Apples and Oranges, Onus Added

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commande...

Image via Wikipedia

There was a nice tribute to outgoing General Petraeus in the Joplin Globe this morning. The editors extended him a well-deserved “atta-boy” as he leaves Afghanistan to assume duties as CIA chief. There’s no question that he is a tough, determined and dedicated professional who succeeded in setting “a standard for wartime command in the modern era”, in the words of JCS Chief Admiral Mullen.

But the editorial then went too far, in my opinion, when it said,

Beginning with the surge in Iraq, a strategy of engagement with the people of Iraq as well as the enemies in that country, Petraeus established a level of success (emphasis added) seen only by Gen. Colin Powell in the first Gulf war, with his use of the Powell Doctrine.

Why too far? The answer, I submit, is in Admiral Mullen’s inference that warfare in “the

Demolished vehicles line Highway 80, also know...

Highway of Death, Iraq War, via Wikipedia

modern era” is different now from what it used to be. When General Powell engineered success in the first Gulf War, that was a classic battle of opposing armies, one with limited objectives. We didn’t capture the enemy’s country and there was no onus to manage Iraq’s internal economic and political aftermath.  It is easy to tell when an army has been defeated – think “highway of death”.

But Petraeus’ achievements are different from Powell’s. He fought insurgencies, not armies, and his achievements were in managing the economic and political aftermath in Iraq and in dealing with the devilishly difficult internal affairs of Afghanistan. So to compare Petraeus’ “success” with that of Powell is, to me, comparing apples to oranges. While achievements were military in nature, they are different aspects of military operations. I submit that this is the distinction Mullen was pointing out.

And then there is the question of the lauded “success” of Petraeus. The editors didn’t define that, and even if they had wanted to, I doubt there would have been room. What does “success” look like in Afghanistan? If that’s what we have now, it sure isn’t pretty.

I wish to take nothing from Petraeus. As the editors said, he did an outstanding job with the resources he was given, quite possibly better than anyone else could have done. But it is misleading to compare apples to oranges because warfare in the future is more likely to be the Petraeus’ kind and not the Powell kind. The body politic and the Congress need to be aware of that.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Afghan war, Iraq war, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Apples and Oranges, Onus Added

  1. johncerickson says:

    Right on the money, sir! What General Petraeus had to face is the infamous asymmetric warfare, facing an enemy that looks like the surrounding population using irregular forces and what many would call “terrorist” tactics against our heavily armed but “less-than-nimble” forces, in the midst of (as you indicate) political machinations (and if that sounds like a description of Vietnam, the resemblance is PURELY intentional). While General Powell’s accomplishments are very laudable, I don’t see quite the same high level of challenge that Gen. Petraeus has faced. I don’t think we’ll be able to apply the label of “success” for several years, but he certainly did quite a lot in VERY unfavourable circumstances. And frankly put, the first Gulf War was a fluke – an anachronistic throwback to regular forces and fixed “lines”. I doubt we will see that type of war anytime soon, if at all.
    By the by, speaking of things military, throw a salute to the brave men of Germany who attempted to overthrow Hitler in the famous “Operation Valkyrie” 67 years ago. Always an interesting “what if” point in WW2 history – and an event that went ignored, especially in Germany (both before and after reunification) for far too many years.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, that was my point too, John, that the chances of seeing another demonstration of army-to-army victory, complete with shock and awe, are greatly diminished. More likely, future “war” will look like underwear bombers, crashing trains, Predator missiles, remote robotic devices, and making nice with semi-civilized tribal leaders. George Patton sure wouldn’t like it, and for that matter I don’t know anyone who does. The world has indeed changed.

      One big remaining question in my military mind is: Have we learned our lesson that nation building is a mistake? That is something to keep in mind when we vote in 2012, is it not? I hope the debates cover it well.


      • johncerickson says:

        The biggest problem, I think, is that our only real nation building experience was post World War 2, and everybody involved was willing and eager. We tried a variation in Vietnam, but too limited to really teach any lessons. Now we’re trying to do it with one country (Afghanistan) that is VERY mixed in its’ feelings, and one (Iraq) that isn’t very happy with us at all. And in future, just like the “conventional” war of First Gulf, I doubt we’ll see opportunities for nation-building in countries that really like us. (I’d far prefer we don’t FIND ourselves in the situation to “nation-build” at all, but c’est la vie.)


  2. Jim,

    I couldn’t agree more, for reasons we have discussed previously. Success in Iraq is by no means assured, if we are talking about the long-term.

    I will add that the reason we are unlikely to see Gulf War I warfare anytime soon is because of the overwhelming supremacy we demonstrated—engineered by a veteran of the protracted fight in Vietnam—that will make any nation or think not twice, but a thousand times, about an engagement with the U.S. military on those terms.

    As you suggest, that kind of supremacy is virtually useless in fighting insurgencies in places where terrorists hide.



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    I have been away for a week and just now getting back to speed. And yes, I wrote the edit before I left last week. Glad to see that it was used. Now permit me to defend it to a degree.

    I consider “the modern era” of warfare to have originated in Vietnam, a defeat of unquestionable magnitude for U. S. MILITARY engagement. So first of all, separate the military from the political challenges. Generals are supposed to FIGHT. Politicians are supposed to decide when and where to fight. Vietnam was a political defeat as is Afghanistan. We left Vietnam with our tail between our legs after about 10 years (OK maybe 9 years after the Gulf of Tokin). The military could not “pull the political fat out of the fire”.

    Weinberger said, soon after Vietnam, “no more of that” kind of warfare. He published his six principles as a guide to prevent such open ended engagement in the future. Powell took those six principles and applied them in the First Gulf War and it became known as the Powell Doctrine. That doctrine is the essence of the Weinberger six priniciples, boiled down to “don’t fight unless you can marshal overwhelming force”, particularly at the “point of attack”. Powell applied that to Kuwait, carefully defined what “winning” meant, and the rest is history.

    Then 9/11 occurred. And like it or not Powell supported the attacks on Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq. He violated the Powell doctrine in doing so. Then enter Petraus. In a tactical sense he “won” his “war” in Iraq through the surge. The strategic outcome is still unknown in Iraq. But not so in Afghanistan for sure. That is another “Vietnam” at least in the sense that we “went in” and now are eventually going to leave “with our tails between our legs”.

    Given the politics, Petraus did all that could be done, in my view as a military leader. He leaves having “won” (partially at least) one tactical battle, stalemated in the second tactical battle (Afghanistan) and the strategic issues are undecided at least in Iraq for now.

    In my view Petraus greatest failure was not in developing an effective “surge” in Afghanistan. Maybe such a surge there was impossible, actually it probably was impossible in hindsight. History judges military leaders by winning and losing battles and campaigns. Powell WON decisively his campaing or “war” in Kuwait by FORCING HIS strategy (Powell doctrine) upon politicians (including the withdrawal as soon as “victory” was gained). Petraus, at least in Afghanistan, lost that “battle” politically and thus militarily, in Afghanistan.

    Now just think about it. In 2001 could the Powell Doctrine have been executed in Afghanistan, successfully? We will never know for sure now. So now we can only argue hypotheticals.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.