Goodbye, Petraeus

AP Photo/Christopher Berkey

Fred Kaplan’s book is newsworthy, but not in the way you might assume. Kaplan’s years of research and writing for The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War had evidently come to their end shortly before November 9 of last year. On that date, Kaplan’s title character, the retired four-star general and national hero who had been renowned for his advocacy and management of the 2007 troop surge in Iraq and dreamed of by many Republicans as an eventual presidential candidate, resigned as CIA director after the revelation of his affair with a much younger former Army officer, Paula Broadwell. 

Kaplan alludes to the sudden, shocking collapse of the omni-competent, hyper-disciplined “mystique that had shrouded David Petraeus for nearly a decade” only in a page-long postscript to the book. In it he half-convincingly argues that although the affair took the military and political worlds by surprise, it should be seen as just one more of the very close mentor-apprentice relationships that had been indispensable to Petraeus’s own rise and to the spread of his influence within the military. With this little difference: “Unlike other protégés, Broadwell didn’t merely admire Petraeus, she adored him.”

Sooner or later we’ll surely get an account of how and when Petraeus decided to ignore his own oft-promulgated “Front Page of The Washington Post Rule.” (If you don’t want to see something on the front page of the paper, then don’t do it or say it, he would tell his associates—other than Broadwell, it seems.) What Kaplan has given us in this book is rarer than the latest reminder of the folly of powerful middle-aged men. He uses David Petraeus’s pre-Broadwell career as the narrative thread for what is really an authoritative and accessible overview of the ideas, insights and blind spots, successes and failures on the battlefield, intrigues and alliances within the military and civilian bureaucracies, and all the other factors that have shaped what President Barack Obama recently called our “decade of war” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. As that decade ends, the defense budget will inevitably shrink, controversial practices like drone warfare and warrantless detention will apparently continue, and debates over the proper size and mission of the American military should begin. The Insurgents is a tremendously clear and informative guide to the strengths and weaknesses of the military we have today and to the decisions we are about to make.

The shorthand version of Kaplan’s richly detailed narrative is a tale of the military’s long struggle to repair its culture and reconceive its doctrine and tactics in the aftermath of its agonies in Vietnam. David Petraeus was part of the first post-Vietnam generation of officers. He grew up near West Point (though not in a military family—his father was an immigrant sea captain from Holland, and his mother was a librarian) and graduated from there in 1974, just as the American disengagement from Vietnam was nearly complete. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the military reflected upon what had gone wrong in Vietnam—putting less emphasis on stab-in-the-back betrayal by politicians than many civilians would guess and more on its own shortcomings in doctrine and leadership. 

Kaplan does a particularly good job of describing the unusual intellectual culture of the military in which ambitious young officers like Petraeus are steeped. This culture is more conscious of history than is America as a whole, since the finite corpus of past battles is its main object of study. It is also deliberately futuristic, as part of an attempt to anticipate potential causes of conflict and the resulting battlefield scenarios. And it is punctuated at irregular intervals by actual combat, which all officers prepare for and which can make their careers, but which no one can precisely foresee. Kaplan writes that in the years just after Vietnam, young officers like Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal (who was two years behind Petraeus at West Point, followed him as a four-star commander in Afghanistan, and also resigned amid controversy—in McChrystal’s case because of anti-Obama comments by his staff in Rolling Stone) also willingly endured harsh training exercises and became physical-fitness fanatics as proxies for the combat they were not exposed to. Petraeus has been gravely injured not in combat but in two training exercises: once during a jump when his parachute failed to deploy correctly, leaving him with a shattered pelvis; and again when a soldier tripped and accidentally shot him through the chest with an M-16.

Petraeus received a Ph.D. (with a dissertation on the military lessons of Vietnam) from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School in the late 1980s, then missed his generation’s next combat opportunity while in a staff job at the Pentagon during the 1991 Gulf War. He first saw combat at age 50, in 2003, when as a two-star general he commanded the 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Iraq. There, as has been recounted in numerous books (by authors including Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Tom Ricks, Nathaniel Fick, Kaplan, and me), what appeared a quick tactical victory turned into a protracted strategic quagmire often threatening defeat. American troops had prepared to unseat Saddam Hussein but not to run the country in his absence. Within six months of George W. Bush’s famously premature declaration of “mission accomplished,” Iraq was in the midst of a violent anti-American insurgency.

The reaction to that failure was the “COINdinista” movement that became identified with Petraeus and that Kaplan chronicles here. “COIN” stands for counterinsurgency; the underlying idea, resurrected from lessons the U.S. military was learning by the end of its time in Vietnam, was that firepower and violence could be self-defeating in the long effort to win popular support and undermine insurgent or guerrilla movements. The plot that Kaplan describes is the effort by Petraeus—backed by the network of supporters, allies, patrons, and protégés that, like Bill Clinton or Richard Holbrooke in their respective settings, he had carefully cultivated through his career—to persuade the military to embrace what COINdinistas describe as the Zen-like contradictions of their strategic view. These were maxims familiar from T.E. Lawrence’s experience in Arabia or from Mao’s or General Giap’s maxims of guerrilla war or, for that matter, from the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu: that the greatest victory came not from conquering the adversary but from destroying his will to fight, that the more force you use the less effective you are, and so on. Well established these principles might be through the history of irregular warfare, but they were news to the Pentagon and the Bush administration of the early Iraq years. 

Over the next five years, the situation changed so dramatically that, by the time Obama took office, most of the advice he received about options for Afghanistan reflected COINdinista doctrine. Kaplan carefully describes the combination of persuasion, guile, and pressure through which Petraeus and his allies engineered that change; what the positive results were; and why the COIN movement ultimately revealed its limits.


The cast of characters Kaplan introduces is too numerous to describe here but constitutes most of the crucial figures in the debates over military strategy for the Iraq era and afterward. For people who have followed military discussions, I’ll say that the prominent figures include H.R. McMaster, John Nagl, David Kilcullen, and David Galula, among others. For people to whom these debates are new, I’ll say that Kaplan clearly describes the protagonists, the evidence, and their views. I know most of these people and observed some of the events Kaplan describes, and in all cases his accounts ring true to me. One of his big set pieces is a COIN conference in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Petraeus had been sent to direct the Army’s main doctrinal center between his initial stint in Iraq and his return to direct the surge. At the conference (I attended as a press observer, along with George Packer of The New Yorker and a few others), Petraeus’s allies in the military, academia, and the think-tank world testified about the new approach they thought would work in Iraq. One example, of dozens in the book: a young Army officer’s realization in Iraq that “they’d been trained to shoot at an enemy fighting in plain sight; now they were spending most of their time trying to find an enemy that was hiding in plain sight.” 

(This is the time to say that I also know Kaplan and have followed his military reporting for decades, first for The Boston Globe and more recently for Slate. Because I know him, I told this magazine’s editors that I’d decline an offer to write about the book if I turned out not to like it. Obviously I do like it and would say so no matter who had written it.) 

Kaplan uses these characters to introduce and clarify each of the faddish Big Ideas that have dominated military discussion over the past generation and still affect future plans. For instance: Donald Rumsfeld’s “Transformation” concept, which was a continual effort to pare back the cost, head count, and domestic and international repercussions of military commitments. This was essentially the opposite of the “Powell Doctrine,” as propounded by Colin Powell as an Army general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which held that if the United States decided to go to war, it should send in forces so overwhelming that opposition would be deterred before it arose. Rumsfeld’s minimalist approach sounds efficient and appealing in theory but led to his catastrophic decision to lowball the U.S. troop presence for Phase IV of the Iraq invasion—stabilizing the country once Saddam Hussein was removed. An understaffed occupation force let looting and disorder engulf the country, and the U.S. spent needless years and thousands of American and Iraqi lives recovering. 

Kaplan describes how the COIN approach eventually “succeeded” in Iraq, by which he means that it bought enough stability to allow American forces to withdraw in something other than outright retreat. In Afghanistan it has failed even that modest test; indeed, Kaplan argues, the comparative successes in Iraq lured the U.S. military, especially McChrystal, into attempting the impossible in Afghanistan. The government in Kabul was even more corrupt and less legitimate than the one in Baghdad; Afghanistan had a far weaker tradition of centralized control of any sort than what Saddam Hussein, for better and worse, had brought to Iraq. Kaplan summarizes Australian strategist David Kilcullen on the paradox that doomed U.S. efforts in Afghanistan:

Reduced to a syllogism, his argument went like this: we shouldn’t engage in counterinsurgency unless the government we’re helping is effective and legitimate; a government that needs foreign help to fight an insurgency generally isn’t effective or legitimate; therefore, we generally shouldn’t engage in counterinsurgency.

It was a return, 40 years later, to one of the main lessons of Vietnam. By the end of America’s war there, our military had gotten much better at a kind of war that it realized it was better off choosing not to fight. 

The Insurgents doesn’t attempt to cover everything that will be at stake in the coming debates over defense spending. This is not a book about nuclear weapons—unlike Kaplan’s previous The Wizards of Armageddon—or the distortions and excesses of defense contracting. But it covers a lot, with authority, intelligence, and verve. One of its understated but cumulatively powerful themes is how little of what happens within the Pentagon is driven by real-time, real-world military necessities, and how much by careerist pressures, contractor interests, and inertia. Time and again we read of an officer who is just learning how things work in a certain province but gets rotated out, taking all his knowledge with him, because someone else is champing for a combat slot. At the other end of the military hierarchy, Kaplan suggests an evolution in Barack Obama’s confidence as a military leader. In 2009, new to office, he hesitated to overrule arguments from Petraeus, McChrystal, and others that it was worth trying a surge in Afghanistan. But he asked them for proof of results; two years later, lacking proof or even promising evidence, Obama recognized that no surge could legitimize the Karzai government and insisted on U.S. withdrawal. 

Explaining ideas through biography is so attractive an approach as often to seem this era’s cliché in magazine and book writing. Of course, authors from the time of Herodotus onward have understood the explanatory power of biography, but I date its modern popularity and occasional overuse to the influence of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, both in the early 1970s, followed by Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie in the 1980s. 

The Insurgents stands out as a particularly effective and legitimate use of this approach, and one whose clarity and drama should extend its audience far beyond the normal defense-policy crowd. Why should the book’s success matter to anyone besides Kaplan and his publishers? Because American military policy is worse—more wasteful, less thought-through, more likely to involve the country in commitments it doesn’t want with aftereffects it will regret—when discussion is confined to the expert class plus self-interested defense contractors. Forty years of frequent warfare, with no military draft, has given us our chicken-hawk nation pathology: Everyone “supports” the troops, but too few people know what the troops are doing. Anyone who reads The Insurgents will be better prepared to understand what America has done right and wrong with its military over the past generation, with what equipment and doctrine, at what financial and human cost. Such knowledge, much of it in Kaplan’s book, is fundamental to deciding what to do next.

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