David Petraeus, the retired Army general who resigned Friday as head of the Central Intelligence Agency after admitting to an extramarital affair, was one of the few generals praised in a scalding look at Army leadership by military writer Thomas Ricks in his recent book, “The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today,” reviewed here.
Ricks finds most Army generals – including Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, who commanded troops in Iraq – to be dull, unimaginative careerists, trapped in a narrow mindset that emphasizes battlefield tactics but ignores the wider geopolitical aspects of war.
But Petraeus, according to Ricks, was able to think both tactically and strategically and felt confident enough to allow flexibility for subordinates, and in the process rescued the U.S. mission in Iraq from failure.
Ricks compares Petraeus to Matthew Ridgway, who replaced the blustery egomaniac Douglas MacArthur in Korea after the latter was fired by President Truman.
Like Ridgway, Ricks writes, Petraeus assumed command with a new strategy, “arriving and soberly reassessing the situation and then, through clear thinking and impressive willpower, as well as taking advantage of changes on the ground, putting a new face on it.”
Petraeus improved the acidic relationship between the U.S. military and civilian leadership in Iraq and acted more aggressively on the battlefield, improving morale among the troops despite suffering casualties.
Petraeus was not a favorite of the military establishment. Ricks calls him a “thrice-cursed outlier,” an officer with a doctorate from Princeton, who liked talking to reporters and politicians, and had made many of his peers look bad with his success leading the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003-04.
After leaving Iraq, Petraeus led a promotion board selecting new generals, looking for officers in his own mold, Ricks writes.
Although it is too early to determine, Ricks hopes that the Petraeus’ model of leadership influences the Army in the future, rather than allowing the leadership to slip back into what he sees as a stodgy, bureaucratic mode in which seniority is all important.
Ricks writes that the Army “should at least consider ways to keep alive the careers of outliers and innovators such as David Petraeus…”