This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
"Tell Me How This Ends?"
David Petraeus Finally Answers His Own Question
By Tom Engelhardt
It took 14 years, but now we have an answer.
It was March 2003, the invasion of Iraq was underway, and Major General David Petraeus was in command of the 101st Airborne Division heading for the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Rick Atkinson, Washington Post journalist and military historian, was accompanying him. Six days into a lightning campaign, his division suddenly found itself stopped 30 miles southwest of the city of Najaf by terrible weather, including a blinding dust storm, and the unexpectedly "fanatical" attacks of Iraqi irregulars. At that moment, Atkinson reported,
"[Petraeus] hooked his thumbs into his flak vest and adjusted the weight on his shoulders. 'Tell me how this ends,' he said. 'Eight years and eight divisions?' The allusion was to advice supposedly given the White House in the early 1950s by a senior Army strategist upon being asked what it would take to prop up French forces in South Vietnam. Petraeus's grin suggested the comment was more droll quip than historical assertion."
Certainly, Petraeus knew his history when it came to American interventions in distant lands. He had entered West Point just as the American war in Vietnam was beginning to wind down and did his doctoral dissertation at Princeton in 1987 on that conflict ("The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era"). In it, he wrote,
"Vietnam cost the military dearly. It left America's military leaders confounded, dismayed, and discouraged. Even worse, it devastated the armed forces, robbing them of dignity, money, and qualified people for a decade... Vietnam was an extremely painful reminder that when it comes to intervention, time and patience are not American virtues in abundant supply."
So no wonder he was well acquainted with that 1954 exchange between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and former Korean War commander General Matthew Ridgeway about the French war in Vietnam. Perhaps, the "droll quip" aspect of his comment lay in his knowledge of just how badly Ridgeway underestimated both the years and the troop numbers that the American version of that war would eat up before it, too, ended in disaster and in a military as riddled with protest and as close to collapse as was imaginable for an American force of our era.
In his thesis, Petraeus called for the military high command to be granted a far freer hand in whatever interventions the future held. In that sense, in 1987, he was already mainlining into a twenty-first-century world in which the U.S. military continues to get everything it wants (and more) as it fights its wars without having to deal with either an obstreperous citizen army or too many politicians trying to impose their will on its actions.
And by the way, though his Najaf comments have regularly been cited as if they were sui generis, as the Ridgeway reference indicates, he was hardly the first American military commander or political figure to appropriate Joan of Arc's question in Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan: "How long, oh Lord, how long?"
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam recounted in his history of the Vietnam years, The Best and the Brightest, for instance, President Lyndon Johnson turned to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Earle Wheeler in a June 1965 meeting and asked of the war in Vietnam, "What do you think it will take to do the job?"
Wheeler's answer echoed Ridgeway's 11 years earlier, though in the escalatory mode that was typical of Vietnam: "It all depends on what your definition of the job is, Mr. President. If you intend to drive the last Vietcong out of Vietnam it will take seven hundred, eight hundred thousand, a million men and about seven years. But if your definition of the job is to prevent the Communists from taking over the country, that is, stopping them from doing it, then you're talking about different gradations and different levels. So tell us what the job is and we'll answer it."
A Generational Approach to America's Wars
Not so long after that moment on the outskirts of Najaf, the 101st Airborne made its way to Baghdad just as the burning and looting began, and that would only be the prologue to David Petraeus's war, to his version of eight years and eight divisions. When an insurgency (actually several) broke out in Iraq, he would be dispatched to the northern city of Mosul (now a pile of rubble after its 2017 "liberation" from the Islamic State in Washington's third Iraq War). There, he would first experiment with bringing back from the Vietnam experience the very strategy the U.S. military had hoped to be rid of forever: "counterinsurgency," or the winning of what in that war had regularly been called "hearts and minds." In 2004, Newsweek was already hailing him on its cover with the dramatic question: "Can This Man Save Iraq?" (Four months after Petraeus ended his stint in that city, the police chief he had trained there went over to the insurgents and it became a stronghold for them.)
By the time the occupation of Iraq turned into a full-scale disaster, he was back at Fort Leavenworth running the U.S. Army's Combined Arms Center. During that period, he and another officer, Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis -- does that name ring any bells? -- joined forces to oversee the development and publication of Field Service Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency Operations. It would be the first official counterinsurgency (COIN) how-to book the military had produced since the Vietnam years. In the process, he became "the world's leading expert in counterinsurgency warfare." He would famously return to Iraq in 2007, that manual in hand, with five brigades, or 20,000 U.S. troops, for what would become known as "the surge," or "the new way forward," an attempt to bail the Bush administration out of its disastrous occupation of the country. His counterinsurgency operations would, like the initial invasion, be hailed by experts and pundits in Washington (including Petraeus himself) as a marvel and a success of the first order, as a true turning point in Iraq and in the war on terror.
A decade later, with America's third Iraq War ongoing, you could be excused for viewing the "successes" of that surge somewhat differently.