A few months ago, I was asked to review Jon Krakauer's new book by the Washington Post, and I must admit to having been excited. Having grown up a pretty serious rock climber, I was a huge fan of Jon Krakauer's previous books, and in my mind, Krakauer was the best possible guy to write a book on the incredible life and tragic death of Pat Tillman.
Alas, the book was awful. I mean, it was really bad. On the same day in which I had very little good to say about it in the Post, it was similarly panned by Dexter Filkins in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. The book was so bad that Filkins and I managed to find completely different reasons to think it was rubbish. The main problem I had with the book was that Krakauer let his visceral hatred of the Bush Administration get in the way of telling what could have been a pretty good story about an amazing young man who gave up a career in the NFL to enlist in the U.S. Army and then died in Afghanistan, killed by a member of his own platoon in a firefight gone horribly wrong.
In my review, I did not spare -- as you might have expected me to do, given the particular U.S. Army regiment in which I was serving -- Pat Tillman's chain of command for what were a series of monumental cock-ups in the aftermath of Tillman's death. I thought it particularly unconscionable that Tillman's battalion commander sent a young Ranger to the funeral and expected him to go along with the lie about how Tillman died until his family could be notified once the battalion had returned. (A friend reminded me later that the 2nd Ranger Battalion had very little experience dealing with combat casualties up until that point in the war, which is a good point that I might have mentioned.) But a very wise woman -- and a former C-130 pilot -- told me once that when you're examining military miscues, you should draw a long line on a sheet of paper and write "conspiracy" on one end of the line and "buffoonery" on the other. The odds are in favor of buffoonery -- the act whereby otherwise intelligent people make a series of stupid decisions -- being a more likely explanation for what went wrong than conspiracy.
Not in Krakauer's world. In Krakauer's world, there is no rock in Afghanistan under which a plot cooked up by Donald Rumsfeld and Doug Feith is not hiding. This guy even went so far as to say that the Ranger Regiment's strict adherence to timelines was a by-product of the Bush Administration and Rumsfeld's Pentagon. (Funny, and here I grew up thinking it was because things like airfield seizures are really complex operations that demand subordinate units be places and do things according to schedule.)
So Krakauer wrote a crappy book, and now he has to market it. And how is he doing that? By going after Stan McChrystal, who is probably the least culpable guy in Tillman's chain of command for any of the stupid things that happened in the aftermath of his death. There Krakauer was, on Meet the Press yesterday, going after McChrystal, who he never interviewed for his book but who had sent a memorandum up through the chain of command at the time of Tillman's death warning his commanders about the circumstances surrounding the event.
In the great tragic story that is the death of Pat Tillman, Stan McChrystal stands out as one of the guys who made mistakes but ultimately did the right thing. At this point, he should issue a statement saying something along the lines of:
"Pat Tillman was an American hero. His death was a great tragedy. I apologize to his family for the poor quality of the initial investigations into his death and for the decisions made by Pat Tillman's commanders to not immediately notify them of the circumstances under which he died. I personally apologize for not closely reviewing the citation for Pat Tillman's valor award to ensure its accuracy. I am now fully committed to winning the war in Afghanistan and to ensuring that Pat Tillman's sacrifice and the sacrifice of his family was not in vain. Thank you."
Here's what really upsets me. I know that Jon Krakauer has to sell his book, but in doing so, he is cravenly seizing upon the fact that Stan McChrystal is the man of the moment to do so even though by doing so Krakauer once again takes the focus off Pat Tillman and politicizes his death in as crummy a way as the Bush Administration ever did.
On the night Pat Tillman was killed, I myself was leading a platoon of Army Rangers as part of a quick reaction force in Afghanistan under the command of Stan McChrystal (albeit many rungs down on the chain of command). I heard the casualty report on the radio en route to another objective, but I did not discover it had been Pat Tillman who was killed until returning to base the next evening.
On returning to base, I walked into my battalion commander's office and started chatting with him, as I often did, about books. This was the guy who had introduced me to books like The Centurions and A Savage War of Peace, and before long, we started talking about Pat Tillman. Tillman's highly emotional repatriation ceremony had been that night, and we were thinking about how his death would hit the news back in the States. (We were serving in a different battalion, and I at least had no idea Tillman was killed by friendly fire. I would not learn that fact until I had returned to the United States a week later.) Toward the end of our conversation, I remember my battalion commander saying that he "could throw a rock in this compound and hit ten Pat Tillmans".
What he meant by that was no slight on Pat Tillman, a man who in life and in death embodied courage and sacrifice and a host of other virtues and traits. What he meant by that was that so too did every one of the Rangers who followed me onto a very cold mountaintop in eastern Afghanistan the night Tillman was killed. So too did all of the other Rangers and special operators on the compound. Hell, none of us were drafted. We were four-time volunteers -- we volunteered for the Army, we volunteered for the Airborne Course, we volunteered for the Ranger Course, and we volunteered to serve in the Ranger Regiment. None of us were dead-end high school drop-outs with no other place to go. The guy who was #1 in his class at West Point was a fellow platoon leader in my battalion. Our intelligence officer went to Cornell. My forward observer was captain of the baseball team at James Madison and turned down law school to enlist in the Rangers. (And now works in the Obama Administration, by the way.) We all had better places to be than fighting a war in eastern Afghanistan and all of us could have chosen a more comfortable and profitable way to spend our twenties.
But in the eyes of Krakauer and on the fringes of the American left, soldiers are either victims of circumstance or war criminals in waiting. If soldiers have any martial virtues such as those displayed by Pat Tillman, we're only comfortable celebrating them posthumously. This allows a guy like Krakauer to praise Pat Tillman but slander Stan McChrystal, a guy who has spent 30+ years faithfully serving his country in the most demanding jobs -- jobs which require not just hard work but martial virtues we Americans have lost the ability to even speak about.
Stan McChrystal is one of the finest men I have ever known, and I hope I have sons who serve under men like him. Jon Krakauer is going after him now because he has written a crappy book and now has to sell it. McChrystal is in the news, and that gives Krakauer's book relevance, even if the virtues of Pat Tillman fade to the background. That really makes me angry. But I guess it remains a possibility that Jon Krakauer wrote an entire book about Pat Tillman without ever understanding the kind of man he was -- and that there might exist other men like him.
Well, as we discussed yesterday, there are great books doomed to become (potentially) awful movies starring Matt Damon. But apparently there are also great books which can become potentially amazing movies starring Matt Damon*. I blogged about Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation being one of the best books I read last year. I am so excited to see this film:
*As a decidedly short version of the 6'3" Francois Peinaar, but still.
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...
So there's this book by Moshe "Chiko" Tamir that I cannot read. It's an untranslated memoir about his service as an Israeli officer in southern Lebanon that is basically the Israeli equivalent of Men at Arnhem or Ma guerre d'Indochine. The problem is that I do not read Hebrew. If there are any Hebrew-reading readers of this blog who would like to read a rip-roaring war memoir and answer some research-related questions for this poorly educated blogger, please let me know. I have a small research budget that can make it more worth your while.
Yesterday, I wrote the following in an op-ed which ran in the Daily Beast:
The Obama adminstration has, I believe, some leverage at the moment, which it could use to affect the composition and behavior of the next Afghan government. As long as Afghanistan’s ruling politicians—Hamid Karzai especially—think the United States might reduce its commitment to Afghanistan, they could be willing to accede to U.S. demands on key ministerial and provincial-level appointments. Just as an Afghan government consisting mainly of those politicians thrown out by the Taliban in 1996 would spell continued insurgency and mission failure, a more inclusive and competent Afghan government would enable the success of a counterinsurgency strategy.
As Steve Biddle and others have noted, though, the primary weakness of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine is its assumption that the interests of the host nation will line up with those of the United States. In Afghanistan—as in Iraq and Vietnam—U.S. military officers and diplomats have dealt with host-nation governments whose composition and behavior has often been at odds with U.S. objectives and interests. So while countless memoranda and manuals exist instructing U.S. servicemen on how to wage counterinsurgency campaigns at the operational and tactical levels, there is currently little guidance for how U.S. policymakers should use leverage over its Afghan partners.*
Mark Moyar notes that his new book has exactly this kind of guidance for policy-makers, and as I plucked it off my shelf, I discovered that yes, yes, it does in the final chapter. I have not yet had the chance to read this book, though it has been on my list and even traveled with me to Palo Alto a few weekends back. But if you are so inclined, you can buy it here. Gian Gentile reports that it is excellent, and Gian moonlights as a darn good historian when he's not being a skeptic of counterinsurgency doctrine, so you can take his word on it in lieu of my own.
*This sentence, obviously enough, was not underlined in the original op-ed. But that grammatical error? Yeah, that was there. Mama Muqawama will no doubt let me hear about that one...
In case you missed it (not likely), the New York Times featured dueling op-eds from both Lewis Sorley and Gordon Goldstein on the lessons of Vietnam as applied to Afghanistan. One of the reasons I suggested an end to the reductio ad Vietnamum on the blog this weekend is because the lessons of that conflict as they apply to Afghanistan are far from clear, as these op-eds demonstrate. Two smart people could both carefully read history and arrive at two different conclusions as to what we should do in Afghanistan.
Credit goes to reader and enthusiastic supporter of all things counterinsurgency Michael Cohen for sending along this piece by the very serious and very smart Austin Long that escaped my view earlier this week. Austin makes a case for a counter-terror campaign in Afghanistan and, bless him, gets down to the specifics. The people who have actually led and executed counter-terror operations in Afghanistan -- Gens. Stan McChrystal, Mike Flynn, Scott Miller -- are the best people to explain why such campaigns will not work. In the words of Gen. McChrystal, “You can kill Taliban forever, because they are not a finite number.” And in my mind, these kinds of CT strategies ignore the political dimension even more egregiously than do most counterinsurgency strategies. But read it yourself and draw your own conclusions. You guys may think I'm so far down the road of counterinsurgency that I am not open to alternatives, but I really am. I'm just wary of those which are more conceptual than operational.
A few more things for the readership:
1. The leader in this week's Economist agrees with us imperialist war-mongers, so go direct some of your hate mail in their direction.
2. Easy on the Vietnam analogies, gang. There are a lot of good books on Vietnam, and what historical conclusion one draws from the war depends on which books one has read. (Of course, we have actual veterans of the war who read this blog, so they can probably skip the reading list.) Who do you read? Krepinevich? Karnow? Goldstein? Sorely? Fall? Those who suggest advocates of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan have not read their history need to explain exactly what history we need to read that we have not. Regardless and whatever you think of the current U.S. administration, the decision-making process of Barack Obama's national security team could not be more different than that of Lyndon Johnson.
2. Rugby practice.
3. Rushing home to watch Frontline.
I'm off to California this weekend. On the way and while there, I'll be reading my friend Josh Geltzer's new book on al-Qaeda. Also making the cut are Maley's The Afghanistan Wars and Moyar's A Question of Command.
Attention, all readers of this blog: The fellows and staff of the Center for a New American Security are hosting a book party for Greg and David's excellent new biography of John Abizaid, George Casey, Pete Chiarelli and David Petraeus. You are all invited. RSVP here.
Date & Time
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
The Willard InterContinental Hotel's
1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20004
Or, RSVP by phone: 202.457.9427