Reporters Love How Much Petraeus Loves His Horse Painting

He's clearly sticking to his favored explanation device

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Gen. David Petraeus is known as one of the most gifted politicians in the U.S. military, and, like many politicians, when he finds a good anecdote, he sticks with it. The little old lady who explains the need for health care reform, the con artist who explains the need for welfare reform--politicians tell these stories over and over on the stump. And Petraeus has his own little device to explain the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reporters: "The Stampede," a painting by Frederic Remington. It's a cowboy in a stampede, and it's raining. And, as Danger Room points out, it's shown up in countless stories about Petraeus, most recently in Joe Klein's story, headlined "David Petraeus' Brilliant Career,' for Time.

Petraeus explained the painting's significance to Klein:
"This is not a nice, orderly cattle drive... There's all sorts of stuff going on. The cowboys are straining to keep up, to restore control. And that's the most important quality that our troopers need going into asymmetrical combat situations: they've got to be comfortable in the chaos."
Usually, politicians compare a complex thing -- like raising the federal debt ceiling -- to a simple thing everyone can relate to, like paying the monthly credit card bill. What's interesting about Petraeus' analogy is that it compares one nearly-incomprehensible thing -- fighting a counterinsurgency war in the Middle East -- to another alien thing -- being a cowboy in a cattle stampede. It's a curious choice. Wouldn't the first thing you'd want to do in a stampede-with-lightning-storm be get the heck out?
Nevertheless, Petraeus has been successfully using this one for years, changing the details here and there to fit recent events.
When Agence France Presse explained the painting's significance on January 27, 2005, it was more somber:
"There it is a lightning bolt, it's raining sideways, it's a dark and stormy night ... But that's how it is. It's a sad fact... We are in fact taking substantial casualties, the enemy will stop at nothing, there is no shortage of disheartening moments and plenty of frustration... but you've just got to keep it going, keep the cattle going, keep the drive going..."
On November 7, 2005, he explained the origins in a slideshow to the Center for Strategic and International Studies:
We occasionally use as a metaphor the idea of the Mesopotamian Stampede. I had envisioned, frankly, sort of, a nice orderly cattle drive when I was discussing this with my staff the first time. And the cattle I guess are either the tasks or the security forces or what have you. And the idea of just keeping them moving, getting up some momentum, keeping them all together and getting to Cheyenne or whatever the destination is for this particular endeavor.
And the staff came back and said, "Well, you may think it's an orderly cattle drive, but we think it's a stampede." And, in fact, they produced this great Frederic Remington print called "The Stampede."
A lot of great Iraqi and coalition outriders out there. And I can tell you there is very substantial momentum in this effort. The herd has gotten stronger and stronger and stronger. The role of the Iraqi outriders has, obviously, increased, where many of them are now leading elements of this.
The Marine Corps Times reported November 21, 2005 that Petraeus explained the progress in training Iraqi security forces like this:
"I can tell you there is very substantial momentum in this effort," Petraeus said, pointing to a reproduction of "The Stampede," which shows a galloping horse...
On November 27, 2005, the Tampa Tribune offered slightly different details:
Serving in Iraq is like being a cowboy on a cattle drive, says Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, former head of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq. Momentum is building, but it's hard keeping everything going in the right direction. ...
"The metaphor for this effort is the cattle drive," [Petraeus said]... "We're in a sense trying to build the herd, strengthen the trail bosses, repel the attacks of the bad guys out on the flank of the herd. ...
Someone found this Frederick Remington print called 'The Stampede,' which is a wonderful depiction of this cowboy who is riding flat-out to turn the herd, and there's a lightning bolt in the sky and it's raining sideways. And his brim is back.
So we actually called it the Mesopotamian Stampede. We made little prints of it. We would give it to departing officers, with an inscription of their name, and 'one of the great outriders of the Mesopotamian Stampede.' "
Here it is again, more triumphant post-surge, as told by National Review's Rich Lowry on March 10, 2008:
A year ago, there were worries that the Iraqi army would be wholly taken over by sectarian Shiite actors. That threat seems to have passed, and the army expands apace, as does the police force. The army will add another 40 battalions this year alone. As the military steadily gets bigger and more proficient -- a part of the rumbling, uneven progress in Iraq that General Petraeus calls the "Mesopotamian stampede" -- it gives the Iraqi state a firmer foundation and the Iraqi government more confidence.
Patraeus explained the flexibility of the metaphor in Iraq to Tom Ricks in his 2009 book, The Gamble.
"A stampede is not always orderly. In that particular painting the ground is rugged, the wind is howling, it's raining cats and dogs, there's lightning -- and you can use the lightning as a metaphor, it could be an IED, it could be a tasker for higher headquarters, it could be some sort of political challenge in Iraq, who knows what it might be.
We're just trying to get the cattle to Cheyenne."
The Sunday Times's Allan Mallinson liked the metaphor so much he used it to open his review of Ricks' book.
Petraeus told Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman when he blogged at Fire Dog Lake about another stampede-themed painting, one he considered the Afghanistan version, in 2010. He told ABC News that the same version could work for both wars in 2010:
"We now call it the Kabul Stampede. It was also the Baghdad Stampede in different incarnations. You can see the rocky terrain, and the rain, and the storm, and the lightning bolt, of course he's riding flat out for glory... the brim of his hat is back and soaked...
It gives a sense, though, of what it is we're participating in. And it also gives license to great inscriptions."
And here's the painting again, as explained by the National Journal's Yochi Dreazen October 28, 2010:
When Gen. David Petraeus took command of the U.S.-led war effort here over the summer, the only memento he brought along from his four years in Iraq was a large painting that he has nicknamed "Kabul stampede." The 1908 work by Frederic Remington depicts a cowboy on horseback trying to corral an unruly herd of cattle as rain pelts down and a lightning bolt tears the sky. To Petraeus, the painting has a message that applies to Afghanistan as much as it did to Iraq. "It's about being comfortable with a degree of chaos," he said in an interview. "And the whole point is that I am comfortable with that kind of situation. What you want to do is constantly push the envelope in every respect."
Patraeus did not, however, use "The Stampede" as a metaphor when testifying before Congress on September 12, 2007 about three actual stampedes in Iraq, one of which took the lives of almost 1,000 Shia pilgrims after rumors of a suicide bomber sparked panic.
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