I read an interesting (if somewhat sycophantic) Vanity Fair feature article on General David Petraeus – the man behind America’s succesful ‘surge‘ strategy in Iraq and now the key stakeholder in Afghanistan.
For some quick political background so you know we’re I’m coming from: I was extremely strongly opposed to the Iraq War – I joined 200,000 people marching against it in Sydney on February 16 2003. Once we’re in there though, I want to see us do the right thing, and I’ve been a supporter of the surge strategy and am strongly in support of keeping more troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan for the long-term (key influencer on my thinking here: Niall Ferguson).
The key section that stuck out to me from the Vanity Fair article was David Petraeus’s rigid adherence to the power of ideas (along with a lesson in perseverance):
Petraeus was sent to head the Combined Arms Center, at Fort Leavenworth. He left with a mandate to shake things up, and the assignment in his case was to be temporary, but it is a command that epitomizes the word “mundane.” It runs all of the army’s combat-training centers and schools, and is responsible for crafting army doctrine. It was an important job, but has often represented a career dead end. Petraeus was enough of an intellectual to know what many men of action do not: ideas precede and determine acts. If you want to change something as big as an army, how better than to change the way it thinks? In 2005, from his base in the heartland, Petraeus went to work drawing up a new set of doctrinal manuals for the modern military—he called it “Full Spectrum Operations”—which posited that all future military efforts would be some mix of offense, defense, and stability and support operations. He and the school commandants under him called for new curricula and new reading lists at army training centers, emphasizing cultural awareness, people-friendly tactics, and a broader range of tools. Petraeus believed the pre-9/11 soldier had been taught what to think. He wanted the post-9/11 soldier taught how to think.
As part of an overhaul of army instructional materials, he recruited a team of unprecedented diversity to draft a new field manual on counter-insurgency, inviting not just scholars and soldier-scholars but human-rights activists, journalists, and diplomats. In addition to emphasizing population protection and civic rebuilding efforts, the new manual underscored the importance of earning trust through transparency. It stressed telling the truth even when the news was bad, bending over backward to avoid arresting and killing the wrong people, and persuading those among the enemy who were reconcilable to abandon the fight in return for concessions, incentives, and opportunity. It also (and this piece is often overlooked) called for relentlessly isolating and targeting extremists, those who will not reconcile. So as you add friends, you subtract enemies. Petraeus says, “The idea is to go to bed every night with fewer enemies than you had in the morning.” The manual not only galvanized a movement within the military but also became a national best-seller, the first army manual ever reviewed in The New York Times Book Review (and favorably at that).
Petraeus went off to Baghdad in early February of 2007 with a mandate from the president to put counter-insurgency into practice. The surge, then, was not just an infusion of new troops. It was an infusion of new ideas. He took with him some of the scholars, military and civilian, who had helped him write the counter-insurgency manual. The assignment was a stark illustration of the difference between academia and the military. In academia you publish and subject your work to criticism and comment, and sometimes your ideas are shot down. It can be a humbling experience. In the military, you publish, and then you arm yourself for battle. If your ideas are wrong, you don’t just suffer criticism. People die.
The other section I’ve got to highlight as a red-blooded male is the man’s sheer toughness, as shown by his recovery from a 1991 training incident that sure a M16 round shot through his chest, tearing out part of his lung and blowing a four-inch hole in his back:
He was back at work in record time, demonstrating to the hospital staff, just days after surgery, that he was not an ordinary patient by removing the IV tubes from his arm and dropping to the floor to do push-ups. The medical staff took note of his toughness. The insertion of a chest tube between his ribs, without anesthesia, had produced only a grunt.
The full article is well worth a read – it’s good to know that a bloke like this is leading the unglamorous and oft-ignored conflict in Afghanistan.