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Military genius will be impossible to replace
Max Boot's op-ed column on David H. Petraeus

 Gen. David Petraeus sits with Iraqi children during a youth soccer tournament in Baghdad in 2008. He did not limit himself to military concerns in the quest for success at war.
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Date published: 11/20/2012

NEW YORK

--"The graveyards are full of indispensable men," it's often said, meaning that few are genuinely indispensable. David H. Petraeus was one of the few, which is why his loss for the U.S. government, after his admission of adultery, is so tragic.

This is not to imply that there are not other capable generals or intelligence leaders. But Petraeus was highly unusual, perhaps unique, for the grasp he displayed of modern warfare in all of its bewildering complexity. This was a task for which he had been preparing since his days as a West Point cadet in the 1970s, when he showed an early fascination with the Vietnam War, which was just then ending. He avidly read the classic works of Bernard Fall, Jean Larteguy, David Halberstam, and other experts on the subject. He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the war, a decidedly unfashionable focus in the 1980s, when the U.S. military was eager to get out of the counterinsurgency business altogether.

Petraeus knew, however, that warfare had changed: Conventional engagements against mirror-image adversaries would not be the post-Vietnam norm. He got the chance to show that he could put his academic understanding into practice when he entered Iraq as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the spring of 2003, his first combat experience.

He did fine on the "march up" to Baghdad, but he truly excelled when called upon to garrison northern Iraq. He did not limit himself to purely military concerns because he understood that generating electricity and electing mayors would be as important as firing bullets and missiles, if not more so. More-hidebound officers looked askance at a dynamic young division commander who seemed to be getting out of his "lane." But Petraeus' understanding of what it took to prevail would be amply vindicated when he was called upon to rescue a failing war effort as the top commander in Iraq in 2007.


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