The Long War of Four Generals

Posted October 19, 2009 at 3:56pm

Few historians excel at providing a detailed look at the lives of military leaders who are charged with commanding thousands of troops through battle and making snap decisions that alter the course of history.

Journalists David Cloud and Greg Jaffe have joined those rare few with their timely and poignant stories of four generals responsible for managing aspects of the Iraq War.

In “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army,— the authors use the stories of Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr., Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. David Petraeus and retired Gen. John Abizaid to examine the Iraq War from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s reign through the end of the Bush administration.

The book chronicles the early lives of each general: their military upbringings, West Point pedigrees and family lives. Then it follows the four men throughout their careers and eventually to Iraq, where their stories intersect. Cloud and Jaffe, accomplished Pentagon correspondents, relied on years of research and countless interviews to offer an explanation for the various strategies implemented in that war, President George W. Bush’s management style and the generals’ own struggle with policies that they were told to carry out.

The authors magnificently connect the story lines of Abizaid’s clash with Pentagon leadership, Chiarelli’s challenges on the battlefield with Petraeus’ “surge— counterinsurgency strategy and Casey’s determination to win the war.

“Casey had never been in combat, but he did have experience running big organizations and was confident that he could come up with a winning war strategy,— they write.

In nearly 300 pages, Cloud and Jaffe also paint intimate portraits of these generals, whose legacies have yet to be determined. Petraeus is depicted as a brilliant and competitive academic; Chiarelli comes across as a compassionate strategist.

“Even one of Chiarelli’s proudest achievements in 2006 had led to pointed criticism. He was convinced that the killing and wounding of Iraqis at the hundreds of checkpoints around Iraq was creating new insurgents,— the authors note.

The book is a textured account of the early struggle against insurgents and Iraqi officials. The narrative moves on to a thorough account of high-stakes power struggles at the Pentagon.

One issue the book does not address is the problem of suicide: In 2008, a record 140 soldiers killed themselves, and the Army admits the situation is only worsening. Today, a U.S. soldier is more likely than a civilian to commit suicide.

Congress has taken some steps to alleviate the problem. This year, lawmakers authorized and are set to appropriate a 3.4 percent pay increase for service members. They also are calling for expanding the size of the Army and for longer periods at home before soldiers serve their next tour.

How this crisis is handled will reflect back on these four generals, especially Chiarelli and Casey. But however that problem is handled, “The Fourth Star— does help the public understand the struggle and critical choices these four men faced.