Comment October 2008

The Petraeus Doctrine

Iraq-style counterinsurgency is fast becoming the U.S. Army’s organizing principle. Is our military preparing to fight the next war, or the last one?

Nagl’s line of argument has not gone unchallenged. Its opponents, the Conservatives, reject the revisionist interpretation of Vietnam and dispute the freshly enshrined conventional narrative on Iraq. Above all, they question whether Iraq represents a harbinger of things to come.

A leading voice in the Conservative camp is Colonel Gian Gentile, a Berkeley graduate with a doctorate in history from Stanford, who currently teaches at West Point. Gentile has two tours in Iraq under his belt. During the second, just before the Petrae­us era, he commanded a battalion in Baghdad.

Writing in the journal World Affairs, Gentile dismisses as “a self-serving fiction” the notion that Abrams in 1968 put the United States on the road to victory in Vietnam; the war, he says, was unwinnable, given the “perseverance, cohesion, indigenous support, and sheer determination of the other side, coupled with the absence of any of those things on the American side.” Furthermore, according to Gentile, the post-Vietnam officer corps did not turn its back on that war in a fit of pique; it correctly assessed that the mechanized formations of the Warsaw Pact deserved greater attention than pajama-clad guerrillas in Southeast Asia.

Gentile also takes issue with the triumphal depiction of the Petrae­us era, attributing security improvements achieved during Petrae­us’s tenure less to new techniques than to a “cash-for-cooperation” policy that put “nearly 100,000 Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, … on the U.S. government payroll.” According to Gentile, in Iraq as in Vietnam, tactics alone cannot explain the overall course of events.

All of this forms a backdrop to Gentile’s core concern: that an infatuation with stability operations will lead the Army to reinvent itself as “a constabulary,” adept perhaps at nation-building but shorn of adequate capacity for conventional war-fighting.

The concern is not idle. A recent article in Army magazine notes that the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, long “renowned for its force-on-force conventional warfare maneuver training,” has now “switched gears,” focusing exclusively on counter­insurgency warfare. Rather than practicing how to attack the hill, its trainees now learn about “spending money instead of blood, and negotiating the cultural labyrinth through rapport and rapprochement.”

The officer corps itself recognizes that conventional-warfare capabilities are already eroding. In a widely circulated white paper, three former brigade commanders declare that the Army’s field-artillery branch—which plays a limited role in stability operations, but is crucial when there is serious fighting to be done—may soon be all but incapable of providing accurate and timely fire support. Field artillery, the authors write, has become a “dead branch walking.”

Gentile does not doubt that counter­insurgencies will figure in the Army’s future. Yet he questions Nagl’s certainty that situations resembling Iraq should become an all-but-exclusive preoccupation. Historically, expectations that the next war will resemble the last one have seldom served the military well.

Embedded within this argument over military matters is a more fundamental and ideologically charged argument about basic policy. By calling for an Army configured mostly to wage stability operations, Nagl is effectively affirming the Long War as the organizing principle of post-9/11 national-security strategy, with U.S. forces called upon to bring light to those dark corners of the world where terrorists flourish. Observers differ on whether the Long War’s underlying purpose is democratic transformation or imperial domination: Did the Bush administration invade Iraq to liberate that country or to control it? Yet there is no disputing that the Long War implies a vast military enterprise undertaken on a global scale and likely to last decades. In this sense, Nagl’s reform agenda, if implemented, will serve to validate—and perpetuate—the course set by President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11.

Gentile understands this. Implicit in his critique of Nagl is a critique of the Bush administration, for which John Nagl serves as a proxy. Gentile’s objection to what he calls Nagl’s “breathtaking” assumption about “the efficacy of American military power to shape events” expresses a larger dissatisfaction with similar assumptions held by the senior officials who concocted the Iraq War in the first place. When Gentile charges Nagl with believing that there are “no limits to what American military power … can accomplish,” his real gripe is with the likes of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz.

For officers like Nagl, the die appears to have been cast. The Long War gives the Army its marching orders. Nagl’s aim is simply to prepare for the inescapable eventuality of one, two, many Iraqs to come.

Gentile resists the notion that the Army’s (and by extension, the nation’s) fate is unalterably predetermined. Strategic choice—to include the choice of abandoning the Long War in favor of a different course—should remain a possibility. The effect of Nagl’s military reforms, Gentile believes, will be to reduce or preclude that possibility, allowing questions of the second order (How should we organize our Army?) to crowd out those of the first (What should be our Army’s purpose?).

The biggest question of all, Gentile writes, is “Who gets to decide this?” Absent a comparably searching Great Debate among the civilians vying to direct U.S. policy—and the prospects that either Senator McCain or Senator Obama will advocate alternatives to the Long War appear slight—the power of decision may well devolve by default upon soldiers. Gentile insists—rightly—that the choice should not be the Army’s to make.

Presented by

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, was published in August.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In