With some fanfare, General David Petraeus transferred command of US forces in Iraq to his deputy General Ray Odierno on September 17. In the last two years, much has been written about Petraeus—the architect of American counterinsurgency strategy and leader of the controversial surge in Iraq. He survived early political attacks in the American media and on Capitol Hill for being too intellectual (he has a Ph.D.) and too political. What the critics missed, however, is his warfighting skills. Far from being mutually exclusive, a general (or admiral for that matter) can be smart, politically savvy, and a consummate warfighter. After all, warfighting skills are what militaries value.


Petraeus, with his staff, deserve much praise as he leaves Iraq and assumes his new position overseeing all U.S. military operations in the Near East and Central Asia. He regained Iraqis’ confidence that the United States can be a partner in their war against terrorists and insurgents. He recovered the Army’s reputation for leadership, which was in crisis as critics marveled at the emergence of Navy officers in several senior command positions previously reserved for generals. And he started the U.S. military on a course to embrace counterinsurgency as a key warfighting competency, which is something his predecessors from the Vietnam era could not do.  

In his farewell letter to US forces in Iraq, he set the tone of future debate when he wrote, “You have not just secured the Iraqi people, you have served them, as well. By helping establish local governance, supporting reconstruction efforts, assisting with revitalization of local businesses, fostering local reconciliation, and conducting a host of other non-kinetic activities, you have contributed significantly to the communities in which you have operated. Indeed, you have been builders and diplomats, as well as guardians and warriors.”
This process has been ongoing and is well summarized by Andrew Bacevich in the Atlantic: “For a military accustomed to quick, easy victories, the trials and tribulations of the Iraq War have come as a rude awakening. To its credit, the officer corps has responded not with excuses but with introspection. One result, especially evident within the U.S. Army, has been the beginning of a Great Debate of sorts.”
As I recently argued, the military has reluctantly embraced its roles as builders, diplomats, and guardians. It prefers its warrior role. Yet, it is not warfighting skills that will ensure that governments can advance and defend their national interests. And there is genuine fear that the United States military will lose its ability to fight wars. For obvious reasons, U.S. Army units preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan do not practice large-scale maneuver at its National Training Center. Marines in theater do not disembark from ships and go ashore as their strategy envisions. And pilots providing close air support practice air-to-ground delivery of small weapons rather than their core mission of engaging enemy aircraft. It remains to be seen whether these changes are short-term for the long war in Iraq and Afghanistan or will have lasting impact (I understand the irony of this sentence).
Looking across the Atlantic, this debate started with General Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 book The Utility of Force. He wrote:

War no longer exists. Confrontation, conflict, and combat undoubtedly exist all around the world—most noticeably, but no only, in Iraq, Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Palestinian Territories—and states still have armed forces which they use as a symbol of power. Nonetheless, war as cognitively known to most noncombatants, war as a battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs: such war no longer exists (p. 3)

If Smith is right, this view on future war has profound implications for how militaries train and equip for future operations. Advanced aircraft, ships, and tanks will not be the key systems to secure political objectives. Rather, it is the human skills that Petraeus promoted and tested in Iraq. Success is not contingent on being warriors alone; military personnel must be builders, diplomats, and guardians too.

Derek S. Reveron is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College.