The Fourth Star by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe is about the long struggle, and eventual victory, of an idea that is now the core of the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan: that if the enemy isn’t going to fight a conventional war, then we need to win by means other than just fighting. That idea is embodied by General David Petraeus, who took command of U.S. troops in Iraq from General George Casey Jr. in 2007.
The authors use that transition to summarize their larger theme:
Ever since [Vietnam], senior Army leaders had tried, and ultimately failed, to keep their force from becoming too deeply embroiled in messy political wars that defied standard military solutions. It was a pattern that had repeated itself in Haiti, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and then Iraq, where generals often focused more on exit strategies than plans for victory. Petraeus wasn’t interested in the drawdown plans often advanced by Casey. Instead he wanted to push U.S. troops into cities and leave them there. Only a heavy and sustained American presence could win the war, he believed.
Moreover, this heavy and sustained presence was not about engaging the enemy. Rather, it was primarily about protecting and policing the population, controlling sectarian violence, and turning the pragmatic majority against the insurgents.
Whereas U.S. forces previously concentrated themselves in highly fortified bases, they would now disperse among smaller posts within population centers. Whereas rebuilding Iraq was often about multiyear, multibillion-dollar reconstruction projects, it would now include immediate band-aids like getting the sewage out of the streets. Whereas conventional tactics were about applying overwhelming force to win the immediate battle, the new thinking included paradoxes such as “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.”
To tell the story of this paradigm shift, The Fourth Star follows the careers of Petraeus and three other generals in the Iraq war: Casey, John Abizaid, and Peter Chiarelli. The four biographies make clear that each man was an extraordinary soldier, yet Casey and Abizaid ended up being the last of the old guard; Petraeus and the lesser-known Chiarelli ended up the first of the new.
Abizaid is a particularly tragic figure. An Arabic speaker with a long history in the Middle East, he knew the region better than any senior soldier, not to mention his civilian superiors. Like Petraeus, he had long ago concluded that the military needed to get much better at winning the peace in addition to the war. Yet he took charge in Iraq in 2003, after the initial rout, in the “Mission Accomplished” era. Taking orders from the then-swaggering Bush/Rumsfeld political leadership, he and Casey became the executors of policies that initially were in denial about the insurgency—thus giving it time to build—and then tried to fight it with conventional means.
Conversely, Petraeus was in the right place and right time. As a regional commander in Iraq, he employed his signature counterinsurgency tactics to good effect, all the while working personal relationships with the press to document his rising star. By late 2006—after years of deteriorating conditions, the Republicans’ loss of Congress, and Rumsfeld’s resignation—Petraeus was the obvious choice for change. However, it’s interesting to ask what would have happened if Petraeus was in Abizaid’s role several years earlier, whether Petraeus would have been able to accelerate America’s adaptiveness or whether he would have been cast aside by the civilian leadership, as was General Eric Shinseki when he requested too many troops for post-war Iraq operations.
While The Fourth Star invites such conceptual questions, it’s first and foremost a storytelling book. It is especially strong conveying the stories of what actually was happening in Iraq behind the headlines, from the bureaucratic infighting to the real fighting on the battlefield to the twisted relationships among the U.S. and various Iraqi factions.
As an example of Cloud and Jaffe’s eye for the telling detail, here is an aside about an Iraqi army unit being trained for self-sufficiency:
They couldn’t feed themselves without U.S. help or repair broken equipment. When one of their soldiers was killed by insurgents, the unit wasn’t even able to ship the body home. Instead the battalion commander ordered his men to put the decomposing corpse in a room with the air conditioning turned on full blast. In a scene reminiscent of a Faulkner novel, the Iraqis then passed a hat hoping to collect cab fare for the 500-mile trip to the dead soldier’s family home in Basara. Eventually [the U.S. officer in charge] paid the fare.
As with this quote, the daunting nature of the American—and Iraqi—challenge in Iraq pervades the book, not in a polemic way, just as myriad matters of fact.
Before Petraeus’ promotion in 2007, things were bad, going to worse. By embracing change, and investing in it with an additional troop surge, the momentum reversed. Three years later Iraq has seen progress, but a decisive win is a long-term proposition. Near-term success amounts to transitioning most of the military burden from the United States to native Iraqi forces, while maintaining political and economic stability—any aspect of which will strike a reader of The Fourth Star as a formidable task.
Yet amid the ongoing uncertainty in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Fourth Star makes the case that an important victory of ideas has already occurred. It took unusual leaders like Petraeus, who creatively bucked the system from within, and it took a trip to the edge of failure in Iraq, but the U.S. military learned and adapted. The Fourth Star is an engaging chronicle of that slow, hard path toward change.
[Here is the Amazon link to The Fourth Star.]