The Fourth Star, Greg Jaffe ’91 and David Cloud

When Greg Jaffe ’91 won the Gerald Ford award for journalistic excellence for his Afghan reporting, it seemed to be the perfect time to read this 2009 book on the Iraq war. And with the recent upheaval in the top command in Afghanistan, leading to the replacement of Gen. Stan McChrystal with Gen. David Petraus, one of the subjects of The Fourth Star, the book is even more timely. Yet although the collaboration between Jaffe and former Wall Street Journal & New York Times reporter David Cloud succeeds in storytelling and readability, The Fourth Star falls short of the standards set by Jaffe’s Afghanistan reporting in a number of other respects.

The Fourth Star is structured as the stories of four generals who ascended to the highest rank in the U.S. Army during the 2000s. It’s apparent goal is to chronicle the Army’s dismissal of the lessons of Vietnam as it rebuilt to fight a future ground war, and the consequences of that dismissal in the early years of the Iraq War. In doing so, it traces the experiences of future generals George Casey, Pete Chiarelli, John Abizaid, and David Petraeus as they rise through the Army’s officer corps. Jaffe and Cloud pay particular attention to documenting the role of West Point’s Department of Social Sciences (“Sosh” for short) in keeping alive intellectual and doctrinal flexibility in the face of the Army’s prevailing post-Vietnam attitude of preparing only to employ “overwhelming force” directed at exclusively-military objectives.

The book is at its strongest with its anecdotal accounts. As befitting two top-notch journalists, we’re brought to the scene of the pivot points in these generals’ careers. Pete Chiarelli is plucked from celebrating his impending exit from the Army after completing his minimum ROTC commitment to join the brilliant minds of the Sosh Department, then later commands an Army tank platoon in a NATO gunnery competition to the tune of the Navy’s “Top Gun” theme song. George Casey survives the brutal attrition of Delta Force tryouts to land the coveted assignment, then withdraws from consideration at the request of his wife, improbably receiving encouragement from founder Charlie Beckwith along the way. Petraeus succeeds in his command of a parachute regiment when his junior officers put together a cheat sheet of “soldier slang” and suggest he try spending a night in jail. And John Abizaid conquers much of northern Kurdistan without firing a shot, relying on nothing more than the threat of low-flying warplanes and a patchwork force of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

Not that The Fourth Star gets the big picture action wrong, either. Jaffe and Cloud do a fine job recounting Chiarelli’s struggles to resolve the conundrum of physical security and economic development in Iraq. Their retelling neatly encapsulates the strategic judo employed by Petraeus to convert the Army’s attempt to exile him to the backwater of Fort Leavenworth into his launching pad to be the top Iraq commander, armed with a new strategy embraced by the President. Still, the entire book hinges on Petraeus’s surge and strategy change as Iraq commander, and this story has been better told elsewhere, notably in The Gamble, by Jaffe’s former Washington Post colleague Tom Ricks, and Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends. (Both Ricks and Robinson do blurb The Fourth Star on the back cover).

Where this book really falls short, however, is when it gets to the big picture. For instance, The Fourth Star offers frustratingly little insight into its two best-known cast members, doing nothing to enhance the simplest conventional wisdom. Casey is the goat – the staid, conventional guy who learned the wrong lesson from Vietnam, embraced the Powell Doctrine, and failed to adapt in Iraq. In the authors’ eyes, he is “unglamorous . . . content to be a good solid officer,” yet one who ultimately must be faulted for his commitment to reducing U.S. force levels in Iraq and overemphasizing force protection. Casey is set opposite Petraeus, by now well known as the unimaginably tough, yet brilliant and academic overachiever who receives credit as the architect of the surge and its success. As the authors see him, he is “always the striver . . . ” adept at winning on the strategic level while remaining charmingly academic. Even Petraeus’s weaknesses are portrayed — as they are by other authors — as those of an American hero: the shortcomings that must be overcome to warrant treatment as a true American success story

Why is this frustrating? Because while setting Petraeus and Casey up as counterpoints (even after conceding similarities in their Iraq experience), The Fourth Star provides tantalizing clues that they may be giving Casey short thrift. He is shown regularly seeking out junior officers who, following in Petraeus’s footsteps, have thought hard about counterinsurgency and those who’ve learned on the streets whether those theories will rise or fall. Why, then, did he not act? The Fourth Star does recount President Bush’s exoneration of Casey: “everything [Casey] did” ultimately was a reflection of “my strategy,” notes Bush. And elsewhere, they allude to the fact that Casey may have received orders to prepare for a conflict with, or in, Iran. Were his decisions based on the need for flexibility to deal with the Iran threat? If so, did his actions preserve that flexibility? What should he have done? The authors seem to give their answer by harshly presenting a scene where Casey refuses to finish a critical article by a junior officer accusing him of  “lacking moral courage.” The evidence to charge Casey with that shortcoming seems far from cut-and-dried.

Chiarelli and Abizaid are the minor characters, whose position in the changing Army is more in the middle. Both are presented as inquisitive officers in the Petraeus mold, with extensive academic backgrounds. And to some degree, they are portrayed as laying the groundwork for Petraeus’s success while ultimately failing to achieve the change in strategy on their own. To some degree, their failures are presented as the consequence of circumstance – and of the changing attitudes in Washington. Moreover, their minor role begs the question left unanswered throughout: “why choose these four?” It’s certainly not that the stories of these four men illustrate the larger story the authors want to tell: The Fourth Star‘s stories of their careers largely fails to show us the supposed inflexible commitment by the Army to overwhelming mechanized force during the Vietnam to early 2000s period. Instead, the authors end up telling us that fact, again and again.

Now, four generals with four stars apiece does make a nice title. And the fact is, at their level, they’ve been terminally promoted, or nearly so, and can be more easily interviewed/portrayed, so that may be a part of the explanation. But it’s never given to the readers. Yes, Casey and Petraeus are obvious choices as the principal commanders in Iraq for nearly four years. But why Pete Chiarelli and not Ray Odierno? Why John Abizaid and not the man identified as his best friend, future Afghan Ambassador Karl Eikenberry? And their choice has a particularly significant limitation. By telling the three-decade story from the standpoint of officers at approximately the same level, we get a very limited portrait of the Army at any given point in time. Just in the Iraq period, a little more discussion of the experiences of, say, Sean McFarland or H.R. McMaster, two of the prominent but lower-ranking commanders discussed in The Fourth Star would add a welcome dimension.

In addition, missing almost entirely from Jaffe and Cloud’s account is the Marine Corps. Marines make only the most token appearances — a one-page pop-in by celebrated General James Mattis and a brief appearance by Blake Crowe (son ofthe late Admiral William Crowe) are the only two of the dozen or so mentions of the service that are substantive enough even to be considered cameos. (My count includes sentences making no more reference than to say “the Army and Marines”). Admittedly, the authors make no bones about The Fourth Star being anything other than a book about the Army. But their decision to leave the role of the Marines totally unilluminated should not go without explanation. Not only does it take away from any sense of the book as a thorough treatment of its subject, but it defies credulity to suggest that these flexible, open-minded Sosh instructors paid no mind to the Marines’ Small Wars Manual (rewritten in ___) or that General Petraeus drew nothing from the Anbar Marines’ activities during the rise of the Awakening in the months just before the surge began. I have other nitpicks about the authors’ choices and omissions — e.g., is it really necessary to explain that “‘U-Dub’ is what Chiarelli called the University of Washington,” while assuming everyone will know Washington figures such as ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey — but I just can’t fathom why there isn’t some discussion of the other major service on the ground in Iraq.

Ultimately, the book’s weaknesses are only problematic because their main topic is so important. Although they gloss over in passing other military debates of note (such as the harms caused by the “zero defect” military culture of the 1990s), the choice to focus on a debate destined to be argued and reargued for decades to come is a good one. The military will long be asking whether, after Vietnam, did the Army focus too much on rebuilding its conventional capabilities for a war that never came? Certainly those capabilities were much depleted by 1973, and much rebuilt by 1990. And the United States must now answer whether the military should again focus on rebuilding its conventional capabilities — and whether, if it does, it can retain what it has relearned about insurgencies. Yet how can we credit the authors’ endorsement of a military with one foot in the finest traditions of the liberal arts when the authors themselves fail to go beyond or even to justify a narrow, Washington-centric, Army flag-officer centric view of the question?

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