfer of military and law enforcement power and authority to the Iraqi people. But one shouldn't expect much when even this supremely capable man, who has help lead the U.S. military to victory, through the occupation, and into the first sporadic efforts to nurture Iraqi self-rule, is compelled to ask, "tell me how this ends."