[B]y almost every measure, the American soldiers and marines who went into Iraq and Afghanistan were grossly unprepared for their missions, and the officers who led them were often negligent. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, many American military units travelled to the National Training Center, a sprawling patch of California desert. There they took part in enormous mock tank battles against a phony enemy, called the Kraznovians, that was meant to stand in for the Iraqi Army but had in fact been modelled on the Soviet military in an imaginary invasion of Western Europe. When the real invasion got under way, in March, 2003, American soldiers came under attack from a hidden enemy that was wearing no uniform at all. There had been plenty of warnings that an anti-American insurgency might spring up, and none were heeded. The generals were unprepared.
How the Army got to such a point is the subject of Thomas Ricks's "The Generals,'' a series of vivid biographical sketches of American commanders from the Second World War to Afghanistan. In Ricks's view, their quality, with a few exceptions, has steadily declined. His poster boy for the terrible early period of the Iraq war is Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, whom he accurately portrays as a decent man but an incompetent commander. Sanchez's worst decision was signing off on harsh interrogations of Iraqi detainees--which, when the photographs leaked from Abu Ghraib, resulted in one of the war's signal disasters. But his real sin was neglect. Stupefied as the insurgency spread around him, and paralyzed by Washington's insistence that everything was under control (for months, Rumsfeld forbade American officers to use the word "insurgency"), Sanchez effectively delegated the strategy for the war to the lower-ranking generals beneath him.
In the summer and fall of 2003, many of those generals turned their men loose on Iraq's population, employing harsh measures to round up insurgents and compel civilians to hand them over. The central tactic was to sweep villages in the country's Sunni heartland--the center of the insurgency--and haul in the military-age men. These young men, who were mostly of no intelligence value, were often taken to Abu Ghraib, where their anger ripened. I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over. Faced with a small but significant insurgency, American commanders employed a strategy that insured that it would metastasize.
During the crucial first year of occupation, the one general who cut a conspicuously different path was Petraeus. After leading the Army's 101st Airborne Division in the invasion, he settled his troops in the northern city of Mosul, and began to implement the counter-insurgency strategy that has become his signature. What distinguishes this method from other types of war-fighting is its focus: instead of concentrating on the enemy you want to kill, concentrate on the civilians you want to protect. At the time, this idea was considered exotic in the Army. But, two hundred and fifty miles removed from Baghdad, Petraeus could ignore his commanders' edicts. He put former Baathists on the payroll and spent millions on things like irrigation projects and new police. "Money is ammunition,'' he liked to say. Killing bad guys was relegated to a lower priority. Soldiers on patrol were not even permitted to fly American flags. Through much of 2003, while Iraq imploded, Mosul stayed relatively calm.
In coming years, Petraeus's Mosul experience became the American strategy for all of Iraq. The way it did so is the subject of Fred Kaplan's forthcoming book "The Insurgents." (The title is ironic: the insurgents in Kaplan's compelling story are a dissident group within the Army.) In Kaplan's telling, a small group of men, with Petraeus the most prominent, found one another and mounted an end run around the military bureaucracy, thereby saving Iraq, and probably the entire Middle East, from a war even more cataclysmic than the one we already had.
A book about bureaucratic change would make for dry reading if it didn't have a colorful main character, and Petraeus, wherever he goes, appears ready-made: he's smiling, educated, super-fit, and very smart--and he likes to talk to reporters. In news stories, he emerged as unfailingly driven and precise. "All In," the recent biography by Paula Broadwell, portrays him as "intense," "smart," "all energy"--a superhero in fatigues. As we now know, owing to the revelations about Petraeus's extramarital affair with Broadwell, he is also a human being. But neither Broadwell's book, which extolls Petraeus on practically every page, nor the recent attacks on his character offer much help in assessing what sort of general he actually was.
The truth is Petraeus really was exceptional. In many ways, the biggest problem that the American military faced in Iraq was itself. When Petraeus and other officers tried to change the approach in Iraq, they hit a wall of entrenched resistance. After the war in Vietnam, American generals banished the idea of counter-insurgency, perhaps figuring that if they didn't plan for such a war they wouldn't have to fight one. Military academies were dominated by such notions as the "Powell doctrine," which held that future wars should be fought with maximum force and brought to an end as quickly as possible. In Ricks's telling, the American military, by the time of the attacks of September 11, 2001, was a sclerotic institution that rewarded mediocrity and punished innovative thinking. In recent years, eighty-four per cent of the Army's majors have been promoted to lieutenant colonel--hardly a fine filter. Becoming a general was like gaining admission to an all-men's golf club, where back-slapping conformity is prized above all else. When the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq began, the top U.S. field commander was General Tommy Franks, a shortsighted tactician who didn't bother to plan for the occupation of either country. Franks had the good sense to step down in the summer of 2003, just as Iraq began to come apart.
Ricks argues, convincingly, that what changed in the military was the practice of firing commanders who failed to deliver results. His starting point is General George Marshall, the Army chief of staff during the Second World War, who culled underperforming generals and promoted the better ones, constructing a ruthlessly efficient fighting force. The practice withered during the Vietnam War, replaced with micromanagement by civilian leaders. (Recall photographs of Lyndon Johnson choosing bombing targets.) With even the most mediocre generals moving upward, the Army ossified at the top. Sanchez was not the exception; he was the rule. "Like the worst generals of the Vietnam era, he tended to descend into the weeds, where he was comfortable, ignoring the larger situation--which, after all, was his job,'' Ricks writes. Yet Sanchez paid no price for his failures, Ricks notes: "The vocabulary of accountability had been lost."
No matter how much money you waste on "staying prepared," you're always unready for the next war.