It was September 2002 and Maj. Gen. David Petraeus wanted to talk. We hadn’t seen each other much for 15 years, since parting ways at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he had wowed professors and students alike by writing an excellent PhD dissertation on civil-military relations in the Vietnam War in record-breaking time. Since then, there had been the end of the Cold War and Desert Storm, he had deployed to Haiti and Bosnia, he had been accidentally shot and nearly killed in a live-fire exercise (future Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist saved his life at a hospital in Nashville), he had nearly died again a decade later when his parachute partially failed in an advanced paratrooper exercise. And then 9/11 happened, along with the beginning of the Afghanistan War. To be sure, we had lots to discuss.
But Petraeus wanted to talk mostly about shrink-wrapping helicopters. He knew that he might have to move the 101st Air Assault Division by train from Fort Campbell, Kentucky to the Atlantic seaboard in preparation for possible deployment to Iraq. We didn’t talk a lot about the high politics or military practicalities of an actual invasion in that conversation. You know the old saying, generals think logistics! And that is exactly where his mind was.
If there’s one thing about all others that impresses me about my good friend, who has just taken another hit in recent days, it’s his versatility. He has described the modern American soldier as a pentathlete, somebody who must be ready to do it all, even in today’s world when counterinsurgency and other such missions have gone out of style. He has lived that creed. Figuring out how to prepare helicopters for transport was just one mundane example, but a telling one.
In understanding the travails of Petraeus today, and sizing up what his career has meant to the country, we should think first and foremost about his excellence across many domains of military and strategic endeavor. To my mind, what he did in Iraq was probably the greatest complex accomplishment by any American general since Washington in the Revolutionary War. Sure, I’m biased, and sure, the stakes for the nation were lower in Iraq than in the world wars or Civil War and the achievements less durable in the face of future events. And for hardship in the field, those generals of earlier days usually had it much worse.
But in the need to combine knowledge of maneuver warfare, required for the taking-down of Saddam back in 2003, to the reinvigoration and refinement of proper counterinsurgency operations that Petraeus led in the field in 2007 (after writing the U.S. military’s manual on the subject with Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Amos, the future Commandant, in 2006), to the mastery of Iraqi tribal and regional and national politics needed to bring all the pieces of the team together, to the handling of the Washington debate, there was something different about this war. It was simply more complicated, with more moving parts, and more things that had to go right to have any chance of success.
To be sure, Petraeus didn’t do it alone—and he was always quick to share the credit. Among the people he raved about most, when we used to go for runs or when various think tanks like mine would host him for discussions about the war on his visits home in 2007-2008, were General Stanley McChrystal, who ramped up American special operations orders of magnitude above where it had been before; HR McMaster, then a relatively junior officer among the first to make proper counterinsurgency tactics work in Iraq even before the surge; Seth Moulton and Ann Gildroy Fox, young Marine Corps reservists who tried to catalyze a Shia awakening of sorts in eastern Iraq (Moulton is now a Congressman from Massachusetts); General Ray Odierno and General Lloyd Austin, who directed the surge at the operational level; General Jim Dubik and General Marty Dempsey, who ran the training programs for Iraqi forces in those crucial times; General John Allen, who among other Marine Corps leaders was crucial in nurturing the Sunni awakening process in al-Anbar province; and Petraeus’s main civilian counterpart, Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
This dream team refashioned the Iraqi Security Forces and their leadership, then worked with them to bring down violence rates in Iraq an incredible 90 percent and give Iraqi leaders a chance to turn their country around. That change, tragically, was largely squandered in ensuing years, but Petraeus and Crocker et al gave them the chance. On balance, this was arguably the greatest military comeback in American history, after four successive years of losing the war.
To be sure, the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will be debated for a long time. No one will easily advocate anything resembling the Iraq invasion anytime soon, lest there be simply no alternative in a given situation when core American national security interests are threatened. But Petraeus was not the one who chose to get involved in the wars in the first place; our nation asked him and his fellow troopers to do their utmost in extremely difficult endeavors, and that is precisely what they did. Moreover, many of the skills they honed in those places may well be relevant to future warfare, in ways we cannot easily foresee right now. Remember the old Bolshevik saying, we may not have an interest any longer in messy wars abroad, but they may have an interest in us.
This Iraq story, as well as the Afghanistan experience, are of course well known by now—even if, as a recent Atlantic magazine story and other such writings reveal, people can be quick to forget, or to misconstrue and rewrite history for their own purposes. But an argument that has not been appreciated enough in the brouhaha over Petraeus’s mistakes in handling classified information is that, as commander, he was also a great communicator who erred on the side of openness and transparency. To be sure, giving his mistress Paula Broadwell classified documents for the purposes of writing a book was unwarranted. But the overall approach, led by Petraeus in the Iraq effort, of sharing as much information as possible with the American public and Congress is a great improvement over the prevailing patterns from Vietnam and earlier eras.
Petraeus was constantly having to assess what sensitive information to discuss publicly, in the interest of keeping the nation properly apprised about the course of conflict. One of his mantras was “be first with the truth” and he practiced that doggedly in the interest of serving the American people—at the two-star level with the 101st, at the three-star level when first training Iraqi security forces and then writing the manual with General Amos, and at the four-star level in Iraq and Afghanistan and during his tenure at Central Command as well.
In these wars, moreover, tens of thousands of documents were constantly being classified, often in austere conditions in the field. But the declassification process was far more laborious and tedious and slow. That meant that a commander committed to keeping the American people and their elected representatives well informed about the conflict needed to use his own judgment at times about what was truly sensitive and what could be—in fact, what must be—shared and discussed and debated openly.
This is not to excuse Petraeus’s mishandling of classified documents. But as President Obama said two years ago, there is no reason to think that national security was damaged by any of what he shared. Nor, by the way, do I think Ms. Broadwell, who also had a security clearance, would ever be irresponsible in releasing sensitive information that could affect American national security adversely.
Dave Petraeus is a national treasure and a hero. And while he has taken a self-induced fall, I do not believe his parachute will fail him again. He has a strong and supportive and forgiving family. He is already putting his mind to new challenges, such as fostering and promoting what he likes to call a new North American century of opportunity and promise, while continuing to advise policymakers from the United States to Europe to the Middle East about how to handle the ISIS and al Qaeda threats as well as other regional challenges.
Remember the adage, old generals never die, they just fade away. It doesn’t apply here. First, as a matter of personal self-preservation, let me say that the 62-year David Petraeus is not old. Were I to say otherwise, I’d pay for it in spades on our next run. His vigor and energy remain remarkable. Second, he won’t fade away. I’m not sure how, but he will serve his country again. In fact, in what he is already doing—not only for our national security debate, but also our wounded warriors, our next generation of students that he currently instructs when wearing his teaching hat, and Americans around the country who admire his grace under duress, is just the latest chapter in a remarkable career that is far from over.
This opinion originally appeared in Politico.
On September 14, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the discussion, “US, Afghanistan, 9/11: Finished or Unfinished Business?“