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Ian McColgin
11-20-2012, 08:19 AM
Published on Monday, November 19, 2012 by the New York Times

David Petraeus: A Phony Hero for a Phony War

by Lucian K. Truscott IV

FASTIDIOUSNESS is never a good sign in a general officer. Though strutting military peacocks go back to Alexander’s time, our first was MacArthur, who seemed at times to care more about how much gold braid decorated the brim of his cap than he did about how many bodies he left on beachheads across the Pacific. Next came Westmoreland, with his starched fatigues in Vietnam. In our time, Gen. David H. Petraeus has set the bar high. Never has so much beribboned finery decorated a general’s uniform since Al Haig passed through the sally ports of West Point on his way to the White House.

“What’s wrong with a general looking good?” you may wonder. I would propose that every moment a general spends on his uniform jacket is a moment he’s not doing his job, which is supposed to be leading soldiers in combat and winning wars — something we, and our generals, stopped doing about the time that MacArthur gold-braided his way around the stalemated Korean War.

And now comes “Dave” Petraeus, and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. No matter how good he looked in his biographer-mistress’s book, it doesn’t make up for the fact that we failed to conquer the countries we invaded, and ended up occupying undefeated nations.

The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all. This is what the public and the news media — lamenting the fall of the brilliant hero undone by a tawdry affair — have failed to see. He wasn’t the military magician portrayed in the press; he was a self-constructed hologram, emitting an aura of preening heroism for the ever eager cameras.

I spent part of the fall of 2003 with General Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division in and around Mosul, Iraq. One of the first questions I asked him was what his orders had been. Was he ordered to “take Mosul,” I asked. No answer. How about “Find Mosul and report back”? No answer. Finally I asked him if his orders were something along the lines of “Go to Mosul!” He gave me an almost imperceptible nod. It must have been the first time an American combat infantry division had been ordered into battle so casually.

General Petraeus is very, very clever, which is quite different from stating that he is the brilliant tactician he has been described as. He figured if he hadn’t actually been given the mission to “win” the “war” he found himself in, he could at least look good in the meantime. And the truth is he did a lot of good things, like conceiving of the idea of basically buying the loyalties of various factions in Iraq. But they weren’t the kinds of things that win wars. In fact, they were the kinds of things that prolong wars, which for the general had the useful side effect of putting him on ever grander stages so he could be seen doing ever grander things, culminating in his appointment last year as the director of the C.I.A.

The thing he learned to do better than anything else was present the image of The Man You Turn To When Things Get Tough. (Who can forget the Newsweek cover, “Can This Man Save Iraq?” with a photo of General Petraeus looking very Princeton-educated in his Westy-starched fatigues?) He was so good at it that he conned the news media into thinking he was the most remarkable general officer in the last 40 years, and, by playing hard to get, he conned the political establishment into thinking that he could morph into Ike Part Deux and might one day be persuaded to lead a moribund political party back to the White House.

THE problem was that he hadn’t led his own Army to win anything even approximating a victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s not just General Petraeus. The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.

Those generals, in my humble opinion, were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations. Thankfully, we will probably never have cause to go back to those blood-soaked days. But we still shouldn’t allow our military establishment to give us one generation after another of imitation generals who pretend to greatness on talk shows and photo spreads, jetting around the world in military-spec business jets.

The generals who won World War II were the kind of men who, as it was said at the time, chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels. General Petraeus probably flosses. He didn’t chew nails and spit tacks, but rather challenged privates to push-up contests and went out on five-mile reveille runs with biographers.

His greatest accomplishment was merely personal: he transformed himself from an intellectual nerd into a rock star military man. The problem was that he got so lost among his hangers-on and handlers and roadies and groupies that he finally had his head turned by a West Point babe in a sleeveless top.

If only our political leadership, not to mention the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies, had known how quickly and hard he would fall over such a petty, ignominious affair. Think of how many tens of thousands of lives could have been saved by ending those conflicts much earlier and sending Dave and his merry band of Doonesbury generals to the showers.

© 2012 Lucian K. Truscott IV

Boater14
11-20-2012, 09:44 AM
I read that to. I'm not a fan of the generals but I thought that piece was way over the top. The writer has an ax to grind with the army to be sure. Google him. My rule is you can't be a great general without a great war. I do think Patreaus is a master of pr and allowed himself to be useful to Pols on both sides of the aisle but to me there's a limit.

Andrew Craig-Bennett
11-20-2012, 09:45 AM
I think that article is a fine example of kicking someone when they are down.

Ian McColgin
11-20-2012, 09:59 AM
Yet it's milder than Thomas Ricks' "The Generals" that kicked the lot of them before they were down.

Truscott certainly has a point of view, and has since he lost his commission over whether he could write honestly about heroin use in our Vietnam era army, but what he says here is nothing new and certainly not the first time he's made these points. It's more that his and Ricks' writings have become more widely publishable as the public catches up with their basic critique of the bureaucratic officer class.

Boater14
11-20-2012, 10:55 AM
Ricks absolutely tore truscott apart over the piece. Fiasco is a tough read because you feel,like you pretty much know how badly Iraq was handled. I'm working on it but oddly enough it's a slog and this is coming from a guy who can eat John Keegan and Paul fussel up. As I read it truscott was way off base writing about heroin use in the army and his unit while on active duty. Odd position for him to take with his heritage and education. Just read a piece in today's Philadelphia inquirer by what looks to be an active duty colonel debunking the Patreaus myth in a cooler, more credible light.

LeeG
11-20-2012, 11:12 AM
Boater14, have you read Cobra II? It's worth reading also.

http://www.amazon.com/Cobra-II-Inside-Invasion-Occupation/dp/1400075394

John of Phoenix
11-20-2012, 11:32 AM
The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn’t a real war at all.You'd think a General of any integrity would stand up and point that out to the politicians who sent him. This is why no one could define what "winning Iraq" actually looked like - no one knew.


He figured if he hadn’t actually been given the mission to “win” the “war” he found himself in, he could at least look good in the meantime. And the truth is he did a lot of good things, like conceiving of the idea of basically buying the loyalties of various factions in Iraq. But they weren’t the kinds of things that win wars. In fact, they were the kinds of things that prolong wars, which for the general had the useful side effect of putting him on ever grander stages so he could be seen doing ever grander things...At what cost in lives and suffering?

Gerarddm
11-20-2012, 11:46 AM
Truscott comes off as somebody with a petulant axe to grind. All that were missing were exclamation points.

Ian McColgin
11-20-2012, 11:50 AM
Here is Ricks' counter:

It is rare to see the New York Times carry an opinion article as disastrously bad as the one about David Petraeus by Lucian K. Truscott IV that ran yesterday. Some articles contain a mistake or two, but this entire thing is a mistake. Truscott is free to be a fool, but here he makes the Times look foolish. You have to wonder what the editors were thinking.

Truscott unknowingly displays his ignorance when he mocks Petraeus' beribboned uniform, admonishing that, "I would propose that every moment a general spends on his uniform jacket is a moment he's not doing his job, which is supposed to be leading soldiers in combat and winning wars." He contrasts Petraeus with the men who won World War II.

What Truscott IV doesn't seem to know is that some fine World War II generals, including one Lucian K. Truscott Jr., were much more into natty military tailoring than Petraeus ever has been. As Rick Atkinson, who unlike LKT IV, actually knows a lot about World War II, once wrote, "In uniform, Truscott was almost foppish: enameled helmet, silk scarf, red leather jacket, riding breeches." I would propose that LKT IV owes Petraeus an apology. (Grandpa's leather jacket clashed with his yellow silk scarf, by the way.)

But wait, it gets worse. Truscott on the Iraq war is positively bizarre. He says it wasn't a "real war" at all. I wonder if he travelled to Iraq at all in 2006-07, when things got really interesting in Baghdad. He also accuses Petraeus of prolonging the war in Iraq, which is wrong-headed because Petraeus' handling of the war in 2007-08 set the stage for the U.S. military to withdraw from the country. These are Truscott's words: "Think of how many tens of thousands of lives could have been saved by ending those conflicts much earlier and sending Dave and his merry band of Doonesbury generals to the showers."

Is it possible to retract an op-ed?

# # #

While I think that Truscott has a point, as I think it through with some care I realize that he did worse than just make it poorly. It is good to push the debate along even if by opening the thread with that C&P I managed to in effect endorse a stance that on reflection I see has much wrong with it. One real value of this Forum is that the feedback often helps me evolve. Thank you all who pushed me closer to reason.

Edited to add - I still find Petraeus a bit like Alexander Haig except smarter and less purely a horse holder.

LeeG
11-20-2012, 11:55 AM
Patreaus helped to maintain the delusional narrative that the US was in control of the situation. After the administration first denied there was an insurgency of Iraqis and civil war they got someone who could voice that reality and by doing that he could then fix it. Problem solved.

Andrew Craig-Bennett
11-20-2012, 12:03 PM
I met Al Haig a few times in his retirement; he was patient, charming, modest and quietly funny. Very difficult not to like the man. I don't recall meeting any other US Generals, but he gave me a good impression of them, as a type.

Ian McColgin
11-20-2012, 12:12 PM
In private affairs and out of power Haig was indeed charming, according to one relative who knew him in Vietnam, observed him during the Reagan administration, and ran into him after. But then, a horse holder must be charming.