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Military genius will be impossible to replace page 2
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


His success in reducing violence more than 90 percent was made possible by the extra 30,000 U.S. troops dispatched by President George W. Bush, but as Petraeus often pointed out, if those troops had been used as before, the surge would have failed. Petraeus adopted a new concept of operations, one that focused on pushing troops to live in small combat outposts in the middle of population centers where they could provide 24/7 security from insurgent intimidation. At the same time he orchestrated many other lines of operation, including encouraging the Sunni Awakening movement, increasing electricity production, and pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to crack down on corrupt officials.

Petraeus was particularly adept at information operations. He did not engage in crude propaganda. I served as an informal adviser to him in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I not only interviewed him but also watched as others interviewed him. He was frank, but he avoided indiscretion. Amazingly, despite the countless interviews he gave, he never got into hot water over unauthorized leaks, yet he still won the trust and admiration of journalists. This is no small skill to master for a general serving a democratic republic, and it is one that few, if any, of his peers can match.

The U.S. Army, like all armies, is suspicious of outsiders, especially intellectuals and journalists. Petraeus, once a graduate student at Princeton, had a comfort level with scholars and reporters that enabled him to draw them into his efforts, whether to help write a field manual on counterinsurgency or to help provide independent feedback on the success or failure of his campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics claimed that he created Potemkin village tours for outsiders, but this was far from the truth. In 2007-08, he sent me and others not only to counterinsurgency success stories such as Ramadi but also to still-dangerous areas such as Mosul where al-Qaida remained strong. Petraeus was confident that presenting a warts-and-all picture would ultimately aid his efforts by increasing public understanding, and he was right.

Petraeus also urged young officers to get outside their intellectual comfort zone by going to civilian graduate schools and reading widely. Quite a few of his proteges followed his advice--including, it must be said, Paula Broadwell--but few of them could hope to match his success, in no small part because the Army, sadly, still regards excessive intellectualism as a debilitating defect.

Perhaps Petraeus could have remade the military if he had been appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--a post he had earned--but President Barack Obama preferred to shunt him off to the CIA where he would play a less public role. Now he is gone from the CIA, too, and it is doubtful that the military will see his like for a long time to come.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to Opinion, and the author of "Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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