"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Petraeus And The Changing Military Culture

Lucian K. Truscott IV has written an article highly critical of General Petraeus in the New York Times (11.17.12).  It’s title, A Phony Hero for a Phony War, gives away his contempt for both Petraeus and the military engagements he oversaw.  He focuses on Petraeus’ peacock posturing, Praetorian Guard uniforms, and dilettantism.

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 generals looking good, asks Truscott.  Nothing if they perform, which Petraeus did not:

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.

However, the two wars were unwinnable from the very start.  George W. Bush, his Neo-Con advisers, and the generals who served under him completely underestimated the strength, tenacity, and powerful nationalistic and religious sentiments of the Taliban. Bush, who justified the Afghan War by ‘going after’ Bin Laden and attempting to take out the Taliban who harbored him, soon realized that he was going to achieve neither objective. After more than a decade of war Bin Laden is dead; but the Taliban, thanks to the support of both Iran and Pakistan is resurgent and once American forces leave, will most certainly take over. 

Afghanistan was ruled by foreign invaders at many times during its history, but the rule was never easy.  Afghan tribes in ancient history were no less powerful, independent, and demanding than they are today.  Alexander the Great was said to have commented that Afghanistan “is easy to march into, hard to march out of”, referring to the mountainous terrain and the fierce guerrilla tactics of the Afghan tribes.  Many empires followed Alexander – the Greco-Bactrian, Mauryan, Arab, Timurid, and Mughal – but the only time where there was near total subjugation of the tribes was under the Mongols and Genghis Khan and later Tamburlaine and Babur.  During many colonial periods, Afghan tribes were given semi-autonomy and independence.

The Taliban is made up primarily of Pashtuns, historically a powerful tribe which was dominant in the Middle Ages through the modern era.  Their influence spread far beyond Afghanistan and during the Delhi Sultanate era, the Pashtun Lodi dynasty replaced the Turkic rulers in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent.  The Pashtuns fought continually against both the Persians and the Mughals until finally obtaining an independent state in the early 18th century.

Even if the United States chose to ignore this defiant and militaristic history, they should not have forgotten the ignominious defeat of the Soviet Union at the hands of the Pashtuns.

The point is that no general could have won in Afghanistan – not with the resolve of the Pashtuns, the support of Iran, and the complicity of the Pakistan intelligence service.

Iraq is no different.  Its history is of course different, but the naïveté of the United States in assuming that it could contend with the ethnic rivalries, long-buried but long-simmering hatred between them; the near impossibility of constituting and maintaining an international military force; and the emerging quasi-pacifist military doctrine of “Do No Harm” (avoid civilian casualties and minimize American ones) made victory impossible. No general could have won under those circumstances.

Truscott admires the American military heroes of his grandfather’s generation:

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... 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.

Petraeus, says Truscott is but the latest in “generation after [generation] of imitation generals who pretend to greatness on talk shows and photo spreads, jetting around the world in military-spec business jets.”

Truscott, however, makes a basic mistake.  General George C. Patton  - one of Truscott’s heroes - was one of the most theatrical, strutting, and arrogant military leaders of recent memory.  He was full of bombast and fire-breathing, and was proud of his image.  The movie Patton was based on the highly-acclaimed biography Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago and Omar Bradley's memoir A Soldier's Story; and from their accounts, George C. Scott gave him an almost Mussolini-like puffed and self-important image.

Patton was both image-conscious and a military genius.  The same can be said of Napoleon and countless other military adventurers.  The point is not image, or arrogance of individuals, but of the military itself.  The modern American Army does not chew nails and spit tacks.  In its concern for saving lives, not taking them, it has become a tame and reticent force.  Had American forces stormed into Baghdad, shot looters, occupied all neighborhoods with brutal force, brooked no opposition, and remained as long as they did in Japan or Germany, we might have had a chance of victory. 

As it turned out, this minimalist, caring view was exactly the wrong strategy. The ‘Winning the Hearts and Minds of the People’ campaign - a failed, naïve approach if there ever was one especially in contrast to the brutal, win-at-any-cost mentality of the North Vietnamese – still held currency in Iraq.  To make matters worse, Paul Wolfowitz and his Neo-Con colleagues insisted on spreading democracy and creating a new cradle of Middle East democracy – an even more naïve approach than Hearts and Minds.

Truscott is mostly right, although he chooses to pillory Petraeus the individual rather than the mind-set of the military as an institution.  What we need is more Peacock Killers, men who, like thousands of brilliant generals and statesmen before them, strutted their stuff but slaughtered, maimed, disemboweled, and eviscerated the enemy to win at all costs.

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