August 31, 2011 — Listen to the story here.
The most famous man in the U.S. Army left the military on Wednesday.
Gen. David Petraeus retired from the Army after 37 years in uniform. A couple of hundred people gathered on a sun-splashed day at Fort Myer, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, to pay tribute to the general. And like most of his career, the ceremony was well-scripted.
A half-hour before the ceremony started, a man about Petraeus' height and build — with a chest full of medals and ribbons — walked to the podium and tapped the microphone. From the place where the journalists were gathered, the officer's identify wasn't clear.
I whispered to my colleagues in the press corps, "Is that Gen. Petraeus?"
"Couldn't be," they responded. "Four-star generals don't do their own mic checks."
But sure enough, upon closer examination, it was clear that even on this day the famously media savvy general would leave no detail to chance.
The ceremony began with the Honor Guard marching band, and Petraeus waved to the crowd and gave a lot of "thumbs-up" signs.
Speakers offered their tributes. Petraeus' 1974 West Point classmates gave him a cheer. He thanked his family and the troops he served with over the years, and paid homage to those who've died in the line of duty. It was a fine tribute.
Never Received Top Job
Yet by many accounts, this is not how David Petraeus expected his military career to end.
After being credited with turning around the war in Iraq, he was rewarded with a prestigious job as the head of Central Command based in Florida — overseeing both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but without having to be in a war zone.
When it comes to the art of the possible, there's Dave Petraeus and then there's everybody else.
But last year, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was asked to resign in the wake of a controversial interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine. President Obama then asked Petraeus to go back into the field — to take a demotion essentially and go run the war in Afghanistan. As the story goes, Petraeus accepted the job without even calling his wife to talk it over.
After his yearlong tour in Afghanistan, he wasn't made chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or even Chief of Staff of the Army, as many had expected.
Instead, he was offered the job as head of the CIA, which meant leaving the military altogether. While Petraeus has said he's looking forward to the new challenge, those close to him suggest that he wasn't ready to hang up his Army uniform. One former aide called the retirement ceremony today "bittersweet."
Petraeus Wrote Field Manual
In addition to leading two wars, Petraeus wrote the Army's now famous field manual on counterinsurgency, or in military parlance, "COIN."
There were dozens of these self-described "COINdinistas" in the audience. These are the military officers and civilians Petraeus surrounded himself with in Iraq and Afghanistan to help him carry out his strategy. At his retirement ceremony, Petraeus thanked his team and defended the strategy.
"Now rest assured, I am not out to give one last boost to the COIN or to try recruit all you for COINdinista nation," he said. "I do believe, however, that we have re-learned the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we're most prepared or most inclined."
In his remarks, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the manual "would not only serve as the blueprint for our success in Iraq and Afghanistan, but would also go on to become a best-seller. Only Dave Petraeus could take a military manual and make it a great stocking stuffer."
General Who Stood Apart
Mullen took his praise even further. "When it comes to the art of the possible," he said, "there's Dave Petraeus and then there's everybody else."
That was a tribute to how Petraeus turned things around in northern Iraq as commander of the 101st Airborne, and later with the surge strategy that ultimately helped turn the war.
But isolating David Petraeus — as somehow different from the rest — also says a lot about his relationship with the Army.
"The Army has never really liked David Petraeus much," said Tom Ricks, who has written two books on the Iraq war and is now with the Center for a New American Security. "They don't see him as being at the core of their culture. Here is this sort of intellectual guy who doesn't seem to mind the culture of Washington — reporters and politicians. And at a time when they were saying nothing was working, he found a way to work in Iraq."
He did it by building relationships with diplomats, civilian leaders, even the media. And he advocated the COIN strategy at every turn.
Debate Over Legacy
The debate now is whether Petraeus' vision of the Army endures or not. Ricks isn't so sure it will. "I think he ultimately will be a passing figure for the Army, because for whatever reason, he has not been able to reach in and drag the culture of the Army over to his side."
John Nagl disagrees. He helped Petraeus write that counterinsurgency field manual and was in Germany this week, teaching a course for the German military of defense on COIN.
Nagl says over the past few years — the American military has completely changed how it thinks about this kind of war. "It's become a force that understands COIN, that understands enemy networks and can attack them directly and precisely. And I think he's created a true learning organization that's going to live on after him," he said.
As Petraeus retired, there was an understanding that his battles may be over — but the wars he led are still going on. Watching today's ceremony from the front row was Petraeus' son, Stephen, a first lieutenant in the Army — with one tour in Afghanistan already under his belt.Related: