In the spring of 1984, a young Army officer wrote a seminar paper about the use of force in the post-Vietnam era. Three years later he returned to the subject in a Princeton University doctoral dissertation titled "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam." What "today’s junior officers think about Vietnam—which is fast becoming ancient history—is likely to undergo significant change before they assume positions of power and influence," he claimed. In his dissertation, he sought to investigate the legacy of the war and its "chastening effect on military thinking about the use of force," which made military leaders, he contended, "more cautious than before." "Caution has its virtues, of course," he wrote. However, "the lessons from which that caution springs are not without flaws." Among the flawed lessons he identified were a professional aversion to counterinsurgency operations, "a new skepticism about the efficacy of American forces in the Third World countries where social, political, and economic factors are the causes of unrest" and "a widespread fear among officers that assignment to counterinsurgency, special forces type missions will be the end of their career."
The author of those words is David Petraeus, now a four-star general and commander of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974, one year before the fall of Saigon, and he has lately consolidated his military career around trying to reverse the lessons of Vietnam. He tasted combat for the first time during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where he commanded the 101st Airborne Division and the Multinational Security Transition Command (tasked with training Iraqi military forces). In 2005-06, after his second tour in Iraq, Petraeus oversaw the revision of FM 3-24, the military’s counterinsurgency (COIN) field manual. (The previous Army COIN manual was published in 1986; the Marines were still using a guide from 1980.) It was a chance for Petraeus to put his dissertation into practice by literally rewriting the book on the type of warfare American officers had shunned since Vietnam. Early in 2007, following the futile efforts of generals Ricardo Sanchez and George Casey, Petraeus took command of US forces in Iraq and aided a reeling President George W. Bush by implementing the "surge" strategy, designed to tamp down violence to a so-called acceptable level. Taking a page from FM 3-24, Petraeus offered money and weapons to Sunni insurgents in exchange for a cessation of attacks on US troops, a strategy that helped to lessen bloodshed and get bad news about Iraq off the front page. In exchange, Bush made "King David" his most influential adviser on the war (Petraeus was granted much clout at National Security Council meetings) and even took him mountain biking.
To a segment of the military establishment that Andrew Bacevich has dubbed the "Crusaders," officers who "see the Army’s problems in Iraq as self-inflicted," the consequence of excessive post-Vietnam caution, Petraeus is seen as a successor to another top Army general, Creighton Abrams. A West Point grad and World War II tank commander under Gen. George Patton, Abrams assumed command of US forces in Vietnam in 1968 when his predecessor, William Westmoreland, was kicked up and out, to Army chief of staff, after a four-year run of failure in Southeast Asia. Abrams’s star has been on the rise in recent years too, thanks in large part to the efforts of his chief booster, the prominent historian, retired Army lieutenant colonel and CIA veteran Lewis Sorley.
Last fall, as the debate over the way forward in Afghanistan geared up, Sorley’s ten-year-old book A Better War was the pick of the Pentagon and, according to Peter Spiegel and Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal, "recommended in multiple lists put out by military officers, including a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who passed it out to his subordinates." (A Better War is also listed in FM 3-24’s annotated bibliography of recommended texts, and Abrams is mentioned and quoted several times in the manual.) Sorley’s book was also read and reread, according to Newsweek, by Petraeus’s top commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal—a counterterrorism specialist who worked closely with Petraeus when he led the Joint Special Operations Command, a unit that The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh called "an executive assassination wing." Under this program, according to Hersh, elite units were reportedly given the authority to track and kill suspected terrorists and militants with minimal oversight, in noncombat situations and across national boundaries.