Rattle off three of the juiciest nuggets your book contains.
I don’t know if it’s a nugget, but one persistently juicy motif, or theme, is how much of Petraeus’ successes stemmed from his assertiveness, even brazenness.
A second nugget: much of the Army brass hated Petraeus; they didn’t like officers who were too bookish or stood out too much, and Petraeus was a case-study in both.
A third example: I don’t know if it’s juicy, but it’s one of my favorite scenes in the book. It’s about Colonel Conrad Crane, the co-author of Petraeus’ counterinsurgency field manual, a modest, almost shy soldier-scholar.
Every time he goes back to West Point, he stops off at the academy’s cemetery. Six thousand former cadets are buried there, dating to the Revolution.
But Crane heads to the back rows, where the fallen from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are laid to rest. At least three of them were students of Crane’s, a fact that pains him; he’s aware that some of them died while following the instructions he’d helped write.
The Pied Piper of the Insurgency
Fred Kaplan’s new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, dissects the past decade of American-waged battle to see how it has worked out. It assays the U.S. military‘s successes and failures, along with the squabbling over whether or not counter-insurgency, as championed by Petraeus, is the way to go.
Kaplan has the reportorial chops for the job. Now the military-affairs columnist at Slate, the online magazine, he authored The Wizard of Armageddon, about the Pentagon‘s nuclear-war priesthood, 30 years ago. Battleland conducted this email chat with Kaplan over the New Year’s weekend:
What is the bottom line in The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War?
It’s the story of a small group of intellectual officers, most of them from West Point’s Social Science Department, who conspired (they called themselves a “cabal” or a “mafia”) to revolutionize the Army from within. Like most revolutions, the ideas hardened into dogma, and so the story devolves into tragedy–or, to put it another way, Afghanistan.
How big of a change was it, really? How complete is this change?
The idea was to transform the U.S. military, especially the Army, from a Cold War garrison establishment that saw war as strictly large-battlefield, tank-on-tank conflict, to an expeditionary force engaged in “irregular warfare” or “counterinsurgency campaigns.”
The Army did go through a cultural change; it is more a “learning” organization than before; its concept of war, and how to think about it and prepare for it, is more flexible. And it succeeded, tactically anyway, in Iraq.
But when the officers tried to apply the principles to Afghanistan, it was a disaster, and everyone knew it. President Obama, who had accepted the ideas as a short-term experiment, backed away explicitly. So the ideas are still enshrined in Army doctrine, but it’s not at all clear how enduring they will be.
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