The quasi-official ideology of the U.S. armed forces holds that generals are virtually interchangeable, that individual personalities don’t matter much, that ordinary grunts are in any case more important than their leaders, and that what really counts are larger systems that make a complex bureaucracy function. There is some truth to all of this. But for all of the bureaucratic heft of the services and the heroism of ordinary soldiers, it is hard to imagine the Civil War having been won without Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan—or World War II without Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Arnold, LeMay, Nimitz, Halsey, and all the other senior generals and admirals.

Likewise it is hard to imagine the War on Terror having been waged without four-star commanders such as David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal, John Allen, and James Mattis. They are among the most illustrious generals produced by the last decade of fighting. They are the stars of their generation. From Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, they emerged from anonymity to orchestrate campaigns that, after initial setbacks, have given the United States a chance to salvage a decent outcome from protracted counterinsurgencies; they have also literally rewritten the book on how to wage modern war successfully. Yet aside from the similarities in the challenges they faced and the skills they displayed in rising to the task, these men share another, more troubling resemblance: They are either gone from the military or (in the case of Mattis) about to go as of this writing. And for the most part they are leaving under unhappy circumstances. A strong case can be made that all were shabbily treated to one extent or another. Petraeus was hounded out of the CIA and McChrystal out of high command in Afghanistan under a cloud of scandal; Allen saw his reputation unfairly marred by scandal before deciding to call it quits; and Mattis is said to have been pushed out early after clashes with the White House. Certainly none of them was afforded the respect and honors that successful officers at the pinnacle of their career ought to expect—in part to drive younger officers to follow their example and seize the day when their time comes. The treatment of these four remarkable generals at the hands of President Obama and his aides, whatever the merits of each individual case, is likely to rankle within the armed forces and leave those forces less prepared for future challenges.

Of the four, Petraeus was first among equals, the dominant general of his generation. McChrystal effectively worked for Petraeus in Iraq after the latter took over the war effort there in 2007. Allen did work for him as deputy commander at Central Command, the operational headquarters for U.S. military efforts in the Middle East. As Petraeus’s successor at Centcom, Mattis was nominally his predecessor’s boss during his time in Afghanistan, but only nominally: Because of the success he had achieved in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Petraeus had effectively become answerable only to the commander-in-chief.

The story of Petraeus’s role during the surge is well known and would not need much recitation were it not for the persistent attempts by revisionists to deprecate his achievement. His critics argue that (1) the Sunni Awakening (in which Iraqis fighting against the United States instead turned on al-Qaeda) was primarily responsible for the turnaround and independent of the surge orchestrated by Petraeus, and (2) that the impact of the surge was in any case overblown because it did not solve Iraq’s deep-seated political problems.

What should we make of these criticisms?

The Awakening did begin in the fall of 2006 before Petraeus took over command in Iraq. But there had been previous revolts among the Sunni sheikhs of Anbar Province who had chafed under the heavy-handed dominance of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Those revolts had been bloodily repressed by AQI and ignored by previous American commanders, who had assumed that supporting tribal fighters was antithetical to prospects of building a modern democracy in Iraq.

By contrast, Petraeus saw the potential of the Awakening from the start and supported it to the hilt, providing funding, weapons, and even planning risky prisoner releases to bolster the credibility of the sheikhs among their own people. The success of the Awakening was not a refutation but a confirmation of his approach to counterinsurgency, which depended on winning the support of local notables as much as executing more traditional measures of battlefield success.

This was only one of many “lines of operation” that Petraeus pursued in contrast with the less ambitious and less successful approach of his predecessors. He and General Ray Odierno, then the day-to-day commander in Iraq, pushed U.S. troops off the massive “forward operating bases” on which they had secured and isolated themselves. Troops were directed instead to live in population centers so they could provide security to the Iraqis around the clock, seven days a week. Petraeus also pressured Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (a Shiite) to approach the Sunnis, and to remove the most notorious anti-Sunni ethno-sectarians from his government. Petraeus oversaw the detention and killing of more insurgents than ever before without causing a backlash among the Sunni population, because his troops acted on precisely targeted intelligence. He instituted “counterinsurgency behind the wire” in detention facilities, to make sure that hard-core detainees in coalition custody were not able to cultivate new recruits behind bars. He targeted Iranian intelligence operatives who were supporting insurgent groups (among them the notorious Mahdi Army) fighting coalition forces. He also communicated clearly and without spin to the American public and Congress about the extent of the success he was achieving and the problems that still remained. And on and on. The scale and scope of Petraeus’s activities as commander of Multi-National Force–Iraq were exhaustive and exhausting.

It is true that Petraeus did not solve all of Iraq’s problems, but that was not his charge. By any reckoning, he achieved far more than anyone could have imagined possible in early 2007, when Iraq appeared to be on the brink of all-out civil war. From 2007 to 2008, the surge reduced violence by 90 percent and restarted the Iraqi political process, which had all but ceased to function.

Petraeus’s achievement in turning around a desperate situation in Iraq has few parallels in the annals of counterinsurgency. It will guarantee his place in military history, even though he did not have a comparable degree of success in Afghanistan during his year in command.

Petraeus was sent in July 2010 to Afghanistan to replace Stanley McChrystal, another remarkable general. McChrystal had established an outsize reputation as the commander (from 2003 to 2008) of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), home to SEAL Team Six, Delta Force, and other top-tier special-operations forces. McChrystal displayed a dedication that was legendary even in the hard-charging world of special operations: He set up his global headquarters, not at the congenial Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but at a dusty air base in Balad, north of Baghdad, where he stayed for the bulk of the next five years. He ate only one meal a day, slept on a cot, and exercised relentlessly even in punishing heat and dust. Along the way he remade JSOC into the finest man-hunting organization in the world.

McChrystal has been credited with four innovations. First, he invited other intelligence agencies, such as the CIA and NSA, to send liaison officers to his headquarters, where he shared information generously with them—a radical change for the secretive culture of the special-operations forces. Those agencies, in turn, reciprocated by sharing more intelligence with JSOC than in the past. Second, he improved JSOC’s interrogation facilities and trained interrogators to extract useful information without the use of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that became so controversial and notorious. Third, he emphasized “sensitive site exploitation,” ordering his men to take the time to gather up all the hard drives, papers, and other information they could grab at a target site. Fourth, McChrystal wrangled more manned and unmanned aircraft and more Internet bandwidth for JSOC, vastly increasing its ability to monitor potential targets. All this made it possible for JSOC to ramp up its operations, often launching a dozen missions a night in Iraq and Afghanistan similar to the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. In some instances, new missions would be planned and executed within minutes to take advantage of intelligence generated at a target site.

McChrystal accurately has summed up his tenure at JSOC in his new memoir, My Share of the Task: “What had been impressive but rudimentary,” he wrote, “was now a relentless counterterrorist machine.” The high-profile targets captured or killed by his men included both Saddam Hussein, taken out of a “spider hole” in December 2003, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, killed in an air strike in June 2006.

It was no surprise, therefore, when McChrystal was appointed the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan in the summer of 2009. What was surprising was his departure in disgrace from the job after only a year—an eventful year, to be sure. It began with McChrystal’s warning that the war effort was in danger of failure unless more resources were rushed to Afghanistan. His report, disclosed by Bob Woodward in September 2010, caused considerable resentment in the White House. Some Obama advisers believed the military was trying to box in the president, and that conviction surely played a role in McChrystal’s ultimate undoing—though it did not prevent him from getting two-thirds of what he wanted, 33,000 out of the 40,000 troops he had requested. Those reinforcements came, however, with a rather large and bitter pill that McChrystal and Petraeus, then his boss at Centcom, had no choice but to swallow. Obama announced that the surge was to be time-limited, which encouraged the Taliban to think that they could wait out the U.S. troops.

Trying to make the best of what he was given, McChrystal implemented a counterinsurgency strategy focused on southern Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces, both longtime Taliban strongholds. He did not stress the “kinetic” operations he had conducted at JSOC but a softer approach to counterinsurgency, mandating that there be fewer air strikes so as to reduce civilian casualties. This proved controversial (some pundits accused him of endangering the lives of his troops), but it was the right decision to make: In a counterinsurgency, killing too many innocent people can create more enemies than you remove.

With less notoriety, McChrystal worked hard to bring greater unity of effort to what had been a disjointed, multinational campaign. He created a new command to serve as the day-to-day manager of combat operations, which coordinated the work of the Regional Commands run by generals from various nations. He also created new commands to improve the training of Afghan security forces, detention operations, and the enforcement of the rule of law. More broadly, McChrystal tried to infuse a greater sense of urgency in what had been viewed as a somnolent war effort by banning alcohol from his headquarters compound and attempting (unsuccessfully) to remove fast food restaurants from coalition bases.

McChrystal was off to a good start, but he never got the chance to see his campaign plan through. His war ended abruptly at 2 a.m. on June 22, 2010, when he found out that Rolling Stone had come out with an article quoting his aides anonymously making disparaging comments about President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other senior administration figures.

True to his stoic warrior’s creed, McChrystal made no attempt to defend his conduct or to claim that his aides were quoted out of context. Instead he flew to Washington and offered his resignation. President Obama, who presumably could have refused, immediately accepted it. Thus ended a 34-year-long military career. Obama’s decision was certainly understandable and perhaps correct. At the very least, the scandal had shown that McChrystal had a blind spot when it came to media relations; why on earth had he granted such privileged access to a reporter from an antiwar publication who was known to be hostile to U.S. operations?

Even so, McChrystal’s departure at the peak of his powers was a significant blow to the U.S. armed forces, and it was keenly felt among his special-operations comrades.

And not just among special-ops. There was a paucity of candidates to fill the command, and Obama made a spur-of-the-moment decision to ask Petraeus to take over from McChrystal. Petraeus instantly agreed to go to Kabul, even though it would be a demotion from his post at the helm of Central Command and a return to a war zone after having already spent much of the post-9/11 period “down range.”

As the new commander in Afghanistan, Petraeus did not radically change McChrystal’s plan, which he had helped formulate. He did, however, make some important alterations. He emphasized, for example, that a desire to avoid civilian casualties should not compromise the aggressive use of force against the Taliban. He created a new task force to root out corruption associated with American spending. He focused on reintegrating lower-level Taliban fighters who wanted to switch sides. He inaugurated a new program, the Afghan Local Police, that sent U.S. Special Forces teams into villages to organize anti-Taliban auxiliary forces. Petraeus oversaw steady progress, especially in building up the Afghan National Security Forces and clearing the Taliban out of Helmand and Kandahar—but, as he had cautioned during his confirmation hearing, there would be no dramatic turnaround as in Iraq. The overall level of violence in Afghanistan was already much lower, and the insurgency was more diffuse, enjoying secure sanctuaries in Pakistan—all of which made it harder to show rapid progress. Petraeus was also hampered by Obama’s decision to send all 33,000 surge forces home by September 2012—faster than Petraeus had deemed prudent, but in time to allow Obama to run for reelection on a promise that the tide of war was receding.

Once again, the general in charge of Afghanistan would depart exactly one year after he had arrived. Only in this case, he did not resign and he was not forced out. Instead, Petraeus volunteered to take the post of director of the Central Intelligence Agency. The job he had wanted, and earned, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but Obama did not offer it to him, presumably because he feared appointing someone of Petraeus’s stature and independence to such an influential post. Petraeus accepted the CIA directorship because it would allow him to continue to play an operational role in the War on Terror. That job, too, was to last little more than a year (14 months, to be exact), and would culminate in the revelation that Petraeus had carried on an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. When the FBI revealed the affair to Petraeus’s boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Petraeus offered his resignation at once. After 24 hours of deliberation, the president decided to accept and thus ended, at least for the time being, Petraeus’s more than 38 years of public service.

While Petraeus had undoubtedly behaved indiscreetly, there was no suggestion he had violated any law or committed any transgression other than breaking his marriage vows. It is hard to imagine that, in this sexually permissive age, a purely personal indiscretion—of the kind that had been committed in the past by numerous generals and CIA directors alike—could lead to the downfall of America’s foremost military man. As if to add insult to injury, a plethora of critics emerged out of the woodwork to give Petraeus a few sharp kicks as he walked out the door, claiming that his personal embarrassment somehow negated his considerable military achievements. “A Phony Hero for a Phony War” was the headline on a New York Times op-ed by Lucian K. Truscott IV.

The collateral damage from that scandal then engulfed Marine General John R. Allen, who had replaced Petraeus in Kabul. Allen is a courtly, cerebral Southerner who graduated from the Naval Academy and later became a professor and commandant of midshipmen there—the first Marine to fill that position. He made a name for himself as the deputy commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2007–2008, when he undertook the delicate negotiations that helped to wean the Sunni sheikhs from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He later served as Petraeus’s deputy at Centcom before becoming his successor in Afghanistan, which made him (again) the first Marine to command an entire theater of war.

Although this was his first major battlefield command, Allen performed more than capably in dealing with difficult challenges such as “Green on Blue” attacks by Afghan troops on their coalition counterparts. He oversaw the withdrawal of 33,000 surge forces while maintaining momentum in the south and expanding the size and capacity of the Afghan Security Forces. Just as important, Allen managed to get along with two prickly presidents whose support was essential for progress, Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama.

Hard as the challenges he faced in Afghanistan were, Allen’s worst ordeal began in November 2012 when someone, during the course of the Petraeus scandal, leaked word to the news media that he had exchanged numerous emails with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. It took two months of investigation by the Pentagon’s Inspector General before Allen was finally cleared of charges that there was something “inappropriate” about the emails. By then the damage had been done. As Allen told the Washington Post, “the investigation took a toll” on his wife, and on him.

Before the revelations, Allen had been nominated to become the next Supreme Allied Commander–Europe, but his nomination had been placed on hold while the investigation was going on. When he was finally cleared of any wrongdoing, he could have moved forward with the confirmation process, but he chose to retire instead, explaining that he needed to devote his energy to helping his wife, Kathy, who was struggling with a host of maladies including an autoimmune disorder. There were also leaks suggesting that Allen felt chagrined at the lack of high-level support from the administration during his ordeal. Whatever the ultimate cause of his decision to retire, it will mean the loss of a skilled commander who was well suited to the task of running NATO’s military operations.

And then there is Marine General James Mattis—nicknamed “Mad Dog” Mattis and the “Warrior Monk” for his ferocity toward the enemy and his single-minded dedication to the military arts. Mattis is a lifelong bachelor who has a reputation, notwithstanding his lack of any advanced degree, as one of the best-read students of military history and strategy in the entire armed forces. During the course of his career, he accumulated a library of some 7,000 volumes that he lugged from post to post.

Mattis first gained public attention as the one-star commander of a Marine task force that entered Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 to help Special Operations Forces mop up the remnants of the Taliban. His ability to push his Marines far inland, to the maximum extent of their helicopter range, was impressive. Even more impressive was his ability, as a two-star general, to lead the First Marine Division from Kuwait to Baghdad in a matter of weeks in the spring of 2003. So determined was Mattis to maintain this rate of advance that he fired a colonel whose regiment had been slowed by irregular attacks in the town of Nasiriya. The Marines’ assault helped make mincemeat out of Saddam Hussein’s defenses and allowed the American forces to reach Baghdad faster and with fewer losses than anticipated.

As soon as Saddam fell, Mattis moved from conventional combat to conducting counterinsurgency and stabilization operations in southern Iraq with a minimum of firepower. “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” he told his men, and he warned Iraqis that the Marines would be “no better friend, no worse enemy.” The First Marine Division’s approach in the south echoed that of Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division in the north, and both stood in contrast to the more conventional and heavy-handed approach used by army divisions in central and western Iraq. Later, Mattis worked closely with Petraeus in 2006 to produce the revolutionary Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which declared that “population-centric” counterinsurgency operations should be the method of dealing with the Iraqi uprising rather than conventional, big-unit sweeps.

Mattis’s most frustrating experience came between the time of the initial invasion and the release of the field manual three years later. He returned to Iraq in 2004 intending to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Anbar Province but found himself, as commander of the First Marine Division, forced to undertake a conventional assault on Fallujah after insurgents had killed four American contractors who wandered into the city. Mattis thought it would have been wiser to slowly chip away at enemy forces in Fallujah, but he was told by his political superiors to launch an all-out offensive—only to be subsequently told to stop the attack just when it was on the verge of success because it was causing political perturbations in Baghdad. But even though Mattis was mistreated in this way by higher-ups, there was no doubting the skill with which he maneuvered his Marines—and no doubting his willingness to speak his mind to his superiors, no matter the consequences.

Mattis, indeed, developed a Patton-like reputation for outspokenness with comments such as the one he made at a San Diego conference in 2005: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway, so it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

Mattis’s political incorrectness was thought to bar further promotion. And yet in 2007 he was promoted to four-star rank and appointed to head the now defunct Joint Forces Command. Then in 2010, he was appointed Petraeus’s successor at Centcom. In this post he made few public ripples but worked intently behind the scenes to support the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and to prepare for the possibility of conflict with Iran. He was due to retire from Centcom in March, after just two and a half years. Veteran military correspondent Tom Ricks has reported that Mattis was being forced out early because he displeased some in the Obama administration with his blunt questioning about the lack of preparation for war with Tehran.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, a retired Marine who is now a professor at the Naval War College, recently wrote: “By pushing Gen. Mattis overboard, the administration sent a message that it doesn’t want smart, independent-minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders.” Whatever the truth of that allegation (which has been hotly disputed by administration spokesmen), it is a shame that the nation will lose Mattis’s services—as it has already lost those of Petraeus, McChrystal, and Allen. Mattis is only 62, but he has announced that he will retire to farming in Washington state, where he grew up.

Petraeus, McChrystal, Allen, and Mattis would be the first to deny that they are irreplaceable—the graveyards, they would no doubt remind us, are said to be full of irreplaceable men. And clearly there are a number of capable officers who will strive to fill their combat boots. Some heroes of the last decade of war—including General Ray Odierno, General Martin Dempsey (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Admiral William McRaven (McChrystal’s successor at JSOC and the man who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid), and Major General H.R. McMaster (a noted military intellectual and counterinsurgency commander)—remain in uniform.

But the experience and savvy of the four will be hard to replace. Certainly they deserve more public appreciation than they have gotten so far and, at the very least, an honored role in helping to teach a new generation of soldiers and Marines how to operate at the pinnacle of command. We do not have such a surplus of brilliant commanders that we can afford to wave away those like Petraeus and McChrystal and Allen and Mattis, who have demonstrated a mastery of the modern battlefield. We can only hope that President Obama’s cavalier attitude toward the loss of their institutional knowledge, their leadership abilities, and their complex understanding of a dangerous world does not prove to be a tragedy for the nation.

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