Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fourth star

The Iraq books keep coming, despite the public's waning interest. The Fourth Star, subtitled Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the Army is a book with the Iraq war at its center, but it is quite a bit more. It follows the military careers of Generals Abizaid, Casey, Chiarelli and Petraeus, all of whom recently became four star generals, the highest rank in the Army (five star generals exist, but the rank is an honorific)

The parts I liked best were those that preceded the Iraq war. It shows the often peculiar and roundabout paths that military careers take. There is the constant desire, for those who want promotion, to take positions in charge of military units. In many cases, the Generals in the book despaired of every getting promoted. General Chiarelli found himself teaching at West Point and became known as an egg head. General Abizaid nearly took the career limiting move of becoming a Foreign Area Officer, or one who spends his career in liaison with other militaries. With the exception of the ultra-driven Petraeus, few seemed to be working their way to the top of the Army.

Most of the stories about their careers are fresh and they tell the story of the Army's near destruction in Vietnam, the slow rebuilding in the 70s and 80s, the victory of sorts in 91 and then the challenges of an Army using the wrong tactics in Iraq. The civil-military leadership in the Iraq war is the flip of the Union's situation in the Civil War. In Iraq, incompetent civilian leaders hobbled the general's war effort, just as incompetent generals hobbled the civilian leaderships efforts in the Civil War. Authors Jaffe and Cloud are withering in their treatment of the civilians in the books (as well as towards the self congratulatory Tommy Franks.)

The focus though is on the generals. Casey and Chiarelli eventually took the top two spots, respectively in the Army, but felt that they had been demoted in a sense for their handling of Iraq. Abizaid retired to the Sierra Nevadas and Petraeus continues his quest for glory.

The book is a good quick read, loaded with fascinating stories and analysis. It doesn't quite reach the level of the Thomas Ricks or Dexter Filkins books, but it does give more insight than those books into the Army as an institution.

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