The Petraeus saga should remind us that there are two kinds of generals and admirals: self-promoters and performers. Unfortunately, self-promoters not only tend to get ahead more quickly but get more attention from journalists and historians, regardless of whether they deserve it. Meanwhile, those who perform or simply get the job done without burnishing their image tend to get lost in the shuffle.
Everyone remembers General MacArthur’s exploits in the Korean War from the Inchon landing to his firing by President Truman for publicly advocating a war with China, but how many know that the real hero in that war and the person who prevented the U.S. from losing the war was General Matthew Ridgway? It was he who tried unsuccessfully to get his fellow generals to stop MacArthur’s ill-conceived dash to the Yalu and then took over the war, first as the Commander of the 8th Army and then as the Commander of all United Nations Forces in Korea after MacArthur’s firing. When Ridgway assumed command, the Chinese had nearly driven us out of Korea. But it was Ridgeway, with his calm and steady leadership, who enabled us to get a truce that restored the status quo ante and allowed South Korea the opportunity to become the economic powerhouse that it is today. As Army chief of staff, he also persuaded President Eisenhower, over the objection of his fellow chiefs, not to send U.S. ground troops into Vietnam in 1954 to save the French at Dien Bien Phu.
Similarly, everyone remembers General Westmoreland and his strategy of attrition, the five o’clock follies, his appearance on the cover of Time magazine, and his address to a joint session of the Congress during his years as commander in Vietnam. But how many remember that it was his successor, General Creighton Abrams, who despite the rapid withdrawal of US forces stabilized the situation enough to allow us to conclude a peace treaty with the North Vietnamese in 1973? While it was not exactly peace with honor, as President Nixon had asserted, it did give South Vietnam the opportunity to control its own destiny.
Similarly, when it comes to the war in Iraq, Petraeus is given credit for preventing a U.S. defeat in that conflict. And that is no accident. Not only did he cultivate the media and conservative think tanks, but he ingratiated himself with the Bush administration and the neocons by writing an op-ed in the Washington Post right before the 2004 election. In it, Petraeus claimed that the war was going well that the Iraqi security forces, which he was in charge of training, would be capable of standing up so we could stand down, which was the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld strategy until 2006.
But the person who should receive the lion’s share of credit for stabilizing the situation in Iraq is General Raymond Odierno, the current Army Chief of Staff. Odierno served more than four years in Iraq: one year as a division commander, 14 months as a corps commander, and two years as the force commander (one of only 12 generals in Army history to command at the division, corps and Army levels—a list which does not include Petraeus).
Moreover, Odierno took over as the day-to-day commander of all coalition forces in Iraq two months before Petraeus arrived. Even before the extra 30,000 troops arrived, General Odierno began conducting large scale offensive military operations while simultaneously protecting the population and reconnecting with former insurgents (the sons of Iraq). Finally, after Petraeus stepped down as Commander of the Multinational Force in September 2008, it was Odierno who replaced him and managed the transition from the military to Iraq civilians over the next two years as well as helping the Iraqis successfully form a government after a contested election.
As in South Korea and South Vietnam, the future of Iraq is now in the hands of the Iraqis. But to the extent that our military leaders gave them that opportunity, let’s make sure that we remember the contributions of performers such as General Odierno, as we did Ridgway and Abrams.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.