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Greg Jaffe is one the nation's leading defense correspondents, has won the Pulitzer Prize, and had the good sense to marry a girl from East Tennessee. Greg's latest book -- co-authored with David Cloud -- is The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army. Gian Gentile described the book as "coin-porn" in surely one of the most lamentable turns of phrase in the history of the English language. But I really liked it, as have reviewers. Writing in the New York Times, Dexter Filkins called it "a very good book, readable, detailed and rich. The profiles of Abizaid, Casey, Chiarelli and Petraeus are nuanced and well drawn; the generals really come to life, as does the Army itself."
I sat down with Greg to harrass him. As in my wont.
1. First off, congratulations on writing a very good book – one praised last weekend and one I enjoyed tremendously. I saw you, though, while you were writing the book, and you were almost at your wit’s end. How many weekends did I see you at CNAS glued to your monitor with an open word document? Which one is more difficult – writing daily dispatches from a war zone or writing a book from within the confines of an office?
A book is much harder.. Writing from Afghanistan or Iraq is physically exhausting, but there is usually dramatic stuff happening all around you. Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan tend to be unflinchingly honest and frank. They are in life or death situations. The challenge is to find the right narrative thread and then just absorb it all. Writing about generals – particularly serving generals – is the toughest thing you can do as a military reporter. No one wants to irritate the boss. There is also a certain amout of theater to being a general. Petraeus is a master of it (in a good way). But David (my coauthor) and I didn’t want to be theater critics. It is really hard to cut through the theater and find the real person. I wonder if some of these four-stars spend so much time in character as “the four star” that they sometimes lose touch with the real person. I think they do.
2. They say that George W. Bush learned the hard way that not all generals are created equal, but it seemed as if you went out of your way to describe all four of the generals you profiled in a way that was sympathetic to their struggles in command. History, meanwhile, will almost certainly judge Gen. Casey in a harsher light than Gen. Petraeus. Knowing both men, do you think this is fair?
Petraeus is a very effective strategic leader. What bugs me is the narrative that he was somehow birthed atop Mount Olympus as the brilliant four star who saved the Army. In reality, his career is a bizarre departure from the norm. He does four tours at the elbow of top generals – Galvin (twice), Vuono and Shelton. He spends relatively little time in the field actually leading soldiers (especially compared to Casey). Petraeus’ career path doesn’t win him a lot of admirers among his peers, who whisper that he’s a palace general or a bit of a suck-up. But it makes Petraeus a much better general and probably a less adept battalion and brigade commander. This is a guy who starts preparing for a strategic leadership role as a captain. I don’t think Casey was as effective. But it is a huge mistake to write him off as not bright, intransigent, lazy or stuck in the Cold War as many in the COIN crowd tend to do. He is a smart person. He works incredibly hard. He was a great soldier and quite possibly a better battalion and brigade commander than Petraeus. So David and I tried really hard to understand why Casey makes the decisions that he makes. He is a product of these experiences that he has growing up in the Army. I think we all have dismissed him far too quickly in our rush to celebrate Petraeus. Casey’s struggles in Iraq need to be dissected and understood. If you call him as a failure or “no Petraeus” you miss important lessons.
3. This is a blog which started out focusing almost exclusively on counterinsurgency doctrine and strategy. As one of the keener observers of U.S. Army officer culture I know, what have your impressions been as the Army has struggled to balance conventional operations and doctrine with the more “irregular” challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan.
This whole conventional vs. irregular debate is stupid. War is war. And we waste far too much energy trying to categorize it. I think most lieutenants, captains and majors are beyond this false conventional vs. irregular frame that we try to impose on war. I wish I could say the same for the more senior people in the Pentagon. My worry isn’t that we’ll skew too much towards irregular. My worry is that the surge in Iraq made it all look too easy and that deep down we think that if we just add 44,000 more troops to Afghanistan we can have the same result. I know McChrystal doesn’t believe it. I know you don’t believe it.
4. No, it ain't just the numbers. Fighting a counterinsurgency campaign as a third party is mighty difficult -- and best avoided. You obviously thought telling the stories of four key generals would make for a good read – and it did. But if you had to write another book-length treatment of the U.S. military and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what would you write about?
I think a hard look at the last eight years in eastern Afghanistan would be really interesting. There have been some great commanders there, like Nicholson, Cavoli, Kolenda, and all kinds of fascinating experiments, successes and failures. Too often we media cretins boil all of eastern Afghanistan down to the Korengal Valley or Wanat or Kamdesh. All are fascinating. But a hard look at what the US has wrought in the east with the Afghan government would be interesting.
5. You wrote a short piece in the Washington Post’s Outlook section on the challenges facing Gen. McChrystal and an administration that could not be more different than the one that preceded it. What are your impressions of Gen. McChrystal and his challenges? Are there any lessons he can draw from the successes and failures of Gens. Abizaid, Chiarrelli, Casey and Petraeus?
We should ask McChrystal that question! I feel a bit dumb answering it. I guess the biggest mistake would be to define his mission too narrowly. He has to understand Kabul and Washington as well as the Helmand River Valley, Konar Province and the Korengal. It feels tougher in Afghanistan than Iraq because the fight is so radically different. All four generals that David and I chronicled got into trouble in Iraq by defining some critical task or failing as not in their lane or beyond their ability to fix. One of Casey’s key aides – COL Bill Hix – once said to Casey that: “This is your war.” At the time, Casey was hesitant to try to wrest control of the faltering and pathetic reconstruction effort from the State Department. Hix’s counsel seems like good advice. And McChrsytal definitely seems to be thinking big.
6. Your wife is from my hometown. Does she ever speak of how lucky she was to have avoided my mother as her English teacher in high school? And what is it like being a nice guy like you and wed to an East Tennessean? Do your in-laws teach you how to fight with knives or make moonshine? Has visiting your in-laws prepared you for spending so much time in the tribal areas of Afghanistan?
This question seems designed to get me into trouble with my wife and my in-laws who own more guns than I do and also understand how to use the Internets and the Google. Go Vols! See Rock City! Rocky Top!
More guns? Greg, you own a gun? Look out, everybody, Jaffe's armed! No, just kidding: we'll make you an East Tennessean yet...