Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Review: The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe

The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by Greg Jaffe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book follows four Generals who have had various levels of command responsibility during the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq from 2003 and on. John Abizaid, Commander CENTCOM from 2003 - 2007. George Casey, Commander MNF-Iraq in 2004-2007 and current Chief of Staff of the Army, Peter Chiarelli, Commander MNC-Iraq (under Casey), and David Patraeus, Commander MNF-Iraq 2007-2009 and current Commander CENTCOM. These were the commanders who took over the occupation of Iraq after Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez. Of importance for this book, these were also officers that recognized that Iraq was not a conventional war and what the U.S. faced in Iraq was an insurgency, one that the military and its political leaders were ill-equipped to fight from an attitude, doctrinal and training standpoint.

The first part of the book was about their training. Abizaid, Chiarelli and Patraeus were all given assignments and training experiences that encouraged them to be thinkers as well as soldiers. Abizaid having spent a few years on a college fellowship in Jordan, Chiarelli and Patraeus both spent time on academic assignments, with graduate school followed by teaching stints at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences, which the book depicts as a wellspring of unconventional ideas, which trained those who spent a tour as instructors in the willingness to question what who the Army prepared for and fought its wars. The book returns to this theme of Sosh as the place where officers were taught to think, which served them well in learning a new kind of war.

The book makes it clear that those that came before them, Franks and Sanchez were completely out of their element. And while Abizaid, Casey and Chiarelli began to understand that things were wrong and had ideas of what needed to be done, they were hampered by and Army that did not want to change, and a political leadership that was more interested in managing U.S. involvement then they were interested in winning in Iraq. And this interest in merely managing gave a growing insurgency (which was being willfully ignored by the U.S. political leadership) room to blossom, and cause the large scale casualties over 2004-2006.

The star of the book is David Petraeus (with Odierno as his understudy). With the exception of his assignment into the hinterland of the Combined Arms Center, which would have been better then the career ending assignment that was another option. But still a disappointment after the lauded 101st Airborne which was one of the brightest spots in the immediate post-invasion occupation of Iraq. The book paints Petraeus as a hard driving genius who was a stickler for detail and drove his people hard. It was evident in his field level commands detailed in the book, and his first combat command as Commander 101st Airborne in the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Mosul. And his return to the combat zone as Commander MNF-Iraq after rewriting the new Army Counterinsurgency doctrine had the feel of the rescuing hero, taking over from the exhausted Casey and Chiarelli who had to fight off their political supervisors in Washington as much as the insurgency.

How does it fare? Many of the current conventional wisdom does not credit Abizaid, Casey and Chiarelli since they presided over the worst period of the Iraq occupation, even if the seeds were planted before their arrival and they were hamstrung by a civilian leadership that was in denial of the reality of the situation and was more interested in perception then fact. The book notes what they recognized and tried to create, an Army that recognized that it's goal was to win the population, not necessarily just build up a body count. But they were not able, and that failure hung over them. And the lauding of Petraeus may not be misplaced. I remember a Command Sergeant Major preparing me and some other civilian analysts for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan describing Petraeus as a 'warrior-poet', and this was before Petraeus took his position as Commander MNF-I.

The driving point of the book is the requirement for a military to be flexible in thought and adaptable in the face of an enemy. It is a lesson that is learned with every new war. A peacetime military rewards conformity to standard. An actual war against an adaptable enemy requires leaders who can themselves adapt. The book identifies Charielli and Petraeus as officers of this type. And it also identifies them as generals who are actively raising and promoting the careers of other officers of this mode, in many cases against the desires of some of the institutional army. It means creating room for inventiveness and dissent, which is not always the easiest thing in an institution that is necessarily conservative like the Army. But, even if the heady responsibilty of the life of its soldiers requires some level of conservativism, it also requires innovation in the face of an innovative opponent. The book makes the argument that the Army needs these officers and leaders. And more importantly, it needs institutions that will provide these officers and leaders room to grow, and the ability to question and provide dissent in safety, so that the Army can benefit from them.

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