Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Phony Hero for a Phony War

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Phony Hero for a Phony War

Article excerpt

No matter how good General Petraeus looked, we failed to conquer the countries we invaded.

Fastidiousness is never a good sign in a general officer. Though strutting military peacocks go back to Alexander's time, our first was Douglas 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 William 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 a general looking good?" you may wonder. I would propose that every moment a general spends on his uniform jacket is a moment he's not doing his job, which is supposed to be leading soldiers in combat and winning wars -- something we Americans, and our generals, stopped doing about the time that MacArthur gold-braided his way around the stalemated Korean War.

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.

The genius of General Petraeus was to recognize early on that the war he had been sent to fight in Iraq wasn't a real war at all. This is what the public and the news media -- lamenting the fall of the brilliant hero undone by a tawdry affair -- have failed to see. He wasn't the military magician portrayed in the press; he was a self- constructed hologram, emitting an aura of preening heroism for the ever eager cameras.

I spent part of the fall of 2003 with General Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division in and around Mosul, Iraq. One of the first questions I asked him was what his orders had been. Was he ordered to "take Mosul," I asked. No answer. How about "Find Mosul and report back"? No answer. Finally I asked him if his orders were something along the lines of "Go to Mosul!" He gave me an almost imperceptible nod. It must have been the first time an American combat infantry division had been ordered into battle so casually.

General Petraeus is very, very clever, which is quite different from stating that he is the brilliant tactician he has been described as. He figured if he hadn't actually been given the mission to "win" the "war" he found himself in, he could at least look good in the meantime.

And the truth is he did a lot of good things, like conceiving of the idea of basically buying the loyalties of various factions in Iraq. But they weren't the kinds of things that win wars. In fact, they were the kinds of things that prolong wars, which for the general had the useful side effect of putting him on ever grander stages so he could be seen doing ever grander things, culminating in his appointment last year as the director of the C. …

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