A Phony Critique of Petraeus
What the New York Times got wrong about the scandal.
Gen. David Petraeus speaks after briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill in 2007 in Washington
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.
Ten days after David Petraeus’ resignation, we find ourselves mud-deep in the revisionist phase that often mires a public scandal. Great Man has a Great Fall, and everything about his life gets recast through the same tawdry prism. A counterrevisionism phase will surely soon follow, then a counter to that counter … these things often take months or years to settle. (Then again, it might take a mere six weeks.)
Meanwhile, let us consider one of the most bizarre spectacles of revisionism in the annals of not just Petraeus but anybody: an op-ed in the Sunday Review section of the Sunday New York Times, “A Phony Hero for a Phony War,” by Lucian K. Truscott IV.
I know little about Truscott except that his grandfather was a legendary World War II commander and that he himself followed the family footsteps into West Point, left the Army soon after, and wrote a highly regarded novel, Dress Gray, which caused a great stir at the time (1978) for piercing the dome of sexual scandal and secrecy at West Point in a way that no previous author had ventured.
Judging from his op-ed, though, a few things are clear: Truscott romanticizes his grandfather’s era, his view of the modern Army is remarkably shallow, and he seems to have no understanding of what Petraeus was trying to accomplish in Iraq. There is much to criticize about Petraeus, and even more about those wars, but Truscott paints a cartoon portrait—even characterizing its commanders as “Dave and his merry band of Doonesbury generals”—that makes Mad magazine look like social realism by comparison.
From the first line (“Fastidiousness is never a good sign in a general officer”), the piece is, at best, a head-scratcher. Truscott chortles over the “beribboned finery” of Petraeus’ uniform and likens him to such “strutting military peacocks” as Douglas MacArthur and William Westmoreland—fun stuff at first glance, though on reflection, Petraeus (whatever else might be said of him) is the opposite of those other two generals in every way imaginable.
Truscott then hints at a thesis. A general’s job, he writes, is “winning wars—something we and our generals stopped doing about the time that MacArthur gold-braided his way around the stalemated Korean War.” But the Korean stalemate can hardly be linked to MacArthur, who wanted to “win” the war by invading the north and nuking China. Surely Truscott isn’t wistful about a similar notion of victory, is he?
He then moans that Petraeus, in Iraq and Afghanistan, “failed to conquer the countries we invaded, and ended up occupying undefeated nations.” But, in both those wars, Petraeus took command in the occupation phase, well after Saddam Hussein and the Taliban had fallen. By this point, the goal was hardly—nor should they have been—to “conquer” the nations.
Then comes the deep brow-furrower: “The genius of General Petraeus,” Truscott writes, “was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all.” (Italics added.) Apparently, to Truscott, a war isn’t “a real war” unless it’s about maneuvering tanks, conquering territory, and subjugating defeated peoples. He suggests as much a bit later: “The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott, Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.”
Here’s where Truscott gets get really confusing. He writes, “Those generals, in my humble opinion, were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations.” It’s unclear: Is that a good thing? Apparently not, for the next sentence reads: “Thankfully, we will probably never have cause to go back to those blood-soaked ways.” But then he denounces Petraeus for insufficient blood-soaking. “The generals who won World War II,” he writes, “were the kind of men who, as it was said at the time, chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch, and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels.” By contrast, he goes on, “General Petraeus probably flosses.”
First of all, this nail-chewing business is the stuff of pulp fiction. The stereotype might fit MacArthur, George Patton, and Truscott’s grandfather (who, as Tom Ricks notes, was as preening as they come)—but not remotely the likes of George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, James Gavin, or many others. Second, he seems to suggest that it’s bad—a sign of preciousness, maybe effeminacy—that Petraeus “probably flosses.” Is Truscott suggesting here, in a reversal of his earlier remarks, that MacArthur and Patton are admirable in their “psychotic” ravages?
The key to Truscott’s confusion may lie in his recollection of a conversation he had with Petraeus in the fall of 2003, when the general, then commander of the 101st Airborne Division, was occupying Mosul in northern Iraq:
One of the first questions I asked him was what his orders had been. Was he ordered to “take Mosul,” I asked. No answer. How about “Find Mosul and report back”? No answer. Finally, I asked him if his orders were something along the lines of “Go to Mosul!” He gave me an almost imperceptible nod. It must have been the first time an American combat infantry division had been ordered into battle so casually.
This is a fair enough portrait, but Truscott draws precisely the wrong conclusion. The American leaders at the time were clueless. President George W. Bush had no aim other than to topple Saddam Hussein; he had no idea what to do after that. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, had no strategy or campaign plan for the occupation. True, Petraeus had no orders on what to do in Mosul, but what Truscott misses is that he devised his own orders—he set up a new political system, vetted candidates, got the local economy going again, reopened the university, reopened borders with Syria: He stabilized Mosul in a way that no other division commander was stabilizing his area of operation. And he did this by more than merely “buying the loyalties of various factions,” as Truscott charges.
Truscott then makes a claim that might be interesting if it weren’t encased in so many inaccuracies—that Petraeus’ methods in Mosul “were the kinds of things that prolong wars” rather than win them. In one sense, Truscott might be right: If Iraq’s political factions were ultimately uninterested in reconciling with one another, Petraeus’ strategy may indeed have merely stretched out the conflict and deferred the reckoning.
But three points need to be made here. First, Petraeus had no way of knowing this at the time; both in Mosul and later, in 2007, as U.S. commander in Iraq, he saw his goal as giving the factions “breathing space,” creating a “zone of security,” where they might reach a settlement in peace. It’s not his fault that the factions had no interest in reaching such a settlement. Second, for as long as he was in command, Petraeus succeeded at what he set out to do, if only tactically and in the short term. In retrospect, a case can be made that it may have been wiser to pull out after Saddam fell, to let the Iraqis find their own way. But those weren’t Petraeus’ orders; whatever else might be said of him, he accomplished a great deal with what he had. Finally, America’s big mistake in Iraq was invading it in the first place—and neither Petraeus nor any other general had anything to do with that decision.
No question, over the past decade, a mystique has shrouded David Petraeus, and its chief sculptor has been Petraeus himself. As a young officer, his key mentors—John Galvin and Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard, both fighting and thinking generals—instructed him in the art of myth making for the purpose of building the troops’ loyalty and the population’s support for the mission. The mystique cracked on Nov. 9, when revelations of the affair with Paula Broadwell forced him to resign—and it has shattered into shards, as the affair’s backstory turned more and more baroquely bizarre.
But not all myths are hollow. Sometimes their cores have real substance. Petraeus isn’t a god, but that doesn’t mean he’s a devil or a clown. One bright side of his demystification might be that we can finally have a debate about foreign policy and modern warfare—the merits, limits, and drawbacks of drones; the relevance of counterinsurgency doctrine; the appropriate place of counterterrorism—unencumbered by the politics of personality.
Meanwhile, Lucian Truscott IV’s snarky stab at iconoclasm says more about the hankering for a black-and-white playbook of villains and heroes than about the real world of complex grays.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.