Another Type of Warfare

2. “Another Type of Warfare”

The Sosh department at West Point in the mid-1980s was teeming with confident, ambitious young officers, but few scaled the cliffs of self-confidence or raced through ambition’s fast track with quite the zest of Dave Petraeus.

His competitive streak was the first thing that anyone noticed about him, dating back to his time as a cadet in the class of 1974. In that decade before the reforms, West Point was a merciless place to live and study. Each cadet’s grades were posted publicly after every test in every course, and the seating arrangements in each classroom were altered accordingly, with the highest scorers placed in the front row and the lowest scorers in the back. Every minute, a cadet knew where he stood in relation to his fellow cadets, and this awareness didn’t end with the school day or school days. A cadet’s class rank determined how good his stadium seats were during football season. It determined who got the first, and thus most desirable, pick of assignments upon graduating. Years later, if an officer came back to West Point to teach, his class rank from cadet days would determine the size and quality of faculty housing he’d be awarded, thus extending his self-consciousness about hierarchy and status to the pride or shame of his wife and children.

Many dropped out under the pressure. Petraeus thrived on it; he’d discovered his element. But his was an odd streak of drive and ambition. It wasn’t dark or scheming, but rather bright, even sunny, bursting with outsized enthusiasm. He was intense and bone skinny. He punctuated his speech with boyish exclamations: “Super!” “Jeepers!” “Holy cow!” And when he challenged a friend to a foot race or a push-ups contest, as he did incessantly, it was with more an unflagging energy than an intimidating dare.

His father was a Dutch immigrant, a proverbially crusty sea captain who taught him the importance of winning. His mother was a librarian, from a family of Oberlin College graduates, who taught him the importance of reading. They raised him in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, a small town seven miles from West Point, and he felt the academy’s force as an everyday influence. Senior faculty could live off base, and many of them settled in Cornwall, playing active roles in the town’s life. Petraeus’s high school math teacher was a retired Army colonel and former West Point professor. His soccer coach had once led the West Point soccer team to a national championship. His Sunday School teacher was West Point’s ski instructor.

Ever since the 1920s, when General Douglas MacArthur mandated stiff physical fitness standards as West Point’s superintendent, the academy had thrived on the playing fields of intercollegiate sports. (“Every cadet an athlete, every athlete challenged,” MacArthur had trumpeted.) It was this aspect of the school’s legacy that lured Petraeus most of all. In his first year as a cadet, he played on varsity teams all three seasons—soccer in the spring and fall, skiing in the winter—and neglected his studies in the process. He ended the year ranked 161st in a class of just over 800: not bad by most standards, but dismal by his own.

During his second year, he got serious. West Point had a pre-med program that awarded full medical-school scholarships to its top nine students. Petraeus beamed in on that target. He took science courses for most of his electives and earned high marks. Midway through his senior year, he made the grade of “star man”: one of the cadets awarded a silver star for his lapel to indicate his ranking in the top 5 percent of his class. Petraeus also suddenly realized that he ranked sixth among the cadets in the pre-med program. He was on track to win one of those scholarships.

Then, in a moment of introspection, he asked himself if he really felt the calling to be a doctor, and he had to admit that he did not; that he’d signed up for the pre-med program mainly because it was one of West Point’s hardest and most prestigious competitions. But in the meantime, he was doing well in all the other cadet activities: the core curriculum, the upper-level seminar on military strategy, the officers’ training drills. His options were open to a wide range of possibilities.

In the fall of his senior year, Petraeus began dating an attractive blonde named Holly Knowlton, the daughter of Lieutenant General William Knowlton, West Point’s superintendent. A few weeks after graduating, he married her. Petraeus’s detractors, at the time and for many years afterward, cited his whirlwind courtship as the ultimate in careerist audacity. His friends waved away the accusation as silly jealousy. The two had met on a blind date—Petraeus hadn’t been stalking her—and they simply turned out to be a good match. Both were athletic, very smart, and, in their own ways, accomplished and driven. (She was studying French literature at Dickinson College, finishing an honors thesis on the novelist François Mauriac.) Still, even Petraeus’s friends joked about the feat; they couldn’t help but shake their heads and whistle. There were no women at West Point (the first female cadets wouldn’t be admitted for another two years), and out of the 833 graduating men on campus, it was Petraeus who’d won the hand of the superintendent’s daughter. A lot of his classmates, friendly and otherwise, saw it as a sign, maybe the most persuasive of several, that if one cadet among them climbed the ranks to four-star general, it would be Dave Petraeus.

•  •  •

Petraeus wasn’t yet sure whether he wanted to make a career in the military. But his taxpayer-funded education at West Point carried a contractual obligation to give the Army at least five more years of his life. So he would see how things went.

That May, all the cadets gathered for a ceremony to declare which branch of the service they’d chosen to enter—as with everything else, in order of class rank. When the roll call came to Petraeus, who was ranked forty-third, he called out “Infantry.” It was a surprising move for someone of his promise. Only one of the forty-two classmates ahead of him had chosen that branch. Infantry meant foot soldier; it invoked Vietnam. The cadets in his class had watched the Army collapse in Vietnam on the nightly newscasts for their entire time at the academy. Most of their instructors were Vietnam vets. Vietnam came up repeatedly in class discussions, mostly in a cautionary or outright negative way. The class on military ethics discussed the 1968 My Lai massacre; the class on military tactics discussed battlefield errors and the implications of the Tet offensive; the class on foreign policy discussed whether the United States should ever again intervene in that kind of war. Outside the gates of West Point, the Army’s top commanders were openly moving on, focusing again on the plains of Europe and the threat of a big war against the vast armies of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

Petraeus’s higher-ranking classmates chose assignments in armor, artillery, even aviation and engineering. Those branches would lead the fight in the big war; in the meantime, they’d pave the most promising paths to promotion. Infantry seemed like a loser in every sense; it was the branch that the Army’s top officers seemed eager to diminish.

But Petraeus saw infantry as the most physically challenging branch, the branch where an individual could leave a mark, leading troops into battle on the ground, out in the open, not cooped up in a tank. He was particularly keen to join one of the elite Ranger units in airborne infantry. He’d trained as a parachutist at West Point’s jump school the summer before his senior year. If nothing else, it was exciting, fun.

Shortly after graduating, Petraeus went to Ranger School, a brutal, two-month regimen of mock battles and long marches through the dense woods, muddy swamps, and scraggly mountains of Georgia and Florida, all on just three-and-a-half hours of sleep per night and meager rations. The school was designed to discourage all but the most serious comers and to disqualify all but the fittest among those who dared sign up. Petraeus finished first in his group.

From there, he was assigned to the 509th Airborne Battalion Combat Team, stationed in Vicenza, Italy, where he spent much of the next four years jumping out of airplanes, then meeting up with his French or Italian counterparts for joint training exercises, marching and maneuvering for days or weeks at a time, with heavy rucksacks on their backs, through some of the lushest hills and valleys in all Europe. Some of these jumps were dangerous, especially those over the Pyrenees Mountains along the Spanish-French border: often he couldn’t see the landing zone through the clouds, and he could hurt himself badly if he didn’t glide just so around the sharp thickets of the shrubs.

It was a magical time for Petraeus: the beauty, the adventure, the tight camaraderie among the men, and maybe especially the danger. He knew, almost right away, that this was the life for him.

Early on in the posting, Petraeus was sent to an advanced training course with the French army’s 6th Parachute Regiment at its jump school in Pau, a village on the northern edge of the Pyrenees. At every French officers’ club, where the men ate or drank after coming in from the field, he noticed behind the bar a large framed portrait of an officer—always the same officer. He learned from one of his fellow jumpers that the portrait was of General Marcel “Bruno” Bigeard. Petraeus figured that he should find out more about him.

Back at Vicenza, he did some research. Bigeard, it turned out, was the most highly decorated and famous officer in France. During World War II, he’d been a national hero. Captured by the Nazis, he escaped from a POW camp soon after and made his way to northern Africa, where he joined the Free French militia; he then parachuted into Vichy-occupied France with a four-man team of Resistance commandos who gave him the radio code name “Bruno,” which his friends and admirers had called him ever since. After the Allied victory, Bigeard fought against the communist Viet Minh in France’s war to regain control of its colony in Vietnam, making his reputation in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the Viet Minh surrounded and finally routed a badly outnumbered French army force. Defeat was inevitable, but Bigeard fought them off valiantly, succumbing only when he and his extremely loyal men were captured. Released after the signing of the Geneva Peace Accords, Bigeard returned to France and took command of the 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment, which proceeded to Algeria, where it crushed the National Liberation Front’s campaign of urban terrorism against the French occupation of Algeria (at least for a few years). He also wrote a number of books on counter-guerrilla tactics and, years later, two bestselling memoirs.

Petraeus didn’t read French well enough to tackle Bigeard’s books. But he found a few others, written or translated in English, that recounted the general’s exploits, most notably the journalist Bernard Fall’s volumes about Vietnam, Street Without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, which contained a detailed account of the battle at Dien Bien Phu. He also devoured Jean Larteguy’s bestselling novel The Centurions, whose hero, Colonel Raspeguy, was clearly modeled on Bigeard. The novel was about a small band of French airborne infantry soldiers, captured at Dien Bien Phu, who stick together on a forced march to POW camps and, after repatriation, prepare for deployment to Algeria, where they’re determined to apply the lessons they learned—and to avoid the mistakes their commanders committed—in Vietnam. The novel romanticized the life of elite soldiers, out on their own, along the edge of civilization, surviving on their wits, integrity, and courage. It all resonated with Petraeus, as it did with many airborne officers. For decades after, he would cite it as his favorite novel—one of his favorite books, period—and he would frequently retrieve it from his bookshelf, not just for pleasure but to consult its meticulous descriptions of small-unit tactics and morale-building rituals.

Later, in the early 1990s, when Petraeus commanded his first battalion, he ordered his men to fasten the top button on their uniforms, the “battle button.” Yes, he told them, it was uncomfortable, and other soldiers might mock them for it, but the discomfort and the mockery would set them apart—bind them more tightly—as a unit. He got the idea from a strange hat that Raspeguy had his men wear in The Centurions, a plot point that, Petraeus learned, was based on a ritual that Bigeard had ordered his own men to follow.

Bigeard was also an expert self-promoter. He would frequently invite journalists (among them Bernard Fall) into his headquarters and outline his battle plan, tell them his life story, treat them as peers. This practice, which some of his brother officers disparaged, had the effect of building popular support for his mission—and carving a myth about himself. When Petraeus became a commanding general, during the insurgency wars of his own generation in Iraq and Afghanistan, he followed this lesson from Bigeard’s playbook with particular vim, and with similar results.

But Petraeus also absorbed intellectual lessons from his self-taught crash course in recent French military history. He took particular note of a passage midway through The Centurions in which a French officer first realizes that the Viet Minh had a different concept about how to wage war. Talking with a fellow officer in the POW camp, he likens it to the difference between the card games belote and bridge: “When we make war, we play belote with thirty-two cards in the pack. But the Viet Minh’s game is bridge, and they have fifty-two cards, twenty more than we do. Those twenty cards short will always prevent us from getting the better of them. They’ve got nothing to do with traditional warfare, they’re marked with the signs of politics, propaganda, faith, agrarian reform.”

Just before this monologue, the two officers had been wondering why their captain was so annoyed. The first officer says, “I think he is beginning to realize that we’ve got to play with fifty-two cards, and he doesn’t like it at all . . . Those twenty extra cards aren’t at all to his liking.”

Those twenty extra cards, the insight that these kinds of wars were not just clashes of arms but also struggles over ideology and economic well-being, fought in a way that had “nothing to do with traditional warfare”—this was a new idea to Petraeus, and it was an idea, he suspected, that his own Army’s commanders wouldn’t find to their liking, either.

As much as the Vietnam War was discussed back at West Point, none of Petraeus’s instructors had ever taught it systematically. There was no course on the history of the war or the politics of the country. The core course on military history included one section on irregular warfare, but it was glossed over; it included no detailed analysis of counterinsurgency as a separate type of combat that might require different methods, principles, or goals—a whole other set of playing cards.

Intrigued by Fall and Larteguy, Petraeus expanded his reading list. There turned out to be a small stack of books in English about these kinds of wars, and he set out to plow through all of them. Some, like Sir Robert Thompson’s Defeating Communist Insurgency and Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations, were by veterans of Britain’s colonial campaigns in Kenya or Malaya. But the clearest and most compelling treatise on the subject, the one that had the greatest influence on Petraeus’s thinking, was a thin volume called Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by a retired French officer named David Galula. It was out of print and hard to find. But Bernard Fall, in the bibliography of Street Without Joy, had touted it as “the ‘how-to’ book in the field—and the best of them all.” So Petraeus was determined to hunt down this book and to read it very closely.

Galula had written the book during the academic year of 1962–63 while on a fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs. He had just retired from the French army as a lieutenant colonel and meant for the book to sum up the lessons he’d learned from witnessing a half dozen insurgency wars—as a French military attaché in China from 1945 to 1948 (during which time he was captured and briefly imprisoned by Mao Zedong’s guerrillas), as an observer with the United Nations Special Committee on the Balkans in 1948–49 (where he took notes on counter-guerrilla tactics in the Greek civil war), as a military attaché in Hong Kong in the early-to-mid-1950s (from which he made several trips to Malaya, the Philippines, and Vietnam), and, finally, from 1956 to 1958, as the leader of a small combat unit fighting insurgents and “pacifying” mountain villages during the anticolonial revolts in Algeria.

From the first few pages, Galula’s book read like nothing Petraeus had ever been taught at West Point. “Revolutionary war,” the book stated, using the French term for this kind of combat, has “special rules, different from those of the conventional war.” Moreover, the rules that apply for one side in this sort of war don’t work for the other side. “In a fight between a fly and a lion,” Galula wrote, “the fly cannot deliver a knockout blow and the lion cannot fly. It is the same war for both camps in terms of space and time, yet there are two distinct warfares—the revolutionary’s and, shall we say, the counterrevolutionary’s.” (A page later, he would call them the “insurgent” and the “counterinsurgent,” perhaps coining the terms.) The lion could whack at the fly, with occasionally lethal effect, but there would always be more flies, an endless swarm of them, harassing and stinging the lion into a state of exhaustion and retreat, until someone drained the swamp that was breeding them—a feat that couldn’t be managed through whacking alone.

The metaphor appealed to Petraeus. It reminded him of the passage in Larteguy’s novel about the two sides playing with different decks of cards. But Galula’s aim, much more ambitious, was to outline the rules and to devise systematic guidelines on how to win the game—or, as he put it with an alluring air of scientific certitude, “to define the laws of counterrevolutionary warfare, to deduce from them its principles, and to outline the corresponding strategy and tactics.”

To Galula, the essence of this kind of warfare wasn’t so much the clash of arms (although arms were certainly involved) but rather a competition for the loyalty, or at least complicity, of the local population. The insurgents, animated by an ideological cause, could sow disorder anywhere, with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the government or building up parallel structures of governance that, whether through popular appeal or coercion, would grow stronger until the established order collapsed. All the while, the counterinsurgents, as protectors of the existing regime, must maintain order everywhere. The advantage, at least initially, is with the insurgent, who “is fluid because he has neither responsibility nor concrete assets,” whereas “the counterinsurgent is rigid because he has both.” The insurgent can choose to fight or not fight, as it suits him, mounting attacks and ambushes, then falling back into the population, mixing with the people inconspicuously, like a fish swimming in water, as Mao put it in his own book, On Guerrilla Warfare.

In his days as a military attaché in Shanghai and Beijing, Galula had learned Chinese; he’d studied Mao’s book and, although extremely anti-communist, came to appreciate, even admire, Mao’s strategic wisdom. Smart counterinsurgency tactics, Galula realized, involved turning Mao’s doctrine on its head. A Maoist insurgency sought above all to win the support of the people by living among them and gradually supplanting the functions of the government. So, Galula reasoned, the counterinsurgents must also live among the people: to isolate them from the insurgency, keep the area secure, and thus earn their trust, so that they in turn provide intelligence about the identity and whereabouts of the surviving rebels.

Galula laid out a “step-by-step” process for how to do this, in one area of the country at a time. First, concentrate enough armed forces to push the insurgents out of the area. Second, keep enough troops there to repel a comeback, eventually turning it over to well-trained local soldiers or police. Third (and here was where things differed considerably from conventional warfare), establish contact with the people, earn their trust or control their movements, and cut off their ties to the insurgents. Fourth, destroy the insurgents’ local political organization and create new ones. Finally, mop up or win over the insurgency’s remnants.

Some counterinsurgency enthusiasts would later dub this technique “winning hearts and minds,” although the term implied a gentler approach than Galula prescribed (or, as a commander in Algeria, practiced). A more fitting phrase, adopted later, was “clear-hold-build”: clear an area of insurgents, hold the territory, then build up government services while the area was still secure.

Whatever the shorthand, the point was that winning this kind of war involved more than just fighting. It required military, political, and judicial operations—and all three were essential. The outcome was a matter not of adding the three elements but of multiplying them: if one of the elements was zero, the product of all three would be zero; that is, if one prong of the operation failed, the entire campaign would fail, and thus the insurgents would win.

One of Mao’s generals had written that revolutionary war is “20 percent military action and 80 percent political,” and Galula endorsed the formula. “[C]onventional operations by themselves,” he wrote, “have at best no more effect than a fly swatter. Some guerrillas are bound to be caught, but new recruits will replace them as fast as they are lost.” The insurgents will always return unless and until the population begins to cooperate with the counterinsurgents—that is, with the regime. “The population therefore becomes the objective for the counterinsurgent as it was for his enemy.” At various stages in the conflict, a counterinsurgent soldier must “be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a Boy Scout.” Likewise, “a mimeograph machine may turn out to be more useful than a machine gun, a soldier trained as a pediatrician more important than a mortar expert, cement more wanted than barbed wire, clerks more in demand than riflemen.”

Even when this kind of war required fighting, the rules were different. In conventional war, a soldier under attack must return fire with the maximum possible force. In counterinsurgency warfare, the reverse was sometimes true, especially if civilians were nearby, as, after all, the ultimate goal of the war was less to kill insurgents than to protect the civilian population.

All of this would have been heady, if disorienting, stuff for any American Army officer coming up through the ranks at a time when the top brass was focusing exclusively on big wars and concentrated firepower. But the book had added luster for young Lieutenant Petraeus. First, in this kind of war, a soldier had to think and to act creatively, an appealing notion to a West Point star man. Second, this kind of war was, as Galula wrote, “primarily a war of infantry,” especially of “highly mobile and lightly armed” infantry. Its key elements were foot soldiers out on patrol, not heavy tanks rolling through the countryside or pilots dropping bombs. It was, in other words, a type of warfare ideally suited for the branch of the Army that Petraeus had chosen and to which he was feeling increasingly attached. It was an idea that might give his career path and passion new meaning.

•  •  •

Seven years passed before Petraeus saw this promise fulfilled. Meanwhile, at the end of 1978, as his four-year tour in Italy drew to a close, he lobbied hard for a slot commanding a rifle company in the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, an audacious move for an officer who had just been promoted to captain a few months earlier. The 24th didn’t match his interests completely, especially since the Army chiefs were beefing it up to a mechanized infantry division, meaning that it would take on a large complement of tanks. But Petraeus’s real sights were on a Ranger unit located at the same base; he figured that if he did well as a company commander, he’d be allowed to try out for the elite squad down the road. In any case, his superiors, impressed with his record, gave him the rifle company.

The company, in fact the entire division, was in dreadful shape. It was the era of the “hollow” army. Post-Vietnam budget cuts had emptied out the supply bins of ammo and spare parts; repair depots were backlogged; serious training took a dive; and the quality of recruits, in those early years of the all-volunteer Army, had plummeted. Petraeus pushed his men with his merrily frantic enthusiasm, and they responded in surprisingly good cheer. They won first place in the base’s basketball tournament. They won a foot race against the vaunted Rangers. And—what really grabbed his superiors’ notice—they won Expert Infantryman Badges for excelling at a dozen combat tasks, in which Petraeus had drilled them incessantly.

Very quickly, Petraeus was promoted to operations officer for the entire battalion, a job usually assigned to a major. It was unclear whether this marked an advance toward or a detour from his dream of a posting with the Rangers. But then, all of a sudden, that ambition was rendered moot.

Officials in Washington had decided to convert the 24th Infantry into the lead element of a new “Rapid Deployment Force” designed to stave off a hypothetical Soviet invasion of the Middle East’s oil fields, an emerging scenario in the Pentagon’s catalogue of threats. So they assigned Major General John Galvin, one of the Army’s top officers in Europe, to come take command of the division.

Galvin needed an aide-de-camp. One of the senior officers at the 24th recommended Petraeus. Galvin gave him a try. At their first meeting, he told the young captain that he didn’t want a flunky who would carry his valise and light his cigarette; he wanted someone to go with him everywhere, see what he saw, take notes on what was going well and going badly, discuss how to improve matters, and compose a weekly report card on the progress. Galvin had mentored six aides-de-camp before coming to Fort Stewart, but none leapt into the job as eagerly as Petraeus, who used the opportunity to learn every aspect, large and small, of how a division operated—getting a crash course, on how to command a division, that few officers received so early in their careers. Even during his trial period, Petraeus offered one suggestion after another, many of them unsolicited, on how to solve this problem, fix that glitch, clarify that procedure. Some generals would have been annoyed; Galvin was impressed. He made Petraeus his aide.

Jack Galvin was an unusual Army general. The son of a Massachusetts bricklayer, he’d gone to art school with hopes of becoming a cartoonist, joined the National Guard to earn some money, then, at the suggestion of his sergeant, applied to West Point. To his surprise, he got in, entered its gates in the fall of 1950, and took his life in a different direction.

He was twenty-one when he enrolled, a bit older than most of his classmates and more intellectually inclined. Much later, when he went back to West Point for three years as an assistant professor, he taught in the English Department. Over the years, while an active-duty officer, he would write at least one journal article about the issues facing him at each assignment—almost fifty articles in all—as well as two scholarly books about the American Revolution and one about the origins of airborne infantry.

In the mid-1960s, Galvin was sent to Vietnam as operations officer in the 1st Infantry Division, the legendary “Big Red One.” After a particularly grueling firefight, his superior officer ordered him to add forty-five to the tally of Viet Cong dead—the official “body count,” which the Pentagon masters loved to tabulate as a self-deceiving indicator of an impending American victory. Galvin, then a rising major, refused to falsify the count. The next thing he knew, he was relieved of his duties and told that he had no future in the 1st Infantry. Shunted off to a public-affairs office, where he compiled the daily press clippings about the war, he got into trouble for including too many critical news articles.

Luckily, Galvin had a friend in high places: a colonel named Paul Gorman, who’d been his battalion commander during the body-count incident and sympathized with his position. Gorman got him a Pentagon job helping to write the secret history of the Vietnam War (which, after it was leaked by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, became known as the Pentagon Papers). Galvin discovered, to a greater extent than he’d known, how badly the war had been bungled all along, how hopeless the whole venture really was. He felt further vindicated in his refusal to jack up the body count. And the experience steeled his courage a year later, when, as the commander of a cavalry battalion, he refused a superior’s order to send his men into a nighttime frontal assault on a Viet Cong enclave outside the range of US artillery fire. It would have been a suicide mission, for no purpose whatever. The colonel who’d given the order put a disciplinary notation—a mark just short of a reprimand—in Galvin’s personnel file. Galvin regarded it as a badge of honor.

Gorman was looking out for him again, and, despite this latest act of insubordination, he got Galvin transferred to Europe, where he earned plaudits at various command positions and eventually won his stars.

By the time Galvin came to Fort Stewart and met Petraeus, he was one of the most highly respected generals in the Army. But he was also still the student and teacher of literature who valued the written word. After a few days of making the rounds on the base, Galvin remarked that there were several young officers doing very creative work; they should be urged to write articles for one of the military journals, so that their ideas could spread across the Army’s entire ranks.

Within a few weeks, Petraeus had thirty officers writing articles. He then helped the officers tighten their prose and submit their pieces to what he figured would be the most receptive editors. Many of them were eventually published.

Galvin called the campaign the “War of Information.” It was an idea that Petraeus would take with him and build on for years to come.

Knowing full well the value of a mentor’s protection, Galvin gave his young aide-de-camp—twenty-three years his junior—a pivotal piece of advice. There was more to the job of general, Galvin told him, than scoring high at Ranger School or winning an Expert Infantryman Badge, laudable as those achievements were. It was important to have a strategic outlook, a broader vision of the world. He encouraged Petraeus to go back to school. First, Galvin got him assigned to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where the top tier of junior officers—most of them majors, one rank higher than Petraeus—took off a year to study strategy and play war games, making the kinds of assessments and decisions that generals made in real battles. After that, Galvin urged him to go earn a graduate degree at a top-notch university, which would give him a more sophisticated perspective on politics and policy than any military academy could. Finally, Galvin told him, he should return to West Point to teach for a few years before resuming his climb up the command ladder.

Petraeus took his advice. At Leavenworth, he not only scored first in his class, out of nearly one thousand officers, he also took part in a war game that deepened his understanding of counterinsurgency. The game replayed one of the Army’s largest search-and-destroy missions in the Vietnam War. Petraeus and his teammates concluded that simply chasing and killing guerrillas, even with heavy firepower, had little effect on the battle; the Viet Cong simply went into hiding and came out again after the big guns were gone. It was the most concrete vindication of Galula’s ideas—if not what should be done, then at least what should not be—that Petraeus had seen yet.

Afterward, he won a fellowship at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and, early on, experienced the comeuppance that Galvin knew he needed before he could develop much further. Petraeus, who’d always earned straight As, got a D on his first economics test and a B on his first political science paper. He suddenly realized that he was on a higher intellectual playing field. He studied harder; the As soon resumed.

He finished the coursework for a PhD in two years. Then, in the summer of 1985, he took an open faculty slot in the Social Sciences Department at West Point, teaching international relations and economics. “Abe” Lincoln, the Sosh founder, had died a decade earlier, but his tradition of critical inquiry—and exploiting connections in high places—lived on. Petraeus spent much of the time holed up in his basement office, writing his doctoral dissertation. His subject was the Vietnam War and its impact on the US military’s attitude toward using force. The thesis was a bit obvious at first glance. By this time, it was common knowledge that the Vietnam debacle had left the Army averse to fighting small wars. Caspar Weinberger, President Reagan’s secretary of defense, and General Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had each articulated a list of rules for when to wage combat. The rules became known as the Weinberger Doctrine and the Powell Doctrine, though actually they were restatements, to some degree refinements, of the Army’s long-standing outlook on whether and how to fight. American interests had to be vital, the political objectives had to be clear, the level of force had to be overwhelming, the ability to win had to be plausible, the support from the public had to be manifest. Under these guidelines, the chances of going to war—short of some cataclysmic shock, such as a Soviet invasion of Europe or a Chinese attack on Taiwan—seemed slim. It was widely joked, and wasn’t far off the truth, that some of the most dovish officials in Washington were the generals in the Pentagon.

But Petraeus was trying to go beyond this observation and to work it into an argument that was radical, at least in the context of Army culture. He wanted to make a case for building up light infantry and preparing to fight the sorts of wars that he’d been studying informally for nearly a decade now: the sorts of wars that Powell and Weinberger were rejecting but that he believed the Army was most likely to confront in the near future.

Toward the end of his first year on the West Point faculty, Petraeus learned that General Galvin had been awarded his fourth star and was about to take charge of US Southern Command in Panama, with responsibility for all military forces stationed in Latin America. Throughout the region, communist-backed insurgents were rebelling against US-backed regimes. Petraeus sent his old mentor a note, asking if he could come work for the summer as his assistant. Galvin accepted the offer gladly.

The morning after his arrival, Petraeus went to the daily intelligence briefing. He knew the command’s area of operations was rife with turmoil; the troubles in El Salvador were particularly prominent in American newspapers. But he’d had no idea of the fierceness or scope of the violence. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front was waging an insurgency war in El Salvador, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia were doing the same in that country, the Shining Path guerrillas were fomenting chaos in Peru, and, all the while, Cuba and Nicaragua were supplying weapons through harbors and airstrips in Costa Rica and Honduras. General Galvin’s briefer rattled off the latest updates on the numbers of firefights, casualties, rocket attacks, ambushes, assassinations, and incidents of sabotage.

“Holy cow!” Petraeus thought to himself. “These guys are at war!” Petraeus had been an Army officer for twelve years now, but this was his first exposure to anything remotely resembling combat. He accompanied Galvin on trips to El Salvador twice, and both times were harrowing. The fighting had diminished somewhat since the civil war’s start five years earlier, but it was still intense, both in the cities and in the countryside. (By the time the war ended in 1992, in a stalemate followed by a political settlement, more than 75,000 Salvadorans—about 1.5 percent of the population—would be killed.) The US embassy in the capital resembled a fortress, with thick bars blocking entry to all the windows and entrances. When Galvin was driven from one place to another in the capital, armed guards surrounded his car in escort vehicles. If an unknown vehicle tried to pass them, the guards raised their long rifles, with standing orders to blow out its tires if the pursuer didn’t slow down, though no incident ever came to that.

Technically, American soldiers weren’t “fighting” in this war. Congress, fearing a replay of Vietnam, had limited US involvement to 55 military personnel, none of whom could engage directly in combat. (However, through bookkeeping tricks, the actual number rose at times to 150 or so, and a few of the covert personnel sometimes did more with weapons than merely wield them.) Congress further insisted that these military personnel be called “trainers,” not “advisers,” because the escalation in Vietnam had started with advisers.

The Joint Chiefs hadn’t objected to these restrictions because they had no desire to get involved in this conflict to begin with. By the definitions laid down in Army field manuals, this wasn’t even a “war.” It was a “low-intensity conflict,” or LIC (a deliberately unappealing acronym), and the only American armed forces to play any role in LICs were Special Forces, not regular Army soldiers. The 55 “trainers” in El Salvador were all from the 7th Special Forces Group. They were fired on repeatedly, and some of them carried weapons—even Petraeus stashed a submachine gun in a map case when he went out on the road—but they were not officially considered to be at war.

Petraeus had read books about the Special Forces. He knew that they were the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, who entered the White House in 1961 deeply concerned about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s support for “national liberation movements” throughout the third world. Kennedy set up a secret panel in the National Security Council called “Special Group (Counterinsurgency)” and authorized the creation of a base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to recruit and train the Special Forces. In a speech to West Point graduates in June 1962, Kennedy made a pitch for these forces, telling the cadets about the emergence of “another type of warfare, new in its intensity, ancient in its origin—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins”—requiring the American military to devise “a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of military training.”

Vietnam was seen, initially, as the laboratory for this different kind of war. Early on, a mix of Special Forces, CIA agents, and action officers from the Agency for International Development pursued classic counter-insurgency methods to isolate the South Vietnamese people from the Viet Cong insurgents.

Petraeus’s father-in-law, William Knowlton, had been involved in the most ambitious of these programs, known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), which created “strategic hamlets”—distinct areas where the population could be separated (in some cases, physically resettled) from the insurgents—and then trained local self-defense units to stave off the insurgents’ return. CORDS was led by a brilliant but wild-eyed White House official named Robert Komer, known to those who worked with him as “Blowtorch.” (He didn’t mind the nickname.) Knowlton had served as Komer’s military deputy, and after Petraeus married Knowlton’s daughter, the two talked at length about CORDS: how it operated and its similarities to other counterinsurgency campaigns that Petraeus had been studying.

CORDS was a mixed success at best. After a brief experiment with the program under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, the Joint Chiefs shifted to a more conventional strategy based on large concentrations of troops and massive firepower. By the end of the war, Special Forces had lost its élan. The whole branch was seen as a career dead-ender; its dismantlement seemed all but inevitable.

Reprieve came in 1977, when commandos from a secret West German counterterrorism squad, called GSG-9, landed stealthily on a runway in Mogadishu, Somalia, and stormed a Lufthansa jetliner that had been hijacked by a group of Palestinians in support of a German terrorist group called the Red Army Faction. The only people killed in the raid were three of the four hijackers. All eighty-six passengers survived without injury.

Several congressional leaders started asking what kind of capabilities the US military had to pull off an operation like this. The answer, it turned out, was none. So the Army created Delta Force, a secret unit within the 5th Special Forces Group. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter called on Delta Force to rescue US embassy personnel who’d been taken hostage by the Islamist revolutionaries in Iran. The planning was inept, the resources were insufficient; the result was a fiasco. In the last months of the Carter administration, Special Forces received a budget boost. In the early months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which followed, it got a bigger boost still.

In 1981, in their first months in office, President Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, decided to “draw a line in the sand” in El Salvador. Two years earlier, the communist-backed Sandinista rebels had overthrown the reactionary US-backed regime in Nicaragua. Reagan and his aides feared that a replay in El Salvador would spark revolutions across the hemisphere.

Brigadier General Fred Woerner, who led the US Military Strategy Assistance Team in El Salvador, conducted a review of the local military and found it riddled with corruption, incompetence, appalling human rights violations (including “death squads” that murdered critics at whim), and an utter cluelessness of how to deal with shrewd insurgents. This combination, if left alone, would soon lead to military defeat and the collapse of the ruling regime: in short, another victory for left-wing insurgents in the Western Hemisphere.

Woerner drafted a National Campaign Plan that addressed what he called “the root causes” of the insurgency. It laid out a program of rural land reform, urban jobs, humanitarian assistance, and basic services for a wider segment of the population. Fighting the insurgents directly was part of the plan, but only part of it—and, even then, only in tandem with a reorganization and reform of the Salvadoran military. The idea behind this approach was that the insurgents were fueled by the country’s terrible poverty, its inequitable land-distribution policies, and its murderous repression. If the Sandinistas hadn’t triumphed a few years earlier, if Fidel Castro’s Cuba wasn’t aiding the Salvadoran rebels—in short, if the Salvadoran civil war wasn’t seen as a proxy battle in the Soviet-American Cold War—the United States would not have been aiding the regime at all. Certainly Congress wouldn’t have tolerated even a minimal presence of US military forces, especially since, in 1980, a Salvadoran death squad had murdered four American churchwomen who’d been aiding victims of the army’s violence. On a number of levels—strategic, tactical, and moral—the regime could not (and, even many of the US officers in the region believed, should not) survive unless it underwent drastic political, economic, and social reforms.

A widely read sixty-three-page Army War College paper by John Waghelstein, a Special Forces colonel who’d fought insurgencies all through the 1960s, in Panama, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam—and who’d been commander of the US Military Group in El Salvador when Woerner wrote his plan—concluded with this sentence: “Simply killing guerrillas will not solve El Salvador’s problems.”

Woerner’s National Campaign Plan, at this point, was still a work in progress; sizable pockets of resistance remained in the military and the ruling elite. Still, Petraeus was stunned when he read the plan and Waghelstein’s paper on the document’s origins. Here was an insurgency war, and here were US Special Forces—some of them old hands from the Vietnam CORDS program—trying to rescue another deeply flawed regime by reviving the classic principles of counterinsurgency.

Petraeus was ebullient about his discovery. When a Wall Street Journal reporter came to Southern Command to write about this new kind of war, Petraeus, who’d been assigned to escort him, exclaimed (and was quoted as saying, in his first of many appearances on the front page of a national newspaper), “LIC is a growth industry.”

But Petraeus also recognized that, for the moment, anyway, LIC was confined to Special Forces, which had been created to perform missions that the regular Army could not or would not touch.

Galvin was frustrated by this marginalization. Not that he wanted thousands of US combat troops to fight El Salvador’s war; in fact, he and several of the Special Forces officers, including Waghelstein, saw an advantage in keeping America’s footprint small. But he thought it was dangerous to pretend that this wasn’t a war. Galvin had recently given a speech in London about the failure of Western military institutions to come to grips with the world’s new dangers—terrorism, guerrilla wars, international drug trafficking, the alarmingly swift collapse of suddenly unstable regimes—and he decided to expand the ideas into an article for Parameters, the journal of the US Army War College.

Petraeus was spending much of his time that summer writing papers, or coordinating the assignment of papers to others, on various issues in the region. He’d typed up a list of these ideas under the heading, “War of Information Status Report,” invoking the term that Galvin had coined back in their days together at the 24th Infantry Division. Topics on the list included the links between drug traffickers and insurgents, the historical context of Latin America’s growing instability, a broad strategy for SouthCom, and why El Salvador was not like Vietnam, among others.

Galvin gave Petraeus the task of ghostwriting the article for Parameters. There was no transcript of the London speech, nor had Galvin written out a text ahead of time. As usual on such occasions, he’d only scribbled some ideas and a rough outline on a small stack of three-by-five-inch note cards. He handed Petraeus the cards and told him to expand on them as he saw fit.

The article, published in Parameters’ Winter 1986 issue, was called “Uncomfortable Wars: Toward a New Paradigm.” It was widely, and correctly, read as an assault on the Army establishment: an assault so direct and piercing that only a four-star general—and an unusually self-contained four-star general, at that—would have dared put his name on it. And only the most confident and nurtured young major would have dared go along for the ride, much less take control of the wheel, even anonymously.

The article began:

We in the military . . . tend to invent for ourselves a comfortable vision of war . . . one that fits our plans, our assumptions, our hopes, and our preconceived ideas. We arrange in our minds a war we can comprehend on our own terms, usually with an enemy who looks like us and acts like us. This comfortable conceptualization becomes the accepted way of seeing things and, as such, ceases to be an object for further investigation unless it comes under serious challenge as a result of some major event—usually a military disaster.

Galvin’s warning, via Petraeus’s pen, was that the West was skating on the brink of that disaster. New kinds of conflict were coming to dominate the landscape: subversion, terrorism, guerrilla wars. “They do not fit into our image of war,” so we tend “to view them as being on the periphery.” We call them low-intensity conflicts, to suggest that they’re “a kind of appendage, an add-on, a lesser thing.” We are accustomed “to thinking about defeating our enemy by bringing combat power, primarily firepower, to bear on him.” Yet in these kinds of “revolutionary wars,” firepower was no longer so relevant. In these kinds of wars, the article went on—drawing on Galula and CORDS and the National Campaign Plan for El Salvador—the two sides “compete principally for the support of the national population.” And the government must not only fight the insurgents on the battlefield but also “reestablish its political legitimacy” by addressing “contentious, long-ignored, but popular issues tied to key facets of national life—sociopolitical, economic, educational, juridical.” In this kind of war, a doctrine based principally on firepower and body-counts may be not merely futile but disastrous. “If, for example, the military’s actions in killing 50 guerrillas cause 200 previously uncommitted citizens to join the insurgent cause,” the article argued, “the use of force will have been counterproductive.”

It was an idea that Petraeus would repeat often years later.

At this point in the article, Petraeus quoted his favorite passage from Larteguy’s The Centurions, about the two sides in the French Indochina War playing two different games with two different decks of cards. He then noted that, like the officers in that novel, “we are experiencing something new in warfare, something that requires us to restudy our doctrine, tactics, organization, and training.”

The key problem lay in the ethos of the modern officer corps itself. “One reason we have accepted the comfortable vision of war,” the article continued, “is that we keep our noses to the grindstone of bureaucratic business and don’t look up very often.” The article concluded, in words reminiscent of Colonel Lincoln’s statement of purpose for West Point’s Sosh department, “Let us get our young leaders away from the grindstone now and then, and encourage them to reflect on developments outside the fortress-cloister. Only then will they develop into leaders capable of adapting to the changed environment of warfare and able to fashion a new paradigm that addresses all the dimensions of the conflicts that may lie ahead.”

Twenty years later, after his first tour in the Iraq War as commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus wrote an article in the Army journal Military Review, under his own name, on how he learned to apply the principles of counterinsurgency during his occupation of Mosul. In it, he quoted those last passages from “Uncomfortable Wars,” and added, “General Galvin’s words were relevant then, but they are even more applicable today”—never noting that he was the one who’d written those words.

At the end of the summer of 1986, after his brief posting at SouthCom was over, Petraeus returned to the “fortress-cloister” at West Point with a clearer vision of a plausible career path for himself in the Army—and a living example, in General Jack Galvin, of an officer who’d managed to rise through the ranks while prodding change from within.

•  •  •

First, though, Petraeus had to earn his PhD, and the summer with Galvin also gave him some ideas on how to do that. He turned the final third of his 328-page dissertation into an open appeal for the US military, especially his Army, to get over its post-Vietnam aversion to low-intensity conflicts and to take a deeper interest in counterinsurgency doctrine.

The “reluctance to get involved in Central America with US troops,” he wrote, “was translated into military reluctance to develop plans for such potential operations, based apparently on the theory that if one has no plans, they cannot be executed.” However, he went on, reciting the argument that he’d ghostwritten for General Galvin in Parameters, small wars affecting US interests were not only more likely to take place than large wars, they were already upon us—and the military should “come to grips” with that fact by changing its doctrine, tactics, and personnel policies so that new officers could devise effective plans.

“Lessons of history” can be “misleading,” he went on. It was well understood that the Cold Warriors of the early 1960s had distorted history when they likened the communist assault on South Vietnam to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland or Czechoslovakia. Now, he wrote, the military chiefs of the mid-1980s were similarly “myopic” in seeing every third-world crisis as another Vietnam. He quoted Mark Twain on the broad issue of lessons:

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

Which way the Army would go—whether it continued to avoid all stove lids or came to realize that it might sometimes be necessary to sit on one—“will depend,” Petraeus concluded, “on forthcoming generations of military leaders” and “the lessons they take from Vietnam.”

Petraeus was determined to be one of those new military leaders who sat on stove lids—and carried forth the forgotten, age-old lessons on how to do that.

But not just yet.

Petraeus’s adviser at Princeton, Richard Ullman, a prominent scholar of international relations, urged him to publish his dissertation as a book. The young officer was reluctant.

Recently, an Army major named Andrew Krepinevich Jr., a former instructor in the Sosh department who graduated West Point in 1972, two years before Petraeus, had turned his dissertation, which he’d written at Harvard, into a book called The Army and Vietnam. In it, he argued that the United States lost the war not because of the news media or because politicians forced the generals to fight with one hand tied behind their backs (the military’s standard excuses), but rather because the Army’s commanders didn’t understand the kind of war they were fighting: they fought the kind of war they knew—a war waged with large units and heavy firepower, as they had in Korea and World War II—but the Viet Cong were fighting an insurgency war, which required a different approach.

Krepinevich and Petraeus, it turned out, had read the same books on counterinsurgency, Malaya, and the Philippines. Shortly before his book was published, Krepinevich came to West Point to give a lecture about it. Petraeus, who had just started to teach in the Sosh department, attended the talk and approached the speaker afterward, practically bouncing with energy, eager to get a copy of his work, which seemed to reinforce and expand on some of the conclusions that he was gleaning from his own research.

When Krepinevich’s book came out, the backlash was severe. Bruce Palmer Jr., a retired Army general and former Vietnam commander, wrote a scathing review in Parameters, condemning the author for his “crippling naivete,” his “lack of historical breadth and objectivity,” and his “abrasive” tone. Palmer was no lightweight. He had once been the Army’s acting chief of staff and was still on close terms with many active-duty generals. A four-star general like Jack Galvin might get away with broad swipes against the institutional culture, but not a major, not one writing under his own name, anyway. Palmer’s review was widely—and correctly—interpreted as a death-sentence for the upstart’s career. Krepinevich went on to a few staff jobs in the Pentagon as a military adviser to high-ranking civilians. But the notion that he might ever command a combat unit was out of the question. He was barred even from speaking again at West Point. (A few years later, he would retire from the Army as a lieutenant colonel and head up a defense-policy think tank.)

Petraeus, too, was a mere major when he finished his dissertation. He may have been assertive, but he wasn’t crazy. Toward the end of his paper, he wrote, “Those who criticize the conventional wisdom do so at their own risk.” He then summarized the case of Major Krepinevich, but only in a footnote, ending it with the observation that a book review as harsh as the one in Parameters, written by a retired general with the cachet of Bruce Palmer, “can be unsettling to say the least.” Petraeus knew that he needed a star or two on his shoulders before he could openly wage his own War of Information on the Army itself—especially the sort of assault that he was advocating behind the scenes, first as General Galvin’s ghostwriter, then as the author of a dissertation that he was intent on ensuring almost no one would read.

The task of publishing, promoting, and proselytizing a dissertation that pressured the Army to abandon its traditional ways, and embrace the doctrine of COIN, was left to Petraeus’s protégé, John Nagl.

Advertisements