IN A lively, ongoing debate, some authors have credited General Petraeus with transforming the United States military and wonder if his success will have long-term impacts. The most visible part of the debate over this legacy concerns whether the future of the United States Army lies in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations or a return to conventional combat. Initially an internal debate, it has become wide-ranging and moved from internal Department of Defense (DOD) journals like Military Review to industry publications like Armed Forces Journal to general press such as the Atlantic.
The fiery back-and-forth has focused on answering three pressing questions: whether or not a "surge" will work in Afghanistan; what types of wars we will fight in the future; and how the United States government should invest and train for what is to come. But the entire discussion rests on a false premise. The debate has identified the General's legacy as that of counterinsurgency strategy or, even further from the mark, as the success of the surge. But in fact, what the General has succeeded in doing is far more complex, far more important and potentially far more universally applicable than the simplistic notion of debating the value of preparation for counterinsurgency or conventional warfare-or worse, a simple "surge."
Petraeus's real legacy is that of a general who understood and then adapted to fight the war he was in. It seems obvious, and is even one of Clausewitz's most widely quoted passages, but the fact remains our system has not been particularly good at that "first, most far-reaching act of judgment . . . to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking. . . . "