The three and four star generals who have run the war in Iraq have received quite a bit of ink over the past several years, with General David Petraeus leading the pack in column inches dedicated to following his performance. He’s even had two books written about him, following his progress during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the Surge in 2007-2008. But the focus on him has come at the expense of a crop of other top generals who have also felt the pressure of leading American troops in combat—and reading The Fourth Star, the illuminating new book about the four generals who have led the fight in Iraq over the past six years, one is reminded of just how neglected these men have been.
quick histories that have come out of the war thus far have largely
painted George Casey as something of a Dostoevskian character, an
uncreative, one-dimensional foil to the dash and artistry of Petraeus
and his team, and while this book doesn’t flip that on its head—nor is
Casey’s lack of creativity given a pardon—it does breathe some life
into the rigid portrayal of Casey, a man whose leadership will likely
be treated unkindly by history. But it must be said that Casey did
“get” counterinsurgency, doing things like setting up a COIN academy at
Taji to train incoming officers, among other initiatives. The problem
is that the direction he received from Washington was at times
confused, and the political infighting in the West Wing
The book expands its focus from these two men—who unfortunately have already begun to descend into caricature in the popular imagination—to include two other pivotal characters, generals Peter Chiarelli and John Abizaid, men who also played a critical role in the war in Iraq. Chiarelli and Abizaid are as complex as any other character in the Iraq saga, and despite their long and distinguished careers, will be invariably be lumped in to the Pre-Surge era of failure in Iraq. Neither can be excused for the failures of judgment, but Jaffe and Cloud do the men a service in giving us a more complete picture of their careers from young officers to the most powerful field commanders in the U.S. Army. Chiarelli in particular—who is currently Vice Chief of Staff of the Army—emerges as something of a tragic figure who agonizes over the failures of his beloved Army to make any significant progress in Iraq, despite his zeal in tackling public works projects that fail repeatedly. He was also bitterly disappointed not to be given command in Iraq in 2007, after leading the 1st Calvary Division in Baghdad, then commanding Multi-National Corps-Iraq, before being sent back to the Pentagon in favor of Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno.
Significantly, all four of these men shared the struggle of taking the “broken” Army of the 1970s and rebuilding it into the unparalleled fighting force it is today. The book is a welcome contribution to the literature of the war, and is an eminently readable long-form character sketch—broken up among four protagonists—that traces the history of the post-Vietnam U.S. Army as well as any other book of recent vintage.
The most illuminating aspect of the book is the look inside “Sosh,” the Social Sciences Department at the West Point Military Academy. The department played a critical and often overlooked role in the formation of Army culture following Vietnam, fostering unfettered debate about the war and the Army’s way forward following the American pullout. But there are also dangers for officers who wish to move back into combat arms after a sojourn in the department. Chiarelli and Petraeus both had an extraordinarily hard time moving back into the ranks after their time in Sosh, because in taking an intellectual retreat, they failed to punch their infantry commander tickets, something that is still the mark of a leader in the service. The book does just as much to explain the politics of moving up in today’s Army as it gives us some much-needed perspective of the culture that fostered the leadership that oversaw the darkest days of the war in Iraq.