In defense of Petraeus-as-author

I am sorry to disagree with someone from my home town and someone from my own magazine at the same time, but I think it's silly to complain that David Petraeus's 20-year-old PhD dissertation from Princeton has lots of vapid passages. I'll make this challenge (though I probably won't take the time actually to carry it out): give me any 20-year-old PhD dissertation in the social sciences, and I will show you lots of vapid passages.

The significant points are these: first, the relevant document for which Petraeus can claim credit, if not as author then as supervising editor/publisher/protector, is the new Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24, on counterinsurgency. This is not a vapid or silly piece of work -- certainly not if taken in context with previous Field Manuals.In fact, it's arguably the most scathing indictment of the Administration's entire approach to Iraq, with its discussions about the need to solve political problems politically rather than with brute force, its emphasis on the importance of low-tech human interactions as opposed to reliance on high tech, its calculations of the force presence needed for a successful occupation, etc.

And, second: the "New Jesus" use to which Petraeus, his reputation, and his counterinsurgency doctrine are being put is shameful. With the release of the vaunted Petraeus Report over the next month, we'll see whether his destined role is as victim of the Administration's policy ("we brought in this guy Petraeus, but he screwed up the surge and didn't solve the political problems") or as enabler of it ("Dave -- that's General David Petraeus -- has been on the scene and confirms that our strategy against Al Qaeda/Iraq is working, and that we must fight them there so we don't have to fight them here. Above all we must not cut and run...")

What Petraeus is doing now, and will do in coming months, is all that matters. Not whatever "the future lies ahead" passages he may have cranked out to get his dissertation done.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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