Military history





(Fall 2005)

The first misbegotten phase of the American war in Iraq effectively came to an end on Saturday, November 19, 2005. “It was a mediocre morning” in the upper Euphrates River Valley town of Haditha, 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt would later recall. “It wasn’t too busy, and it wasn’t suspiciously quiet.”

Then, at about 7:15, near the corner of what they called Routes Chestnut and Viper, Sharratt’s squad was hit by a roadside bomb. The Marines of 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, would do many things that long day in response to the bombing, and they later would offer much conflicting testimony about their actions. But one thing they clearly did not do was protect Iraqi civilians—and that is why the Marine killings at Haditha are key to understanding the failure of the first years of the American war in Iraq, and why it became imperative to revamp U.S. strategy, beginning by revisiting many of the basic assumptions of what the Americans were trying to achieve there and how.

As the smoke and dust cleared from the explosion, the squad realized that one of their members, Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, a well-liked twenty-year-old from El Paso, Texas, was dead. He was literally blown apart—his torso strewn on the dusty ground while his legs remained in the vehicle. Two other Marines were wounded.

A white Opel sedan rolled toward the chaotic scene. The Marines signaled it to halt. When it did, five young Iraqi men got out of the car. “They didn’t even try to run away,” Sgt. Asad Amer Mashoot, an Iraqi soldier, later told officials from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Some had their hands in the air when Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich began to shoot them, one Marine and two Iraqi soldiers told investigators. Sgt. Sanic Dela Cruz then urinated on the head of one of the slaughtered men. Wuterich later would tell investigators that he considered them to be a threat.

The Marines began moving toward the houses along the road, “running and gunning” in Marine parlance, conducting what they would later describe as a methodical if violent sweep for insurgents. Their actions looked different from the other end of their weapons. In the second house the Marines entered, Safah Yunis Salem, thirteen years old, said she played dead to avoid being shot. She was the sole survivor in the house, with seven family members killed, including Zainab, five, and Aisha, three. “He fired and killed everybody,” she told American investigators. “The American fired and killed everybody.”

Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum later said in a statement to military investigators that he knew he was shooting children. “While in the house which I identified as House #2, I did identify some targets as children before I fired my weapon killing them,” he explained. “My reason for this is that House #1 was declared hostile. While in house #1 I was told that someone ran to house #2 making it hostile. . . . While in house #2 SSGT [Staff Sgt.] WUTERICH fired shots into a room. This again made me think the house was hostile. I went to assist SSGT WUTERICH and saw that children were in the room kneeling down. I don’t remember the exact number but only that it was a lot. My training told me that they were hostile due to SSGT WUTERICH firing at them and the other events I mentioned leading up to this. I am trained to shoot two shots to the chest and two shots to the head and I followed my training.”

One villager, Aws Fahmi, later said he watched and listened as the Americans went from house to house killing members of three families. He heard his neighbor across the street, Younis Salim Khafif, plead in English for the lives of his family. “I heard Younis speaking to the Americans, saying: ‘I am a friend. I am good,”’ Fahmi said. “But they killed him, and his wife and daughters.” An old man in a wheelchair was shot nine times. Another of the victims was a one-year-old baby.

At 5 P.M., a call went out on a Marine radio: We need a truck to come pick up 24 bodies. Eight were deemed by the Marines to have been insurgents, including the five from the Opel. The remainder were clearly civilians.

Other Marines arriving on the scene sensed something was wrong. “The only thing I thought was, ‘Hey, where are the bad guys? Why aren’t there any insurgents here?”’ Lt. William Kallop later testified.

Lance Cpl. Andrew Wright, sent to the site to help collect the bodies, was moved to take out his digital camera and snap a series of photographs. “Even though there was no investigation at the time, I felt that the photographs would be evidence if anything came up in the future,” he later would explain to agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. “In my opinion, the people that I photographed had been murdered.”

Official Marine Corps statements presented a different image. The next day, Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a Marine spokesman in Iraq, said in a terse press release that 15 Iraqis were killed by a roadside bomb, and that “after the bombing, gunmen attacked the convoy with small-arms fire. Iraqi army soldiers and Marines returned fire, killing eight insurgents and wounding another.” Almost all aspects of this statement were incorrect.

The U.S. military justice system eventually would conduct a thorough review of the Haditha incident. Charges were dismissed against six of the Marines, and a seventh was acquitted. Wuterich still faces several charges, including voluntary manslaughter, and many of the Marines involved were found not guilty of wrongdoing. But there is no getting around the fact that 24 Iraqis were killed and that some of them were women and children. The only way to sidestep the question was to persuade one’s self, as Cpl. Sharratt did, that, “they were all insurgents”—including the women, children, and wheelchair-bound old man. “Personally, I think I did everything perfectly that day,” he concluded. “Because of me, no one else died”—by which he meant only, no other Marines.

What happened that day in Haditha was the disturbing but logical culmination of the shortsighted and misguided approach the U.S. military took in invading and occupying Iraq from 2003 through 2006: Protect yourself at all costs, focus on attacking the enemy, and treat the Iraqi civilians as the playing field on which the contest occurs. Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert who conducted an official study of the effectiveness of U.S. military battalion, brigade, and regimental commanders in Iraq at the time, reported that the Marines were “chasing the insurgents around the Euphrates Valley while leaving the population unguarded and exposed to insurgent terrorism and coercion.” This bankrupt approach was rooted in the dominant American military tradition that tends to view war only as battles between conventional forces of different states. The American tradition also tends to neglect the lesson, learned repeatedly in dozens of twentieth-century wars, that the way to defeat an insurgency campaign is not to attack the enemy but instead to protect and win over the people. “The more we focus on the enemy, the harder it is to actually get anything done with the population,” noted Australian counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen, who would play a prominent role in fixing the way the American military fought in Iraq. The aim of a counterinsurgency campaign is to destroy the enemy—but often by isolating him and making him irrelevant rather than killing him. The best insurgent is not a dead one, who might leave behind a relative seeking vengeance, but one who is ignored by the population and perhaps is contemplating changing sides, bringing with him invaluable information.

Lt. Col. Jeff Chessani, commander of the battalion to which Kilo Company belonged, said later in a sworn statement that despite the number of civilian casualties, he didn’t see that day in Haditha as particularly unusual and saw no reason to investigate what had happened. “I thought it was very sad, very unfortunate, but at the time, I did not suspect any wrongdoing from my Marines,” he said. Nor did he act on a request for an investigation made a week later by the mayor and town council of Haditha.

His chain of command felt the same way. “There was nothing out of the ordinary about this, including the number of civilian dead,” Col. Stephen Davis, his immediate commander, would tell investigators.

When the division commander, Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, was briefed by Chessani on the events of the day, Huck said later, “no bells and whistles went off.”

The buck stopped with Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then newly arrived in Iraq as the commander of day-to-day U.S. military operations there. When he was told many weeks later that reporters were asking questions about what had happened in Haditha, he instructed his public affairs officer simply to brief them on the results of the military investigation. His mistake was to assume that there was such an inquiry. In fact, he was informed, there had been no such review of the killings. Chiarelli, who had been one of the most successful commanders in Iraq when he led the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad from early 2004 to early 2005, was puzzled, then shocked at the lack of interest expressed by the Marine chain of command. He had been trying to reorient the U.S. military to think more about protecting the people but here found an entire chain of command that seemingly lacked any interest in such an approach. On February 12, 2006, he asked Huck, the division commander, about the incident. Huck later recalled telling him, “I did not think there was a reason to initiate an investigation.”

Chiarelli disagreed. He mulled the situation and two days later called Huck. “You are not going to like this, but I am going to order an investigation,” the Army general told the Marine general. He assigned Army Maj. Gen. Eldon Bargewell, a much-bloodied Vietnam veteran, to look into the matter. And when Bargewell’s report arrived, Chiarelli made it his top priority, clearing much of his calendar to spend most of two weeks studying the findings, the recommendations, and the appendices.

Bargewell was appalled by what he had found. He reported that the killings had been carried out “indiscriminately.” Even more worrisome, he concluded that leaders in the Marine chain of command thought that was the right approach—despite having been told by Chiarelli that it wasn’t. “All levels of command tended to view civilian casualties, even in significant numbers, as routine,” Bargewell wrote in a report that was stamped SECRET/NOFORN and that has never been released.

The comments made by senior Marines to investigators clearly irked Bargewell. In their view, he wrote, “Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as U.S. lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business.” The general’s conclusions provide a kind of epitaph for the professionally ignorant and profoundly counterproductive approach that many American commanders took during the first three years of the war. Indeed, another year would pass before the U.S. military would take the first basic step in counterinsurgency and begin to implement a strategy founded on the concept that the civilian population isn’t the playing field but rather the prize, to be protected at almost all costs.

Underscoring Bargewell’s findings, the Army Surgeon General’s office, in a survey of the mental health and ethical outlook of soldiers and Marines in Iraq conducted the following year, found that one-third of its 1,767 respondents believed torture should be allowed if it helped gather important information about insurgents, and even more said they approved of such illegal abuse if they believed it would help save the life of a comrade. Also, about two-thirds of Marines and half the Army troops surveyed said they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily. Ten percent said they personally had mistreated non-combatants. “Less than half of soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect,” the report stated.

Some Marines, especially combat veterans of earlier wars, objected to criticism of American actions at Haditha, saying that the investigators didn’t understand the nature of combat. Yet Bargewell, who served as an enlisted soldier in Vietnam, in 1971 had received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest medal, for actions in combat while a member of a long-range reconnaissance unit operating behind enemy lines. He had also been wounded several times. Nor was he alone among military professionals in his view that something had gone very wrong that day in Haditha. Marine Col. John Ewers, taking a sworn statement from Chessani, the battalion commander, exclaimed in an aside, “God damn, 15 civilians dead, 23 or 24 total Iraqis dead—with no real indication of how it was that we arrived at the enemy KIA [killed in action] number.”

“I was horrified by it,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, who had been the number two officer in the Army during the invasion of Iraq and also was a veteran of two tours in Vietnam. “I sensed that something had really gone wrong—that amount of civilians killed by direct fire? I know from my experience that to kill that number of civilians directly, you had to be in the room, pointing at them. I sensed it was a breakdown in the chain of command.” His worries would intensify so much that they would propel him into a central role in the remaking of the war in the following years.


In 2005 the United States came close to losing the war in Iraq. Even now, the story of how the U.S. military reformation and counterattack came together is barely known. As the Washington Post’s military correspondent, I followed events as they occurred, day by day, but it was only when setting out to research and write this book that I delved deeper and found there was a hidden tale to this phase of the war. It begins with Keane, who in the following year would grow so deeply concerned by the direction of the Iraq war that he would set out to redesign its strategy, an unprecedented move for a retired officer. Despite having left active duty several years earlier, he worked behind the scenes with two former subordinates whom he trusted and admired, David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, who partly through his efforts would become the two top U.S. commanders in Iraq.

It would take nearly 12 more months, until late in 2006, for senior officials in the Bush administration and the U.S. military to recognize that the U.S. effort was heading for defeat. Then, almost at the last minute, and over the objections of nearly all relevant leaders of the U.S. military establishment, a few insiders, led by Keane, managed to persuade President Bush to adopt a new, more effective strategy built around protecting the Iraq people.

The effect of that new approach, implemented in 2007 under Petraeus, the fourth U.S. commander in the war in Iraq, would be to reduce violence in Iraq and so revive American prospects in the war. That change likely will prolong it for at least another three years, and probably much longer. It is now quite possible that U.S. troops will still be involved in combat in Iraq in 2011, which would make the war there America’s longest overseas war, if the major U.S. combat involvement in Vietnam is deemed to have lasted from 1965 to 1973.

Yet it is unclear in 2009 if he did much more than lengthen the war. In revising the U.S. approach to the Iraq war, Petraeus found tactical success—that is, improved security—but not the clear political breakthrough that would have meant unambiguous strategic success. At the end of the surge, the fundamental political problems facing Iraq were the same ones as when it began. At the end of 2008, two years into the revamped war, there was no prospect of the fighting ending anytime soon. But it was almost certain that whenever it did end, it wouldn’t be with the victory that the Bush administration continued to describe, of an Iraq that was both a stable democracy and an ally of the United States. Nor was that really the goal anymore, though no one had said so publicly. Under Petraeus, the American goal of transforming Iraq had quietly been scaled down. But even his less ambitious target of sustainable security would remain elusive, with no certainty of reaching it anytime soon.

The 12 months after Haditha, from late 2005 to late 2006, were a period of agonizingly slow reassessment of the U.S. military’s approach in Iraq. After that, it would take many more months for a new strategy to be implemented. During that period, no one except the president, the vice president, and the secretary of defense seemed to be happy with the direction of the war. Even war supporters were uneasy. Senator John McCain, the most prominent war hawk in the Congress, said, “There’s an undeniable sense that things are slipping—more violence on the ground, declining domestic support for the war, growing incantations among Americans that there is no end in sight.”

On the ground in Iraq there often was an emptiness in the U.S. military effort, a feel of going through the motions, of doing the same things over and over again without really expecting them to be effective, perhaps reflecting a fear that there really was no way out. “It sucks,” said Spec. Tim Ivey. “Honestly, it feels like we’re driving around waiting to get blown up.”

In late 2006, Maj. Lee Williams arrived at FOB [forward operating base] Falcon on the southern edge of Baghdad to take over advising a brigade of the Iraqi National Police. He found his predecessors had all but given up. When he landed, the base was being mortared. Plus, the Iraqi unit being advised was hardly inspiring—it was, he said, “corrupt, . . . tied to being involved in extra-judicial killings, . . . definitely been known to have been connected with some of the insurgent groups with emplacing IEDs.” Some of the privates on the police force were members of the extremist Shiite militias and had so intimidated their commanders that they “would even slap their faces,” Williams said. Even so, he was surprised at the demoralization of the team he was relieving. Before leaving for Iraq, he explained, “We had no communication with the team we replaced. They sent one e-mail. They were just tired and they said they were busy. But when we actually got on the ground, they were only going out maybe once or twice a week. When we got there, you could tell that they were burned out.”

Some in the military suspected that commanders were just trying to get through their tours in Iraq without making waves, so they could get on with their lives and careers. “The truth is that many commands in Iraq are no longer focused on winning and instead are focused on CYA”—that is, covering your ass—charged Capt. Zachary Martin, a Marine infantry officer. He continued:

Part of this loss of focus is a lack of clear guidance on exactly what winning means and how we are to achieve it. From the highest levels, there is nothing to relate our efforts to the vague goals of “democracy in Iraq” and “the defeat of terrorism.” . . . [C]ommanders in Iraq cannot win, although they can certainly lose. An aggressive commander who, in the absence of unifying guidance and in spite of inadequate cultural preparation, assesses the situation, formulates a campaign plan, and takes calculated risks in implementing it will most likely have little concrete evidence of success to show when he rotates six months later.

The time scale of counterinsurgency is simply too long. On the other hand, a commander who takes no risks and thus keeps his casualties low can be reasonably assured of a Bronze Star with a combat “V,” an article in the [Marine Corps] Gazette relating how well his battalion performed under his firm and dynamic leadership and, with combat command ticket punched, a decent shot at promotion.

It was a morale breaker, observed another officer, to take a city on your second tour that you thought had you had secured on your first.

In another sign of a strained force, there was a spate of legal and disciplinary issues with soldiers. These were not the usual cases of privates’ abusing drugs, but of career soldiers getting into a variety of trouble. “I’d never seen it at this level before,” recalled Maj. David Mendelson, a military lawyer on the staff of the top operational headquarters in Iraq in 2006. “We did over fifteen reliefs for cause and they were for senior enlisted soldiers and even battalion commanders, very senior officers. . . . We saw company commanders and battalion commanders doing the wrong things.”

Gen. Keane, visiting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, was shocked. “They had given up,” he told people. “There was a sense of hopelessness and futility.”

Underlying all this was a sense of drift in the war. “There was a period after that when we just didn’t have an answer,” recalled Tom Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute who was another longtime hawk. “We knew we couldn’t kill our way out of it, but we didn’t want to take on the mission of protecting the people, so there was a kind of drift, and by default an emphasis on training Iraqis and transitioning to them.”

Back in mid-2004, Gen. George Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had inherited a mess from his predecessor, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who had been overmatched by the deterioration of Iraq and poorly supported by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the military establishment. Casey made major changes, developing a formal campaign plan and focusing on the need to protect the people as the way to isolate the enemy from the people. Casey was a thoughtful man. He had been tapped immediately after the 9/11 attacks to take over as director of strategic planning for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he filled so well that on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, he was promoted to be overall director of the Joint Staff, an important behind-the-scenes job at the Pentagon. Officers who do that job well tend to look over the horizon, pushing the staff below them to anticipate questions that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs might have to face in the coming months. After that Casey had become the Army’s vice chief of staff, a position that tends to run the general officer corps. He was as “Army” as an officer can be, his father having been a general who was the highest-ranking American casualty of the Vietnam War. The one thing Casey lacked was combat experience. Over the previous two decades, the Army had fought in Panama, the Gulf War, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, but he had not been involved in any of these.

Even so, Casey’s background made him far better equipped than Sanchez to know where the levers of power were in the Army and how to pull them. That helped him when he grew frustrated by the inappropriate training he saw being given to units arriving in Iraq. At one brigade, recalled Sepp, his counterinsurgency adviser, “The officers said they had been trained for ‘kick in the door, two in the chest.’” To remediate such maleducation, in 2005 Casey had decided to establish a “counterinsurgency academy” at the big U.S. base at Taji, just north of Baghdad, and make attendance at its one-week immersion course a prerequisite for command under him. “Because the Army won’t change itself, I’m going to change the Army here in Iraq,” he told subordinates. The classes emphasized that the right answer is probably the counterintuitive one, rather than something that the Army taught officers in their 10 or 20 years of service. The school’s textbook, a huge binder, offered the example of a mission that busts into a house and captures someone who mortared a U.S. base. “On the surface, a raid that captures a known insurgent or terrorist may seem like a sure victory for the coalition,” it observed in red block letters. But, it continued: “The potential second- and third-order effects, however, can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals.” As the Marine chain of command’s reaction to Haditha demonstrated in the following months, along with similar incidents of less magnitude in the Army, many officers still didn’t see those negative effects—or, if they did, they didn’t seem to care.

So, concluded Francis “Bing” West, a defense expert who studied both Marine and Army operations in Iraq under Casey, counterinsurgency in 2005 and 2006 remained more a slogan than a strategy. “By and large, the battalions continued to do what they knew best: conduct sweeps and mounted patrols during the day and targeted raids at night,” he wrote. Casey also undermined his own efforts, because his basic approach remained at odds with counterinsurgency theory: He was pulling his troops farther away from the population, closing dozens of bases in 2005 as he consolidated his force on big, isolated bases that the military termed “Super FOBs.” That move was arguably simply a retreat in place. Casey may have been under the sway of the view popular in the military that the American public is “casualty intolerant” and that additional U.S. losses would undermine whatever political support remained for the war. He may not have been aware that a small group of political scientists had sharply questioned that view in recent years, gathering evidence that the American public actually hates losing soldiers in a losing cause but will accept higher casualties if it believes it is winning. And one of those political scientists was Peter Feaver, then a member of the staff of the National Security Council, who had been brought into the White House to work on Iraq policy.

At the same time that Haditha was occurring, an analysis done for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, its internal think tank, concluded that the war was going badly and, in fact, was in far more dire a state than the Bush administration understood. “The costs of failure are likely to be high,” it somberly warned, “much higher than was incurred following the U.S. withdrawal from Haiti, Somalia, Lebanon or even Vietnam.”

The White House was in denial about the trend of the war. Officials around President Bush believed the problem wasn’t their strategy in Iraq but a failure to adequately explain that approach. The view, said Peter Feaver, was “We’ve got the right strategy, but we’re losing the public debate, because people don’t understand our strategy.” They certainly were losing the public, not entirely because of the slow downward spiral in Iraq. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in late August 2005, and the Bush administration’s plodding response to the catastrophic storm raised new doubts about its competence and its grasp of events on the ground. Critics of the Iraq war long had charged that the administration’s handling of the war combined overoptimism with ineptitude. Now Americans were seeing that mix far closer to home. In both situations, it looked like either the U.S. government didn’t care or couldn’t perform. It wasn’t clear which was worse.

So, to better inform the public, in November 2005—less than two weeks after the Haditha incident, as it happened—the White House issued a white paper titled “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” In discussing it, President Bush emphasized the transition to Iraqi forces. “As Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead in the fight against the terrorists, they’re also taking control of more and more Iraqi territory,” he said in a speech in Annapolis, Maryland. “Our coalition has handed over roughly ninety square miles of Baghdad Province to Iraqi security forces. Iraqi battalions have taken over responsibility for areas in South-Central Iraq, sectors of Southeast Iraq, sectors of Western Iraq and sectors of North-Central Iraq. As Iraqi forces take responsibility for more of their own territory, coalition forces can concentrate on training Iraqis and hunting down high-value targets.” He repeated his promise that “as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down.”

When those Iraqi forces came on line, he vowed, “We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.” In fact, the U.S. military would decide a year later to pursue almost the opposite course: It would move into cities, establish scores of small outposts, and patrol almost incessantly, having learned that if you are present in a neighborhood for only two hours a day, the insurgents may well control it for the other twenty-two.

Despite the document’s title, the Bush administration really hadn’t carried out a serious strategic review that asked the basic questions: What are we trying to do—that is, what are our key goals? How are we trying to do it—that is, what course of action will we pursue? Does that course promise to achieve those goals? What sort of resources—people, time, money—are likely to be required to reach those goals? One hallmark of such a review would be to seek out dissenting views, probing differences inside the administration, especially those between civilian and military officials.

But the Bush administration’s tendency was to suppress dissent and paper over differences, substituting loyalty for analysis, so the war continued to stand on a strategic foundation of sand. Nor had the president been well served by his generals, who with a few exceptions didn’t seem to pose the necessary questions. “Strategy is about choices,” said one of those exceptions, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend. Yet he lamented, one day in Baghdad two years later, “We don’t teach it, we don’t recognize it. The Army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy, you get aspirations.”

Such incompetence can be dangerous. As Eliot Cohen, an academic who would surface repeatedly in the Iraq war as an influential behind-the-scenes figure, commented later in a different context, “Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed.”

By late 2005, none of the basic assumptions on which the Iraq war had been launched had been borne out, noted a senior Pentagon official as he reviewed its course years later. “If you look at the premises behind the war, they were: It will be quick, it will be easy, it will be cheap, it will be catalytic.” That failure in turn led many Americans simply to advocate leaving Iraq because they saw chaos as the inevitable outcome of any course of action. “The only reason we are there now is because of the Petraeus surge, which shifted the balance so that reasonable people could say there might be a better alternative than chaos.” In a Middle Eastern restaurant a few minutes’ walk south of the Pentagon, the official sipped his beer. “Now, the fundamental fact about Iraq is, we’re kind of stuck.”

Strikingly, some of the people who would become involved in revamping the American approach to the war had disagreed with the rationale for the American invasion in the first place. Many more, probably a large majority of those who would remake the war, faulted the way the occupation had been handled. It seems that having such critical views was almost a prerequisite to grasping how to build a new foundation for the war.


The answer for what to do in Iraq would come largely through one person, Gen. David Petraeus, who over the next year would lead the way in determining how to revamp the U.S. approach to the war.

There were many experts as familiar with the tenets of counterinsurgency as Petraeus was. But he also knew how to get the Army to heed that knowledge. That is, his vision of how to change the war would become a restatement of classic counterinsurgency theory, which holds that the people are the objective, so the task is to figure out how to “win” them. This was familiar stuff to military intellectuals. In the fall of 2005, even as Petraeus was heading to his assignment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he would craft the new Army doctrine, Andrew Krepinevich, a prominent defense expert, published an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine that summarized the needed approach:

... the United States needs a real strategy built around the principles of counterinsurgency warfare. To date, U.S. forces in Iraq have largely concentrated their efforts on hunting down and killing insurgents. . . . Instead, U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an “oil-spot” strategy in Iraq, which is essentially the opposite approach. Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people.

Some 37 years earlier, Henry Kissinger, just before becoming President Nix-on’s national security adviser, had written in the same magazine a critique of the conduct of the Vietnam War: “To be effective, the so-called pacification program had to meet two conditions: (a) it had to provide security for the population; (b) it had to establish a political and institutional link between the villages and Saigon. Neither condition was ever met.” In Iraq in 2005, the U.S. military faced a remarkably similar problem, on both counts.

As Kissinger noted, to carry out such a mission, it was necessary to put more U.S. troops into the fight. This was a point that some retired generals had been making about the Iraq war for some time. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, who had left the military in 2002 over his concerns about the looming war, had told the Senate Armed Services Committee early in 2005 that he supported sending “additional forces . . . rather than sustain this level of effort for five more years of bleeding.”

The hard part for Petraeus would be to impose his vision on the U.S. Army, one of the largest and most tradition-bound organizations in the country. Casey had tried and largely failed—but he at least had recognized that it needed a new direction. It appears that as long as Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary, it would have been difficult to reorient the U.S. effort in Iraq. For all his talk of transforming the military, Rumsfeld appeared chary of making changes where they were most needed, in the war that was under way. Rather, his main interest in Iraq appeared to be in fending off critics. Everyone makes mistakes; Rumsfeld’s tragic flaw was his inability to change course after making them.

For example, soon after Krepinevich’s article appeared in Foreign Affairs, Rumsfeld sent a memo to subordinates saying he was hearing a lot about it and asking someone to see the author. Krepinevich, summoned to a breakfast meeting at the Pentagon, thought he was going there to provide some advice. Instead, he recalled, he was berated by Lawrence Di Rita, a Rumsfeld aide and at one point the Pentagon spokesman, who told him that he didn’t understand the war. “Andy, you’re misguided,” Di Rita said to him. “That’s what we’re already doing over there.”

While on active duty in the Army, Krepinevich, had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard for a courageous dissertation arguing that the Army, rather than the politicians or the media, had lost the Vietnam War. Some of his peers thought that the thesis had curtailed his Army career. He held his ground with Rumsfeld’s aides. “I disagree,” he responded. “When I ask for the campaign plan, the guys in J-5 [the planning office for the Joint Chiefs of Staff] give me a book of metrics”—that is, how the effort was being measured, such as the amount of money spent or the electricity produced. “If you can’t explain your campaign plan, you probably don’t have one.”

Vice Adm. James Stavridis, a military assistant to Rumsfeld who also was at the meeting, said that Krepinevich should get out to Iraq to see for himself how well things were going. Krepinevich said he’d like to do so. At that point, Di Rita crudely joked that, yes, Krepinevich should be flown there and abandoned on the road into Baghdad from its airport, perhaps the most dangerous six miles then in the world. Hearing that unfunny threat, Krepinevich lost interest in the conversation. “After that, in terms of my active involvement—well, I gave it my best shot in the article,” he recalled, turning his hands upward. (Throughout this book, accounts of conversations are based on the recollection of at least one participant, and often more than one. In this case, all three who were present contributed. Di Rita, for his part, said his recollection of the meeting was “admittedly hazy” but insisted that it was “bullshit” that he had made the joke about sending Krepinevich to the airport road. He said that he likely was referring to the fact that the road had become safer during that period. Krepinevich responded, “He does not remember such a conversation. I do, vividly.”)

FORT LEAVENWORTH, KANSAS, is more than 7,000 miles from Haditha, Iraq, but like that Iraqi village, it overlooks a major river that has helped define its nation. The installation sits atop a high bluff where the Missouri, having driven nearly straight west from St. Louis to Kansas City, begins its giant swing to the northwest that carries it across the Great Plains and into the Rockies. In the nineteenth century, the wide Missouri was the river of the frontier, the pathway first for the expedition led by two Army officers, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark, and later for steamboats supplying Army units almost all the way up to Custer’s last battlefield at Little Big Horn, Montana. Leavenworth also became a jumping-off point for the dragoons of the Army of the West, sending expeditions across the plains against the Apache, the Modoc, the Cheyenne, the Ute, the Nez Perce, the Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Kickapoo.

Under Petraeus’s command, Leavenworth would become the starting point for a new approach in the war that would involve making peace with the tribes of Iraq. In October 2005, a month after finishing his second tour of duty in Iraq, Petraeus drove halfway across the United States to his new post at Leavenworth, where he would oversee much of the Army’s training and educational establishment. He knew he would be focusing on counterinsurgency issues and would need to produce a new Army manual on the subject. Driving alone in his 2001 BMW 325i, he listened repeatedly to a series of compact discs of an exit interview done by Army historians with his predecessor, Gen. William Wallace. In mid-October, Petraeus parked at the commanding general’s house at Fort Leavenworth, at the top of a grassy slope that still bears ruts carved by the wagon wheels of the Santa Fe Trail as it emerges from the river crossing.

At the time, some insiders thought that sending Petraeus to the plains of Kansas was the wrong move for a nation fighting two wars in the Middle East. “I was opposed to the assignment,” said his old mentor from the 101st Airborne, retired Gen. Jack Keane. “I thought, bring him to Washington, get him close to the policy makers.” Keane thought the ideal slot would be the J-3—that is, the director of operations for the Joint Staff, where his protégé could oversee and coordinate the global activities of the U.S. military, and, he said, “inform a reluctant senior leadership.” Petraeus did not particularly want the Leavenworth job. He would later tell two Army historians in his own exit interview, “I have to tell you candidly, when I was told I was going to be the CAC [Combined Arms Center] commander, I thought, ‘What do you do out there? Harass the students in CGSC [Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College] that day? What is this all about?’ ”

Petraeus found plenty to do. The first thing he did was convene a group of Army officers to consider whether the Army training establishment was doing all it could to prepare leaders and units for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, on November 16, three days before the Haditha incident, Petraeus called Conrad Crane, an Army historian, and asked him to lead a team that would write a new manual on counterinsurgency for the Army and the Marine Corps. Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategy at Johns Hopkins University, had suggested Crane to Petraeus as a smart military expert who understood the subject and could lead a team. The perpetually bow-tied Cohen is an unusual figure in Washington, influential in several circles, with an extraordinary range of contacts inside the government, from the White House to the Congress to the military and intelligence establishments, a network created mainly because those institutions send many of the best young people to him to study strategy. He makes that study both intense and concrete, suggesting thousands of pages in readings, from Sun Tzu to Winston Churchill, but also leading his students on walks of battlefields, from Gettysburg to Italy to the Middle East, to mull campaign strategies. Cohen also was comfortable talking to journalists covering national security and foreign policy, especially if they were willing to follow up on his patient efforts to educate them. If being a Harvard-trained Jewish academic didn’t make him an outsider in military eyes, his resolute dislike of spectator sports would have—despite being from the Boston area, he followed neither baseball nor football. This actually may have aided his strategic analyses, as the sports metaphors that tend to pass for strategic discourse in the American military—“we’re five yards from the end zone,” or “it’s the fourth quarter and we’re down fifty”—sailed by him. He also was the author of Supreme Command, an influential study of how civilian leaders have intervened in wartime to oversee strategy and steer their wars toward success. Before the invasion of Iraq, the White House made it known that President Bush had studied the book. But for all that, Cohen didn’t know that David Petraeus and Conrad Crane had been friends for decades, since they sat next to each other in a West Point military history class.

Crane had gone on to a career in the Army during which he earned a doctorate in history at Stanford. After retiring he became a professor at the Army War College, where he was coauthor of a study that before the American invasion of Iraq highlighted the difficulties of occupying that country. “The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious,” the study warned. “Thinking about the war now and the occupation later is not an acceptable solution.” That is, of course, exactly what top Bush administration officials did, in part because many believed U.S. forces would leave Iraq quickly and so there would be no occupation.

DAVID LLOYD GEORGE, the British prime minister for much of World War I, observed after that conflict that for officers in the British army, “to be a good average is safer than to be gifted above your fellows.” This also tends to be true in the U.S. Army. Given that conformist inclination, the most surprising fact about Gen. Petraeus may be that he is a general at all.

In an Army of generals who tend to be competent company men, Petraeus is “an outlier,” said Col. Peter Mansoor, who came to know him well, first in working with him on counterinsurgency doctrine at Fort Leavenworth in 2006 and then the following year as his executive officer in Iraq. “General Petraeus doesn’t seem to fit the mold, because he is extremely bright, and intellectual,” said Mansoor, who, like Petraeus, holds a doctorate—in his case, in military history from Ohio State University, home of a top department in the United States for that subject. “But he is a PT [physical training, or exercise] stud, and tactically and technically competent, and that matters to Army [promotion] boards.”

Petraeus was an unusual figure in the Army. He was indeed a physical fitness freak, whose inclination was to run five to eight miles a day and then work out for another 45 minutes—despite having a pelvis that was smashed parachuting and a damaged lung from being shot through the chest. His physical drive was hugely in his favor, in terms of Army culture, and may have been the thing that redeemed him with his peers. He is thought to be the only officer ever to come in first in both his class at Army Ranger School and at the Army’s Command and General Staff College.

Such stellar performances in mental and physical stamina were necessary because he had three strikes against him. First, he was an intellectual, holding an Ivy League doctorate in international relations. “General Petraeus was successful not because of, but almost despite, his Ph.D. from Princeton,” commented Lt. Col. Suzanne Nielsen, an aide of his who herself earned a Harvard doctorate in political science. Second, Petraeus was friendly with journalists and politicians, two groups that Army generals are taught to treat with contemptuous distance. The Army ideal is the hero of the novel Once an Eagle, Gen. Sam Damon, a muddy-boots type who loves being in the field and grows increasingly inarticulate the closer he gets to Washington. To most Army generals, enjoying conversations with the type of people who dominate the business of the nation’s capital borders on eccentricity at best and immorality at worst. In any event, it is suspicious behavior. The derogatory term for it is “standing close to the flagpole.”

Most telling was the third strike: Alone among Army generals, Petraeus had posted an unquestionably successful tour as a division commander in Iraq during the invasion and the first year of the war, a conclusion confirmed in an official study by the Army War College. Commanding the 101st Airborne Division, he conducted what was generally seen as a thorough and effective campaign that balanced war fighting and nation building in Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq. Petraeus had laid down three rules for his subordinate commanders: We are in a race against time, give the locals you deal with a stake in the new Iraq, and don’t do anything that creates more enemies than it removes.

By contrast, during that first year of the war, most U.S. commanders did what they knew how to do, not what they needed to do, noted Keane, who knew most of them well. “Our guys, . . . with the exception of Petraeus, were executing what they know, and what they knew is conventional operations—you saw that in spades.”

A major difference in background between Petraeus and most of his peers in that first year in Iraq was that he came out of the “light infantry” Army. Iraq was seen at the outset by some as the star turn of the “heavy Army”—that is, units built around tanks and other armored vehicles. The invasion of Afghanistan 18 months earlier had been a “light force” war, featuring Special Forces and, a bit later, the 10th Mountain Division and some Marine units. Iraq was to be the heavy Army’s turn. The early top commanders in Iraq—Tommy R. Franks and Ricardo Sanchez—were products of that mechanized force. Petraeus, by contrast, was a light infantryman, having spent much of his field time with the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne and the helicopter-borne soldiers of the 101st Airborne. The term “light” is a bit of misnomer, because these troops carry everything they can on their backs, from ammunition to medicine, often staggering under the loads. But “light” means that such units rely very little on tanks, artillery, and other heavy weaponry. “That’s significant,” noted Tom Donnelly, a longtime student of the Army and its cultures. “For one thing, it makes you less obsessed with technology. The airborne community always knew that there was more to worry about than tank warfare in Europe’s central front,” the main focus of most of the late twentieth-century Army. While the tankers stayed in Germany, he said, “the light infantry did the Caribbean, Panama, peacekeeping in the Sinai.”

That background may also illuminate the different approach Petraeus would take to the roadside bomb, the key enemy weapon in the war. The U.S. military ultimately would spend well over $10 billion on technology to counter the threat posed by IEDs, or “improvised explosive devices.” While some of the new devices stymied explosions, they tended just to push the enemy to devise a more sophisticated trigger mechanism and more devastating bombs. The number of attacks would not begin to decline until 2007, when Petraeus was in command. The answer then turned out to be not technological but physical and cultural—get the troops out among the people, protect them, stay with them, and they will begin to talk to you. And even those who won’t talk might help in other ways, such as anonymously spray-painting orange arrows on the asphalt to indicate where a bomb had been planted the previous night.

But even more significant than Petraeus’s military background is his determination. It is the cornerstone of his personality and a characteristic that seems to strike everyone he meets. One of his favorite words is “relentless.” Donnelly first encountered Petraeus in the late 1980s, when Petraeus was a young major. “He was almost identical to the guy you find today—very bright, very ambitious,” Donnelly recalled. “Always ready to go for a run. Every day was a good day for him.”

Some of his peers saw him as ferociously ambitious, all too willing to court congressmen and journalists. Those critics felt their suspicions were confirmed when Petraeus told a Washington Post reporter that his role in Mosul in 2003-4 was “a combination of being the president and the pope.” Even among his admirers there churns an ambivalence about him, often provoked by his overwhelming drive. In a memoir of invading Iraq in 2003 with Petraeus, Rick Atkinson, the journalist who knows Petraeus best and has remained friendly with him, wrote, “If others found him hard to love—his intensity, his competitiveness, and serrated intellect made adoration difficult—he was nevertheless broadly respected and instantly obeyed.” That is an especially striking assessment because Atkinson, according to then-Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, the assistant commander to Petraeus, was “probably closer to him than anyone in the division.”

Trying to explain his unease about Petraeus, an officer who has known him for years said, “I really respect his intelligence. He is very disciplined. But I’m not comfortable with his competitiveness.” He said he found it difficult to get Petraeus to engage in a normal conversation. “It is all a race. Everything is a race. It’s a narcissistic, exploitative way of dealing with people.” This approach also has a long-term cost, he said: “Dave tends not to build teams, or think about what happens afterwards. It’s the Dave Petraeus Show.”

Such criticisms aren’t entirely justified, because Petraeus, more than most generals, keeps an eye out for smart younger officers and helps them along in their careers. But even one of those protégés was mixed in his evaluation. “David Petraeus is the best general in the U.S. Army, bar none,” said this officer, who has known him for more than a decade. But, he added, “He also isn’t half as good as he thinks he is.”

Another admirer, Capt. Erica Watson Borggren, graduated from West Point in 2002 and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar. When she first met Petraeus, she recalled, he asked, “What was your class ranking?” He was referring to the academy’s class position, which is based on a mix of academic records, military leadership skills, and physical fitness tests. It is a key number because standing determines the order by which cadets pick their branch of the Army—infantry, armor, artillery, aviation, military intelligence, and so on.

“First academically, seventh overall,” she responded.

“What dragged you down?” Petraeus asked.

She was amazed. First in academics and seventh overall was an extraordinary performance in a class of 989. She had played varsity tennis, had tutored other cadets, had become a youth minister and a parachutist. She thought to herself, “What do you mean, ‘dragged down’?” But she was restrained in what she actually said to the hypercompetitive general: “Well, if you look it at that way.” (Petraeus, who finished fortieth in his 1974 graduating class of 833 cadets, said he had been joking.)

“I worked with him,” said David Kilcullen, the Australian counterinsurgency theorist who Petraeus would bring to Iraq as his adviser. “But I am not sure I know him.”

Donnelly, a defense expert with a gimlet eye for the Army, said he felt that he has never been able to get below the surface of Petraeus. “The distinction between the mask and the man is impossible for me to distinguish. He has always been that way. I think he is doing what he always wanted to do, and it is deeply fulfilling.” Indeed, under that mask may be simply many more hard laminations of talent and drive. Donnelly added that he doesn’t think Petraeus’s dreams extend to political office. Rather, he said, “He has an ambition to make his mark on the Army, on history. He wants to make his name as a great captain.” Asked in a 2008 interview if he had ever considered being national security adviser, Petraeus appeared mildly intrigued. But when asked if he would like to be a professor of international relations at Princeton, he responded with excitement and a grin and said it would be a “thrill.”

It was his extraordinary force of will that persuaded Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the chief of staff of the Army, to send Petraeus to Fort Leavenworth. “Shake it up,” Schoomaker told Petraeus, who would need every ounce of his strength to change the way the Army thought about the war in Iraq.

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