By: Dennis Anderson
In 2003, then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division, the ?Screaming Eagles.? After Bagdhad fell, the ?Band of Brothers? division moved quickly into northern Iraq around Mosul.
Petraeus? command was credited with stabilizing the area with a series of smart moves, including using a bank full of Saddam-era cash to jump start all the reconstruction projects that several million loose dollars could buy. The money ran out, and shooting started again, but it was a good start.
A banner in a Screaming Eagle chow tent demanded of the air assaulters words to the effect, ?What have you done to contribute to peace and victory in Iraq today??
As reporter Atkinson moved through the invasion phase with Petraeus, the commander continuously phrased a question to the embedded journalist: ?How does this end??
This was recounted in Atkinson?s book, ?In the Company of Soldiers,? a great read. A later, sadder book is Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks? ?Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.? Both are first-rate, balanced, sober and factual.
Four years later, many Americans daily wonder and worry over ?How does this end??
If you remember Vietnam, no reasonable person has a wish for evacuation helicopters off the rooftops of the Green Zone instead of Saigon. But you also don?t want tens of thousands of Americans dead and the country wondering ?Why?? Tens of thousands are wounded.
In his declared role as ?educator-in-chief,? President George W. Bush relates to Americans that no good will be served by an American defeat, retreat, or leaving Iraq in a chaos that emboldens Iran with its nuclear ambitions and its leaders? stated wish to eradicate Israel.
Yet, it appears by our waging war ill prepared for its aftermath, that we may have set the ground for that result. Unless somehow, success is retrieved from the jaws of what the Iraq Study Group calls a grave and deteriorating situation.
Enter Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, now a three-star on track for four stars and command of all troops in Iraq. Sensible Americans would sigh with relief if this general proved an Atlas and moved the world on his shoulders.
Commanding generals are important in the course of any war. Great ones burn brightly in history books, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who prosecuted the Civil War to its bloody end; Gen. George S. Patton who swept across Sicily and France; Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who oversaw the grand alliance that saved Europe and was architect of NATO. Mediocre generals vanish into obscurity.
Good generals matter because they carry the responsibility of leading our sons and daughters — our husbands and wives, and sometimes our fathers and mothers. Even good generals shed the blood of their troops. In World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was credited with being crafty and strategic in his island-hopping campaigns, and that conserved the lives of many Americans.
Hearing every day about ?The Surge,? and Democratic and even Republican opposition to what is arguably the president?s last, best chance to forestall disaster — it?s clear to this former embedded journalist that relatively few Americans understand what ?The Surge? is intended to achieve.
American forces have been patrolling, reacting, occasionally attacking. But the boil of Bagdhad has been left to the suffering of Bagdhad, except for interludes on the offensive.
At a retirement party for an Associated Press colleague — Brian Bland who served as a captain with 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam — I encountered a former campaign strategist for a very liberal congressman. His question: ?What are we doing with all those troops in Iraq, anyway? No offense to your son, but they certainly aren?t getting anything good done there.?
My son, Lance Cpl. Garrett P. Anderson, fought with the Marines in Fallujah in Nov. 2004. He lost 52 comrades from his expeditionary unit, and more than 250 wounded. And they made Fallujah the calmest major city in embattled Anbar Province, home of the Sunni insurgency.
I related to my political acquaintance that of 132,000 troops in Iraq now, only about 10% are assigned as ?trigger pullers.? Infantry, ground fighters, the force classified as ?combat strength.?
My acquaintance was mildly astonished. ?Well, how can we get anything done with that??
Fair question. And we can see by results that as America sent troops, violence surged in the country we invaded in order to liberate. The regime was odious. The causes for the rush to war are now much argued, but Gen. Petraeus? question rings loud: ?How does this end??
In my son?s unit, the combat-tested are willing enough to go, and skeptical not cynical.
One tested Marine told me, ?If this is aimed at getting Muqtada al Sadr, that doesn?t solve anything. We?ve been taking one guy down after another, year after year, and there?s always another guy.?
The Marine continued, ?It?s not the guys whose names are in the papers we fight. Those guys don?t need leaders. They have weapons, and all they need is direction, and not much of that.?
At the initial descent into chaos in Bagdhad, a term that had faded from U.S. military vocabulary re-emerged. Even as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied existence of an insurgency, strategy specialists were dusting off the term ?counter-insurgency.?
Suddenly, a long-ago documentary-style film from the Sixties re-appeared in the Pentagon corridors. The film, ?The Battle of Algiers? recounted how French counterinsurgency forces destroyed the urban guerrilla campaign that made Algiers the template for bombing and assassination as strategy.
What seems lost on the leadership is that the French won the ?Battle of Algiers,? but lost the war to retain Algeria. That seems to have eluded Henry Kissinger, who gifted the president with ?A Savage War of Peace? the book that recounted the Algerian struggle. Not to make too fine a point, Kissinger doesn?t have a big win record in counterinsurgency either.
So, will Petraeus, nominated for Senate confirmation as the next Iraq commander, do any better?
In November, Petraeus spoke to about 50 reporters who associate as the Military Reporters and Editors, MRE. At Northwestern University?s Medill School of Journalism, Petraeus cited so much data so quickly he raced past an old AP reporter?s capacity to scratch detailed notes, but established with authority that he is the guy who knows the ground.
The general spent 2 1/2 of the past four years in Iraq. He returned to buck up efforts to build an Iraqi military that was national rather than sectarian, and that would fight. He?s served in Bosnia and the Balkans, where his command settled the aftermath of fratricidal civil war. He is considered today?s expert on counterinsurgency, and when his fourth star is confirmed, will head back to Iraq again.
He has responsibility for leading about 150,000 of our sons and daughters, and carries with him the question, ?How does this end??