…this new way of war needs a new kind of warrior, and it needs tens of thousands of them. Five years into the longest conflict the U.S. military has fought since Vietnam, young officers like Tim Wright have been blooded by multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’ve learned, often on their own, operating with unprecedented independence, the intricacies of Muslim cultures. Faced with ineffective central governments, they have acted as mayors, mediators, cops, civil engineers, usually in appalling surroundings. Most recently, and hardest of all, they’ve had to reach out and ally themselves with men who have tried and often succeeded in killing their own soldiers.
Brought up in rigid, flag-waving warrior cultures that taught right from wrong, black from white, they’ve had to learn to operate amid moral ambiguity, to acknowledge the legitimate aspirations of their enemies…
And while the skills these American officers have gained are crucial in murky conflicts like Iraq, they are not universally valued or trusted within the Pentagon. Petraeus has fought many battles with his bosses—including CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon, who resigned last week—over getting the resources needed to make his counterinsurgency strategy work. As his heirs move up the ranks, they will face similar struggles over which wars America chooses to wage in the future—and the way the Army fights them…
American officers learned very similar lessons in battling the Viet Cong. But much of that knowledge was simply lost. “It’s said we fought that war nine times, a year at a time,” says Petraeus, noting that because they had been drafted rather than volunteered, many
combat-hardened troops left the Army as soon as their yearlong tours in Vietnam were up. By contrast, with the Army stretched thin and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragging on, soldiers like Wright find themselves heading back into the fight for a second (or third or fourth) tour. “They have a level of experience that I don’t think our Army has had at that rank certainly since Vietnam, and maybe not even then,” says Petraeus…
Wright is a good student, a literate, humane man who proudly points out that West Point is a great liberal-arts school as well as a military academy. He has not been debased or degraded by war; he does not live only to survive for the moment. But the lessons of war and conquest change, and Wright, like the good student he is, has learned to change with them. He tried to read “The Best and the Brightest,” David Halberstam’s epic of the tragedy of American involvement in Vietnam, but “it was too painful, too close to what we went through.” Stacked in the corner of Wright’s room are DVDs of the HBO series “Rome.” Iraq, like ancient Rome or modern Sicily (or parts of northern New Jersey), is a murderous place, and Wright knows he must deal with some shady characters if he wants to bring peace to his little patch of it. General Petraeus says he instructs his young officers, “Go watch ‘The Sopranos’,” in order to understand the power dynamics at work in Iraq. Wright doesn’t need to watch Tony Soprano. He has Mr. X.
There’s a real challenge here for the Army which is twofold. First,
how do you cease the hemorrhaging of mid-career officers like this
whose experience is practically irreplaceable to less demanding,
possibly more financially rewarding, definitely easier careers on civvy
street? Second, how do you accelerate the transfer of the lessons
learned at great cost by trial and error (lots and lots of error, it
must be said) from the middle to the top? Wait for Wright and his mates
to become generals in their own right? I don’t think so. Adaptation
needs to be an order of magnitude faster than that.