Back in 1987, with memories of the Vietnam War still fresh, a young Army major writing his doctoral dissertation at Princeton explored the many ways in which that war had changed the American officer corps.
"First, they have become sensitive to the finite limits of public support for protracted military operations," the officer wrote. "Second, they have developed a nagging doubt about the efficacy of military operations. And third, they have carried from Vietnam a greater disillusionment with and heightened awareness of civilian officials."
That officer was David Petraeus — now Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. Twenty years later, he is about to be appointed by President Bush to replace Gen. George Casey as commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq.
Petraeus is eminently qualified for the job. He commanded the 101st Airborne in the 2003 invasion, and during the occupation he proved more successful than many other commanders in suppressing the insurgency that began to take root. Later, Petraeus headed the effort to train a new Iraqi military, where he again was credited with improving if not resolving a bad situation.
Recently, Petraeus has been stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where among other duties he has overseen the drafting of a joint Army-Marine doctrine in how to fight an insurgency like that in Iraq, the first such field manual since the Vietnam era.
As the doctrine points out, counterinsurgency is often, well, counterintuitive. You can't win by killing all the insurgents, and in fact will lose if you try to do so. And your most effective weapons are often political and economic — weapons that don't shoot.
The new doctrine also reflects the military's commitment to learning from its mistakes (among the units under Petraeus' command at Fort Leavenworth, for example, is the Center for Army Lessons Learned, or CALL).
As a result, reading the counterinsurgency manual is like reading a post mortem on our debacle in Iraq. At one point, the manual lists eight unsuccessful practices in fighting an insurgency; the U.S. has committed every one of those mistakes, from overemphasizing the killing of insurgents to failing to control Iraq's borders.
The doctrine also lists three stages in a successful counterinsurgency; after almost four years of fighting and dying in Iraq, we are stuck at Stage One: "Stop the Bleeding."
The doctrine notes that fighting an insurgency requires a lot of manpower. Last fall, in an interview with Petraeus at his office in Leavenworth, I asked whether the counterinsurgency doctrine could be successful in Iraq, given our manpower problems.
"It would be difficult," Petraeus conceded. "It would be very, very difficult."
Today, Bush desperately wants to convince the American people that he is making a fresh start in Iraq. The appointment of Petraeus, whom Bush can plausibly describe as one of our nation's top counterinsurgency officers, will bolster that claim. And to address the manpower issue, the president is expected to propose escalating our commitment in Iraq by around 20,000 troops.
Unfortunately, most military experts say that escalation would be far too small, and come far too late, to alter the course of events in Iraq.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee exactly that last fall, in response to a question from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Abizaid said he had asked every top commander in Iraq whether more troops would add considerably to odds of success. "And they all said no," Abizaid reported.
As Abizaid pointed out, our primary problem in Iraq is the absence of a working Iraqi government, and that's something that can't be fixed by more American troops.
"In the end, the host nation has to win on its own," the new manual states, and there is no evidence that the Iraqi government is capable of doing so.
That puts Petraeus in an interesting situation. Among the lessons of Vietnam noted in his dissertation 20 years ago was that gradual escalation is unlikely to work against an established insurgency, because the insurgents will adapt to it. He also noted that Vietnam had imbued senior American military leaders with "a conviction that the military leadership has not just a right, but a duty, to question those who would send American soldiers to war."
That obligation to question, however, applies more strongly still to Congress and the American people. These are critical times, and too many have been too quiet for too long.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution