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Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army

Review by David T. Jones

David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army, Crown Publishers, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-307-40906-5, pp. 328, $28.00

Fourth Star is a reference to the rank of “General”—the highest de facto rank in the current armed forces.  A fifth star designates a “General of the Army” but such rank has not been awarded since the end of World War II when warriors such as MacArthur, Bradley, and Eisenhower were “five star generals.”

Thus Fourth Star recounts the biographies and careers of four of this generation’s most successful officers:  George Casey (Army Chief of Staff); Pete Chiarelli (Army Vice Chief of Staff); David Petraeus (Commander Central Command); and John Abizaid (retired CENTCOM commander).  Fourth Star weaves their professional lives and the post-Vietnam army into a 35-year review of U.S. military action and the evolution of the Army during this generation.  Thus it carries the reader on a once-over-lightly march through the major military challenges of post-Cold War before grinding into the politico-military issues of the five-year Iraq experience, concluding at end 2008.

For background, Petraeus and Abizaid were West Pointers while Chiarelli and Casey were commissioned through ROTC.  Only Casey is an “Army brat”—and that with a bitter twist as his father, a major general, died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.  None could be considered more of more than middle class social status and background, and with the exception of Petraeus, who excelled at virtually every academic level, could they be regarded as stellar students.  Rather they were young men who enjoyed a good time with comparably oriented young men.

The book consequently follows each through varied assignments in the post-Vietnam era. It is an interesting progress since, while we no longer have dusty cavalry units of post-Civil War ilk, there were certainly middle-of-nowhere assignments in Germany, Colorado, Texas, and Washington that could leave a young officer wondering if “elsewhere” was a better place to be than living as an Army officer.  And these were posts that were harder on wives and families than on the officers.

In some respects they are an even more curious assembly of senior officers as none fought in the 1991-92 Desert Shield/Desert Storm liberation of Kuwait.  But this absence of combat experience may actually have shielded them from learning too well lessons that proved inappropriate for the second phase of the 2003-present day was in Iraq.

In that regard, Fourth Star provides a solid, insightful review of the Iraq focused primarily on strategic overview.  There are illustrative tactical notes, but nothing at the grunt level of Bing West’s No True Glory that detailed fighting for Fallujah.

The Evolving Army
What the authors document about the evolution of the post-Vietnam Army is akin to the aphorism about the cat that sat on a hot stove.  The cat never again sat on a hot stove–nor a cold one.  Indeed, the Army took away many lessons from Vietnam, but the largest was “never again” engage in amorphous, ambiguous “nation building” type conflicts under the rubric of “counter insurgency.”  Instead, the Army sought to fight—and think to fight and train—a conventional battle, notably against Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe.  Under this philosophy, the Army would deploy overwhelming force, win the war, and withdraw.  They would pancake any opposition and then pound the pancake flatter yet; the strategy, labeled the “Powell Doctrine” after former CJCS General Colin Powell, was designed to minimize U.S. casualties and focus the armed forces on their traditional métier:  fighting and winning wars.

Thus Fourth Star recounts also the halting manner in which the Army after a Powell Doctrine style victory that in 2003 destroyed Saddam Hussein’s forces devolved into a frustrating effort to build up Iraqi military and police forces while building down U.S. armed presence.  Instead logically progressing in both directions, our presence became an ineffective counter insurgency (albeit trying to avoid that label) to eliminate persistent terrorist attacks.  These insurgent actions would never defeat the U.S. Army in the field, but were moving toward defeating it psychologically and, even more importantly, convincing political Washington and USA public opinion that the war could not be won.

That the Army eventually identified and devised approaches combining economic incentives, a substantial military force surge, protection of the citizenry, and de facto purchasing of Sunni insurgents through fostering and funding “Sons of Iraq” units has been recounted elsewhere.  It was also an implicit rejection of former Army Chief General Gordon Sullivan’s maxim that the best “peacekeeper” was a trained soldier.  For him, no special training was necessary for peacekeepers.  The authors skip past another reality, however, that this relatively soft approach was combined with high tech intelligence driven pursuit of key al Qaeda in Iraq leaders and other insurgents.  The cold side of the coin accepts that there is only one way to deal with a fanatic—kill him.  Then his subordinates may be willing to consider blandishments positing less violent outcomes.

Perhaps the most interesting “new information” is the public confirmation that we intercepted Iraqi government (Prime Minister Malaki’s office) communications and used them to confirm Iraqi duplicity in betraying times and targets of our prospective raids.  Such a revelation will only make future electronic intercept harder as the government works to secure its communications.

As the book concludes, we are sotto voce muttering “victory” while puzzling over the applicability of these tactics for Afghanistan—an unpredicted sanguine outcome.

But Fourth Star also has lessons for Foreign Service Officers:

— Mentoring Guides Success:  Each of the generals detailed had powerful patrons that identified them early, guided their careers, and protected them from fatal career consequences from error.  Every organization “networks” but to read Fourth Star is to appreciate illustrations of its operational results.  In comparison with Army mentoring, the Department of State is still in elementary school.

— An Institutional “Think Tank” As Policy Seedbed:  The West Point Social Science Department teaches cadets the basics of political science and international relations.  But even more importantly for the Army’s future, it serves as a seedbed for heterodox thinking and writing.  Army officers, think, write, and publish a steady stream of articles and reflections in professional journals.  They write Masters dissertations at service war colleges.  The Petraeus Ph.D. is widely known, but he is hardly unique in using academic opportunities to finish scholarly work.

More basically, the Foreign Service lacks any comparable institution to foster systematic thinking and writing about its profession.  Senior diplomats rarely write critical analyses of their profession while on active duty.  For all its strengths, the Foreign Service Institute does not serve this role.

— And the Army Reads:  Not just comic books and Army regs.  Over the years, the Army has read and internalized a variety of books:  Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer juxtaposed a driven careerist with a soldier’s soldier to provide divergent models of career success; This Kind of War by TR Fehrenbach was Army Chief Gordon Sullivan’s cautionary model for subordinates on the perils of a “hollow army” which he feared might emerge from post-Cold War reductions; Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy detailed the French early struggles in Indochina; and a current favorite, Jean Larteguy’s Centurions, recounts in fictionalized form how a French Army defeated at Dien Bien Phu recovered, reinvented itself as a counterinsurgency force, and prevailed on the ground in Algeria.

No comparable volumes have engaged the Foreign Service.

Today the Army struggles to be both “fish” and “fowl.”  It must still be capable of fielding and fighting “heavy” conventional forces.  Where and when such a fight will occur is unknown—a “known unknown” but still unknown.  It would be as dangerous to assume we will never need such forces as to assume that they will be our only need.

And while we have circled back to Vietnam and drawn new lessons from our failures, which are now being applied in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a hopeful than a proven reappraisal of what politico-strategic concept we need.  It could well prove that the Petraeus-McChrystal counterinsurgency programs come a cropper and that five years from now we still be seeking the plug to drain the cesspool.

A Final Vignette
Between 1989 and 1991, I was the POLAD (Foreign Policy Advisor) for Army Chief of Staff General Carl Vuono.  General Vuono created a Chief’s Analysis and Initiatives Group (CAIG) to handle special projects of personal interest.  One member of the CAIG was a hard-working, well-organized and competent Lieutenant Colonel:  George Casey.  During the same period, Vuono had as a personal assistant a major who was frequently exhausted by the long hours and heavy demands, but clearly intelligent, active, and personable:  David Petraeus.End.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy.  During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving inter alia as a POLAD for the Army Chief of Staff.  He is coauthor of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.-Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.


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