It's a dusty axiom that generals have the bad habit of fighting the last war, rather than the one they're engaged in.
After Vietnam, the U.S. Army took the opposite approach. From the quagmire of 'Nam, the Army took the "lesson" that it should never again engage in another counter-insurgency effort —or even study how to fight one. (This, despite the fact that the U.S. had won the fight against the Viet Cong guerrillas by 1972, and its Special Forces knew exactly how to conduct such a war.)
This combination of arrogance and head-in-the-sand flight from reality became embedded in the command bureaucracy, which refused to train troops for counter-insurgency or even to compose contingency plans on how to fight such a war.
In The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army, a superb new book by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, the authors contend that such an approach nearly led to disaster in Iraq.
During the Cold War, the Army was very well prepared for the Big Invasion (think Grenada, Panama and the first Gulf War), but it had no doctrine for dealing with guerrilla fighting.
At the core of this ostrich-like approach was the Powell Doctrine — a comforting bit of pabulum that became conventional wisdom even outside the military. In short, the doctrine stated the U.S. should engage in a war only when vital (key word) national interests are threatened; that overwhelming force should be exercised in an all-out effort to win; and that a clear exit strategy should be drafted for when the pre-defined goal is met.
Conservatives liked the Powell Doctrine because it proposed engagement only when the U.S. used its massive military advantage, while liberals used it to argue every war was not a "vital" national security threat and no exit strategy ever was good enough to meet the standard. (The universal acceptance of this policy was probably part of the reason the Bush administration focused so heavily on the WMD argument for taking out Saddam Hussein.)
But Powell merely gave the Army intellectual cover to not prepare for anything as messy as the aftermath of the Iraq War; and many in the Pentagon and the White House held to it, or something like it, for far too long, especially with the doctrine's author sitting as secretary of state. (In contrast but along the same pendulum-swing kind of thinking, it is starting to look like the Army has over-learned the lessons of counter-insurgency in Iraq in today's Afghanistan, where the restrictive rules of engagement make the conflict far too problematic.)
Years into the occupation of Iraq, when General George Casey Jr. assumed command in Baghdad, he asked the sensible question: "Who is my counter-insurgency expert?" Stunningly, an Air Force officer whose hands-on experience came at 20,000 feet mumbled, "I guess that would be me."
The Fourth Star ingeniously and engagingly tells the story of how the Army re-invented itself on the fly and under fire though the parallel biographies of four 4-star generals
- George Casey Jr.: a solid "muddy boots" commander who refused to challenge civilian authority and assumptions, was determined not to "repeat the mistakes of Vietnam" and tried to work within standard Army doctrine to accomplish a limited mission in Iraq – which he genuinely seemed to think he was accomplishing.
- John Abizaid: A brilliant academic, he made himself an expert in the Middle East. He knew enough to doubt the Pentagon's strategy and assumptions about Iraq but not enough to devise a strategy for victory.
- Peter Chiarelli: The no-nonsense commander of Baghdad recognized that the key to victory was to make the population's life better. Chiarelli implemented his own successful counter-insurgency tactics over the objections of civilian planners. He had epic battles with his own command but ultimately was unable to bring the Army to adopt his tactics.
- David Petraeus: The brilliant thinker initially was an awkward commander, but he eventually persuaded President Bush to his way of thinking. Petraeus transformed Big Army into a flexible, quick-reacting force capable of successful defeating the insurgency.
While Cloud and Jaffe are frank about each general's shortcomings — particularly Casey's —readers, in the end, will admire each of these men for their dedication and service.
It may surprise many to learn, for instance, that Casey — whose media statements the last few years have verged on the pusillanimous, such as when he said about the Ft. Hood massacre, "As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that's worse." – was a tough and skilled warrior who passed Delta Force training and was invited to join that elite commando unit. It's also telling that he turned the billet down over family considerations, and followed a much safer and standard course for promotions.
Any reasonable book on the Iraq War must deal with the awful tenure of Ambassador Paul Bremer. The authors reveal Petraeus had a civil government and consensus administration set up in Mosul but had to fight Bremer — and even ignore some of his directives — to keep things from breaking down as they did in the rest of Iraq. (The situation eventually fell apart after Petraeus was rotated stateside.)
Bremer's policy of absolute de-Baathification and the State Department's electoral process by which Iraqis voted for ethnic leadership, rather than representatives by territory or district, certainly created chaos. However, Cloud and Jaffe show this was the policy of the Bush insiders as well, and Bremer was acting under Bush's direction more than some books give credit (or blame) for.
In a teleconference related in the book, we see Abizaid raised doubts about the de-Baathification policy and was shot down cold by Douglas Feith, a prominent conservative at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's reluctance to "nation build" — which sounded just like the kind of long-term slog he wanted to avoid — led to a vacuum of leadership on the counter-insurgency strategy. Despite his efforts to reform the military bureaucracy, Rumsfeld was influenced by the Powell Doctrine and Big Army reluctance to engage in what he might have called "the war we have."
The book also touches on the importance of a little-known "tribe" in the Army — officers who attended or taught at the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, generally referred to as "Sosh." At Sosh, the generals-in-waiting were taught economics and diplomacy as well as military strategy, and their big picture thinking was extended beyond just the battlefield.
Petraeus and Chiarelli, the generals most apt to recommend workable solutions in Iraq, were heavily influenced by their time at Sosh, while Casey took a combat/weapons systems-oriented route to his promotions.
Rumsfeld famously said, "You go to war with the Army you have." The Fourth Star tells how we got from the Army we had then to the Army we have now.
By taking their unique biographical approach to their subject, Cloud and Jaffe keep The Fourth Star from being a dry tome about military strategy that only an attendee at the War College would read. Instead, this compelling and incredibly accessible book will fascinate even the lay person interested in military issues — or even anyone who enjoys well-told biographies.