The Insurgent in the Pentagon

18. The Insurgent in the Pentagon

Whenever David Petraeus needed something from the Pentagon—when one of his policies faced resistance from the chiefs, when critical supplies hit a clog in the bureaucracy, when he’d find it useful to have an argument made at a high-level meeting—he would often send a note or put in a call to his old friend and fellow member of the West Point Sosh network, Pete Chiarelli.

In early March 2007, just a few weeks after Petraeus assumed command of US forces in Iraq, the new secretary of defense, Robert Gates, chose Chiarelli to be his senior military assistant. Gates needed a general with an intimate understanding of the war. He’d been impressed with Chiarelli’s briefing six months earlier in Baghdad, when Chiarelli was Casey’s deputy and Gates was a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission. Hearing that Chiarelli was now back in the States, he called him in for an interview and hired him.

Gates’s own rise had been sudden and swift. On November 7, 2006, the Republican Party lost both houses of Congress in midterm elections, due in large part to the war’s declining popularity. The next day, President Bush announced that Donald Rumsfeld had resigned as defense secretary and that Bob Gates would take his place. Four weeks later, the Senate confirmed Gates’s nomination, 95–2. On December 18, he was sworn into office.

His priorities were Iraq, Iraq, and Iraq. The day after he took the oath, he made the trip to Baghdad. On the flight over, he read Fred Kagan’s surge briefing, then, upon touching down, talked with Casey and Odierno about its prospects. When he got back to the Pentagon and began to settle in, the first thing that struck him was how few people in the building seemed to share his sense of urgency.

Gates was sixty-three. He’d never worked in the Pentagon, but he had spent his entire career in other top-secret compartments of the Washington bureaucracy, rising through the ranks of the CIA—from staff Kremlinologist to director—and spending two-and-a-half years in the White House as deputy national security adviser to Bush’s father. Those were Cold War times, when some crisis was always riveting everyone’s attention late into the night. Now there was a real war going on, yet the senior officers in the Pentagon were shuffling through their routines as if Americans in uniform weren’t fighting and dying anywhere on the planet. The generals and admirals would haul their PowerPoint briefings into his office, urging him to spend more money on the Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter jet, the Army’s high-tech Future Combat System, or yet another Navy nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. These pitches had their place, and so perhaps did the weapons in some big war of the future; but they were all the brass wanted to talk about, and they had nothing to do with the wars going on now.

The first glaring sign of these jumbled priorities came on February 18, 2007, two months into his job, when the Washington Post published a front-page story revealing the dreadful neglect of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, six miles north of the White House. Gates cleared his schedule, conducted his own investigation, and ordered sweeping changes, including firing the secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey.

Before long, Gates realized that the problems he faced ran much deeper than that of a few officials’ negligence at a military hospital.

Even before Chiarelli took his new job, Gates had asked him what the troops in Iraq needed most. From his own experiences the previous year and from talks with Petraeus since, Chiarelli cited two huge priorities: ISR and MRAP.

ISR—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—referred mainly to the unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that flew over the battlefield with cameras (and sometimes missiles) attached to their bellies, streaming video images back to stateside bases where Air Force officers watched the pictures on monitors and steered the drones with remote-control joysticks, sending signals through GPS satellites. The drones, with names like Predator and Global Hawk, were the realizations of John Foster’s dream, hatched thirty-five years earlier with a model airplane and a lawn-mower engine. The irony was that they’d originally been conceived and developed as weapons that could strike Soviet targets behind enemy lines—a tool of “deep-strike interdiction” in the titanic war to come between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. Now the drones were helping soldiers and marines—grunts on the ground—track down insurgents and terrorists in a kind of warfare that the Joint Chiefs, a few years earlier, had refused to call a “war.”

For that reason, though, the top Air Force generals had little interest in unmanned aircraft; the centerpiece of their culture was still the agile pilot in a fast plane’s cockpit. So they held up the drones’ production. When Gates accelerated production, they held up delivery. Gates then ordered a step-up in the deliveries, but got word that only a few were up in the air.

Gates had his staff call the bases where the drones were stationed and discovered that they were operating at just half the rate they could have been. When he took office, barely twenty drones were flying combat air patrols at any one time, and almost all of those were allocated to the Joint Special Operations Command, the secretive commandos hunting down the most wanted jihadists. Very few drones were let loose on the insurgent foot soldiers setting off bombs in Iraqi cities or planting them along roads used by American convoys. Some test runs against these sorts of targets had demonstrated their value; the drone’s camera would observe insurgents planting a bomb and then follow them back to their hideouts, where soldiers or marines were sent to kill or capture them. But, Chiarelli told Gates, in all the time he’d been corps commander in Iraq, he’d never been allowed more than a single Predator drone at any one time.

Roadside bombs were the biggest threat facing soldiers in Iraq, the cause of nearly two-thirds of American combat casualties. And, Chiarelli added, the Pentagon could be doing one more thing to bring down those numbers: there was a new kind of armored troop-carrying vehicle, the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle, or MRAP (pronounced “M-Rap”). It really did what its name suggested: resist mines and protect against ambushes. But the senior officers in the Army and the Marines didn’t want it. The vehicles were expensive, a half million dollars each, more than three times the price of armored Humvees. But they would save lives—hundreds, potentially thousands—that the Humvees couldn’t.

Gates was detecting a pattern. The Air Force didn’t want drones because they might subvert its plans to build advanced manned fighter planes for the big war of the future. The Army and the Marines didn’t want the MRAP because it would take money away from other armored vehicles, especially the Future Combat System, which was designed to fight this same big war of the future. What was this big future war? When would we be fighting it, against whom? Gates wasn’t opposed to planning for a wide range of contingencies, and he had no desire to retract the reach of American global power. But he found it perverse—it took him a while to believe—that the senior officers in the Department of Defense were so uninterested in the wars going on at the moment. It was clear they wanted out of this war; this wasn’t what they had in mind when they thought about war (“real men don’t do moot-wah”); they couldn’t wait until this war was over, so they could go back to preparing for the war they’d rather fight. Unmanned planes wouldn’t play as much of a role in the big war; slow, bulky troop carriers like the MRAP might be fine for urban guerrilla wars, but sleeker ones would be better for the rolling hills of a conventional battlefield.

Chiarelli had to be a bit cautious in this dispute. Soon after he came on board as Gates’s assistant, General George Casey, his old boss and frequent antagonist from Iraq days, became the Army chief of staff. President Bush had felt bad about rejecting Casey’s advice and relieving him of his command, so he promoted him to chief of staff as a consolation prize. Casey was well aware that he’d lost the battle over policy; and as chief of staff, he had no formal control over the war’s operations. But he had his ideas about the Army’s proper priorities, and he had a big say about the Army’s budget. So he kept up his resistance to the push toward COIN. He worried—and others, even those less resistant to COIN, shared this concern—that the Army was pulling back too far from the task, arguably the more vital task, of arming and training for major combat against a comparably mighty foe.

Gates took up Chiarelli’s battles, often with his guidance. At first glance, the new defense secretary struck an unassuming profile. He’d grown up in Wichita, Kansas, and still spoke with a midwesterner’s slight twang and steady cadence. Short, with thin white hair and a bit of a waddle in his walk, he could pass as a small-town banker. But there was a steely glint in his eyes when he confronted a challenger. He hadn’t climbed the rough ropes at the CIA, survived scandals, or learned to navigate the corridors of power all across the nation’s capital by being a milquetoast.

Early on in the new job, he called a meeting of senior Pentagon officials, civilian and military, to tell them he wanted 1,500 MRAPs in Iraq by the end of the year. Several in the room protested that it couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be done: the production lines were slow, the logistics were difficult, the vehicles weren’t needed anyway—a dozen more reasons.

After a few minutes of this moaning, Gates flashed that glint and told them—still in a soft voice, there was no need to yell—that maybe they didn’t understand: there will be 1,500 new MRAPs deployed to Iraq by the end of the year; their job is to figure out how to get them there.

It was clear to everyone in the room that the meeting was over.

Not long after, during a review of the upcoming supplemental bill, a midyear add-on to the defense budget that covered unanticipated war costs, Gates unilaterally tacked on an extra $16 billion to build more MRAPs as quickly as possible—an unprecedented sum to spend on a single weapons program in a single year.

He launched similar machinations to push for more drones but faced still fiercer resistance from the Air Force; it took a year for Gates to win this contest decisively. His break came in the summer of 2007, when an Air Force bomber pilot mistakenly (and against all safety regulations) flew over American territory with live nuclear weapons under the plane’s wings. Gates used the occasion to fire the Air Force chief of staff, General T. Michael Moseley, and the service’s civilian secretary, Michael Wynne. His official rationale was the nuclear mishap, but the real reason was their persistent insubordination on the F-22 fighter (by this time, Gates had decided to stop building more of the planes, though Moseley and Wynne kept arguing publicly for more) and their refusal to get with the drone program.

This was a stunning move. Four-star generals were almost never fired. Hardly less remarkable was Gates’s choice as Moseley’s replacement—General Norton Schwartz.

Ever since 1947, when the Air Force split away from the Army to become an independent service, its chiefs of staff had always risen through the ranks of its dominant branch. Until the early 1980s, every chief had been a nuclear-bomber pilot. From that point on, they’d all been fighter pilots. But Norty Schwartz had come up through the Special Operations Command, and when Gates nominated him as chief, he was head of the Air Force’s Transportation Command, which managed cargo-transport planes; that is, he was in charge of airlifting supplies and troops to foreign bases or war zones, mainly for soldiers and marines. Schwartz impressed Gates because when all the other senior Air Force officers were claiming that it was impossible to fly MRAPs to Iraq in any great number, Schwartz worked out a plan on how to do it.

By promoting Schwartz, not only did Gates promote a general who was focused on the war of the moment, he also laid the groundwork for the next cultural shift of the Air Force itself. Schwartz announced that drones would play a central role in the conflicts to come and that the drones’ joystick pilots would be rewarded accordingly. Within months, the drone fleet’s flight hours doubled. By the end of the following year, the Air Force was training more joystick pilots than cockpit pilots, and the former’s ranks included a growing share of the elite. Flying an F-15 jet might have been fun, but the nation was fighting two wars, and manned fighter planes were barely involved in either. (The F-22 wasn’t involved at all.) Steering a Predator or any of the other growing number of drones, the pilots were above—they were in—the action nonstop, increasingly so as the drones emerged as vital tools in the fight against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates saw that the entire Defense Department needed an overhaul—in the way its leaders bought weapons, managed budgets, promoted officers, and fought wars. He had just two years, the time left in Bush’s second term as president: not enough time to do much besides deal with Iraq. But he could outline an agenda of change for his successor, and he decided to do this through a series of speeches.

•  •  •

The head speechwriter in the Office of the Secretary of Defense was a thirty-six-year-old former Army lieutenant named Thayer Scott. He’d been the number-two speechwriter when Donald Rumsfeld was secretary and initially relished working for a kick-ass reformer. But he grew weary of Rumsfeld (who turned out to be more kick-ass than reformer) and wearier still of the war in Iraq.

A Princeton graduate (he’d come into the Army through ROTC) and the son of two Foreign Service Officers, Scott had grown more reflective and started reading lots of articles about what went wrong in Iraq, including the officers’ debates in Military Review and Small Wars Journal. When Rumsfeld left the Pentagon, the top speechwriter went with him, so Scott took over the slot.

Scott had little one-on-one contact with the new secretary, just a single meeting, in his first four months. But he watched Bob Gates in action, saw how directly, even bluntly, he dealt with the Walter Reed scandal and with the obstructionists on MRAP and the drones. He read about Gates’s tenure as CIA director in the wake of the Cold War, when he shifted the Agency away from its obsession with Russia (which had been Gates’s own specialty) to focus more on terrorism and unstable states. He also read an article in Texas Monthly magazine about Gates’s tenure as president of Texas A&M University, his last job before coming to the Pentagon, where he’d overhauled the admissions policy (more minorities, fewer unqualified children of alumni), fired incompetent department managers, hired more faculty to bring down class rolls, even ordered a more diverse menu in the dining halls. Maybe this guy was the real agent of change.

That summer, Gates was invited to speak at the upcoming convention of the Association of the United States Army, the lobbying organization of retired Army officers. It was an annual rite for defense secretaries, a surefire forum for pandering applause-lines. Scott decided to draft a different sort of speech, one that described the changes that he knew Gates wanted to make.

Scott hadn’t talked with Pete Chiarelli much, either, but he knew that Gates and the general were close, that they talked with each other at least twice a day and usually had dinner together on trips abroad. Scott had read Chiarelli’s article in Military Review two years earlier about counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, and he obtained an advance copy of his article for the upcoming issue of Military Review (he knew that Gates had a copy of it, too), called “Learning from Our Modern Wars,” in which Chiarelli urged the Army to shift its focus away from large-scale tank maneuvers on wide-open battlefields to smaller-scale, urban COIN campaigns.

From there, Scott read John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. He talked with Colonel Sean MacFarland—who, at this point, was working for the Joint Staff in the Pentagon—about the Sunni Awakening that he’d led in Ramadi. He had lunch with Andrew Krepinevich, whose book about Vietnam (which Scott read) had argued that the Army lost the war because its commanders fought as if it were a conventional battle instead of a competition for the allegiance of the people. He even read David Petraeus’s PhD dissertation, which made the same point and extended it to a broader argument that the Army should get over its Vietnam complex and prepare for the growing trend of low-intensity conflicts.

Finally, Scott took another look at the transcript of Gates’s confirmation hearings and noticed one passage in particular, in which he’d stressed the importance of “continuing to strengthen our capacity to fight irregular wars,” adding, “I think that’s where the action is going—is most likely to be for the foreseeable future.”

By the time he started writing, Scott had a good idea of the sort of speech Gates himself would write if he had the time.

The first half of the draft was boilerplate: some banal but crowd-pleasing jokes about the self-centeredness of Washington (Gates wrote these himself, and would repeat them in many speeches to come), followed by praise for the Army’s proud traditions and brave soldiers.

He eased gently into the innovative section, the assault on conventional wisdom held not only by Gates’s challengers inside the Pentagon but also by the vast majority of retired officers who would be sitting in the audience. “In the years following the Vietnam War,” Scott wrote, taking his cues from the writings of Petraeus, Krepinevich, and Nagl, “the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities,” leaving itself “unprepared to deal with the operations that followed—Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq—the consequences and costs of which we are still struggling with today.” He noted signs of progress—the revamping of the National Training Center, the publication of the counterinsurgency field manual—but stressed, “This work and these lessons in irregular warfare need to be retained and institutionalized, and should not be allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine.”

Then came the lines that would make many in the audience flinch: “It is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly on the ground—at least for some years to come. Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces—insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists—have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos . . . We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time.”

Finally, he told the tale—which was still not widely known—about the Army’s “Ready First” Brigade, which pacified Ramadi one neighborhood at a time, and he memorialized in particular Captain Travis Patriquin, who gave his life while forming alliances with the town’s tribal elders to defeat al Qaeda and win the peace. “It is stories and soldiers like these,” the speech concluded, “that inspire us and make us proud and hopeful about the future of America’s Army.”

It was a bold claim to make before a hall of hidebound veterans: that their Army’s future lay not with gold-plated weapons or sweeping tank maneuvers across an open battlefield—the projects and scenarios that had been driving its budgets and activities for decades—but rather with some junior officer who’d struck deals with Arab sheikhs.

Scott turned in the draft, not knowing what to expect. Gates looked it over with Chiarelli, approved it with only a few stylistic changes, and, on October 10, read it aloud to the vets and their lobbyists at the Washington Convention Center as the lunchtime keynote speaker.

The reactions were what Scott had hoped. The Army traditionalists—those who watched the speech delivered live and those who read the transcript later—were alarmed that the defense secretary might really cut into the heart of the Army they knew and loved, might change its mission and its whole concept of a soldier. The COINdinistas were stunned in a different way. They realized that they now had an ally and spokesman in the highest of places. The secretary of defense himself, it seemed, was one of them.

•  •  •

Another eyebrow-raising line in Gates’s speech came toward the end, when he praised the junior and midgrade officers “who have been tested in battle like none other in decades” and who “have seen the complex, grueling face of war in the twenty-first century up close.” He then said: “These men and women need to be retained, and the best and brightest advanced to the point that they can use their experience to shape the institution to which they have given so much. And this may mean reexamining assignments and promotion policies that, in many cases, are unchanged since the Cold War.”

To an extent that Gates himself didn’t realize, this was the most radical passage in the speech.

Scott got the idea for this passage from an article written a year earlier, in Armed Forces Journal, by John Nagl and another lieutenant colonel named Paul Yingling, who’d been a colleague of Nagl’s on the West Point Sosh department’s faculty back in the 1990s. Their article, titled “New Rules for New Enemies,” noted that the officer promotion boards were “the surest means the Army has to communicate which skills, knowledge, and abilities it prizes most highly.” All executives tend to promote underlings whose styles and career paths resemble their own; that was the purpose of a promotion system—to perpetuate an organization’s dominant culture. Most of the Army’s generals had risen through the ranks during the Cold War as armor, infantry, or artillery officers, trained to lead men in large-scale, head-on battles against enemies of comparable strength. And so they tended to promote officers with that same experience. But today’s wars, the authors argued, were more likely to be asymmetric conflicts against guerrillas, insurgents, or terrorists. Fighting these wars required more adaptive officers and thus “a more adaptive organizational culture.” The best way to change the Army’s organizational culture, they wrote, was “to change the pathways for professional advancement within its officer corps. The Army will become more adaptive only when being adaptive offers the surest path to promotion.”

Nagl and Yingling didn’t say so, but it was widely known throughout the Army that one of those adaptive officers—who, true to form, had not been promoted when he should have been—was H. R. McMaster.

McMaster was the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment who pushed back jihadists in Tal Afar with the clear-hold-build approach inspired by the classic COIN books and by the more recent example of Petraeus’s campaign in Mosul. If the Army wanted to promote officers who “got” the new style of warfare and who knew how to defeat an adaptive foe, McMaster was their man. Yet around the time that Nagl and Yingling wrote their article, the board that picked which colonels would be promoted to one-star general each year didn’t pick him.

The article didn’t mention that the authors and McMaster were colleagues and friends: Yingling had been McMaster’s assistant in Tal Afar; he and Nagl had taught in West Point’s Sosh department at the same time McMaster was teaching in its History Department.

When the news of McMaster’s nonpromotion came down the line, Nagl was outraged. One place where he often stormed off to vent his outrage was the office of Pete Geren, the undersecretary of the Army.

Back in the fall of 2004, when Nagl first came to the Pentagon and spent his spare time prowling the corridors in search of someone—anyone—with an interest in counterinsurgency, Geren was among the few who lent an ear. At the time, Geren was one of Rumsfeld’s special assistants, a former four-term congressman from Texas—a “Blue Dog Democrat,” meaning a Democrat hawkish on defense issues—who’d quit the House in 1997 and moved back to Texas. Rumsfeld offered him the Pentagon job in the early summer of 2001. He hadn’t known Rumsfeld, though he was a longtime friend of George W. Bush’s. Some House members had advised Rumsfeld that Geren would make a good liaison with both the White House and the Congress.

Geren sat down with Nagl several times, but their meetings became more frequent after February 2006, when Geren was appointed undersecretary of the Army. Geren didn’t know much about the nuts and bolts of the service, and he gladly accepted Nagl’s tutelage about everything from the fine points of tactics and strategy to the design flaws of a proposed new armored vehicle.

Even before McMaster was passed over, before he and Yingling wrote their article, Nagl spent several sessions with Geren, railing against the conformist coterie that ruled the Army’s archaic promotion boards.

“Why haven’t I been promoted?” Nagl moaned on a couple of occasions. “We’ve got idiots running this place!”

When Gates fired Francis Harvey as Army secretary over the Walter Reed scandal, he moved up Geren to take Harvey’s place. Geren tried to talk Gates out of the promotion, noting that, given the wars going on, the job should go to someone with active-duty Army experience. But Gates insisted. Geren knew the ropes, and, besides, a new administration would take over in less than two years: better to maintain continuity than to bring in a new secretary, who, after the vetting and the confirmation hearings and all the rest, would just be getting up to speed by the time the job ended.

Geren was confirmed as secretary of the Army on July 16, 2007. Not long after, he received—along with the dozens of other documents that passed his desk each day—a memo from GOMO, the Army’s General Officer Management Office, listing the generals who’d been nominated to sit on the upcoming promotion board.

This was usually a pro forma memo, but by statute, the civilian service secretary had to sign off on such a list. If Francis Harvey had still been Army secretary—which is to say, if Bob Gates hadn’t fired Harvey over the Walter Reed scandal (which is to say, if George W. Bush hadn’t fired Donald Rumsfeld over the Iraq War’s unpopularity)—the list almost certainly would have been approved without a moment’s thought.

But Pete Geren, who had won his job through a series of flukes, remembered those conversations he’d had with John Nagl about the promotion system. So he took a close look at the list of generals who were going to pick tomorrow’s generals and who would thus send the signals—as Nagl and Yingling put it—about which “skills, knowledge, and ability” the Army prized most highly. And he realized that these were not the right generals for such a sensitive task; they were not the Army’s movers and shakers.

The board’s chairman was by tradition the Army vice chief of staff, but Geren suddenly realized it didn’t have to be that way. And the current vice, General Richard Cody, though a decent man, was completely wrong for this part of the job: his only combat tour had been as an aviation battalion commander in Desert Storm, and he appeared to have no understanding of the current wars. Once, during a conversation about Petraeus and counterinsurgency, Cody had told Geren, “You can’t run an Army based on the flavor of the month.” Clearly he was one of the generals who couldn’t wait to drop this irregular warfare fad and get back to the Army’s real business. Most of the generals on this list were of the same view.

Geren was also picking up signals that this type of general didn’t like H. R. McMaster. And he knew by this time that the failure to promote McMaster the previous year had widely been seen as a symbol of the Army’s hidebound ways, not just by the COIN enthusiasts but by junior officers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, learned new skills, and now wondered if they would be rewarded or punished for adapting well to the kind of war they were fighting. Geren had read these young officers’ bitter comments in Army blog posts and in a few mainstream news stories. Geren had once asked Casey, who by now was chief of staff, why so many generals had a problem with McMaster. Casey replied, in a tone that suggested he was a member of the club, “If McMaster weren’t such a smart-ass, he would have been promoted a long time ago.”

So, looking at the list of prospective board members, Geren did what no one else in his job had ever done: he sent it back with a rejection note and said he’d pick them himself.

Geren spent the next week canvassing every smart officer he knew, including Nagl, and assembling a list of the Army’s most dynamic generals. He whittled down that list to fifteen and asked them all to serve on the promotion board. They included David Petraeus; Pete Chiarelli; Stanley McChrystal, head of the Joint Special Operations Command; John Mulholland, head of Special Operations for Central Command; and Ann Dunwoody, a former parachutist in the 82nd Airborne Division who was the Army’s highest-ranking woman and so might be disposed to the idea of opening doors.

There was one possible hitch. Only the secretary of defense could call back a wartime commander to serve on a domestic panel like the promotion board, which is to say Geren needed Gates’s authorization to call back Petraeus. Gates thought Geren had a terrific idea; he signed the form without hesitation. Chiarelli was also an unusual choice; some might see the appointment of the defense secretary’s military assistant as a political move, but Gates allowed that, too.

When word got out that Petraeus was chairing the board and that Chiarelli was one of its members, it was widely inferred—celebrated in some quarters, lamented in others—that McMaster would finally get his star. Some even dubbed it “the H. R. McMaster promotion board.”

The board met from November 8 to 13 in the Hoffman Town Center, a bland office and retail complex in Alexandria, Virginia, seven miles south of the Pentagon, adjacent to the Army’s Human Resources Command.

McMaster got his star, but that wasn’t the board’s only breakthrough.

Among the forty colonels it advanced to brigadier general were Sean MacFarland, the commander who led the Awakening in Ramadi; Steve Townsend, who cleared and held Baqubah; Michael Garrett, who commanded an infantry brigade that helped turn around the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad; Colleen McGuire, an officer in the military police, a branch of the Army that had almost never produced a general; as well as eight Special Forces officers and a few commanders of “light” forces—Stryker brigades and units of the 10th Mountain Division—which previous boards had systematically ignored.

Nearly all of these new generals had served multiple tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. They had a depth of knowledge about asymmetric warfare that the generals at the start of those wars lacked entirely. And many of them were promoted straight from their combat commands; they weren’t forced to scurry through the bureaucratic maze as a prerequisite to advancement.

This alone was a big shift. The year before, when Cody chaired the promotion board, nine of the thirty-eight new one-stars had been executive officers to a commanding general—and in most cases, not a combat commander. Only four of the forty rewarded by the Petraeus-led board were executive officers, and all of them had served commanders who were directly involved in the war.

In short, the fall 2007 promotion board marked a major cultural change in the Army. From then on, every brigadier-general board had to include at least one general who’d commanded troops in Iraq and another who’d done so in Afghanistan. (The chairman of the 2008 board would be Ray Odierno. Three years later, McMaster would be awarded his second star, although the revolution was still a halting one; the year before, he was once again passed over.)

Nagl and Yingling had written in their article, “The Army will become more adaptive only when being adaptive offers the surest path to promotion.” Gates expressed the same idea in his speech to the retired Army officers. With the Petraeus-led board, which was created under Nagl’s influence and with Gates’s assent, the Army became “a more adaptive organizational culture”—or, as Nagl had put it in his book a few years earlier, “a learning organization.”

But in the months and years ahead, what would this organization learn, and where would that lead it?

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