Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 18, 2007

Petraeus’s PhD

Filed under: Iraq — louisproyect @ 6:09 pm

Although I have never made much money working for Columbia University, I do enjoy the perks–especially access to a world-class library and to online research databases like Proquest. When General David Petraeus was in Washington the other week to defend the ongoing slaughter in Iraq, much was made of his impressive credentials, including a PhD from Princeton in 1987 on the topic of “The American Military and The Lessons Of Vietnam: A Study Of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” I was inspired to download this 339 page (double-spaced) treatise from Proquest and read it on the spot.

The first thing that struck me was how the dissertation is a fence-straddling operation. If you want to understand why Petraeus refused to say that the US was safer because of the war in Iraq, the PhD is a good place to start. It is filled with qualifications and refuses to step outside the “value-free” environment of the academy. This is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing academic prose, but when it hinges on matters of war and peace it is a dereliction of civic duty.

It should be mentioned that Petraeus has surrounded himself with other PhD/Generals. On February 5th of this year, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post reported:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, is assembling a small band of warrior-intellectuals — including a quirky Australian anthropologist, a Princeton economist who is the son of a former U.S. attorney general and a military expert on the Vietnam War sharply critical of its top commanders — in an eleventh-hour effort to reverse the downward trend in the Iraq war.

Army officers tend to refer to the group as “Petraeus guys.” They are smart colonels who have been noticed by Petraeus, and who make up one of the most selective clubs in the world: military officers with doctorates from top-flight universities and combat experience in Iraq.

Essentially, the Army is turning the war over to its dissidents, who have criticized the way the service has operated there the past three years, and is letting them try to wage the war their way.

Now I don’t want to rain on General Petraeus’s parade, but I doubt whether the IQ of the men he has chosen is up to the task. His chief economic adviser is Colonel Michael J. Meese, who like his boss has a PhD from Princeton. Meese is the son of Ronald Reagan’s Attorney General Edwin Meese. A rather shallow gene pool, methinks.

His chief adviser on counterinsurgency is an Australian Lieutenant Colonel named David Kilcullen who has a PhD in anthropology with Islamic extremism in Indonesia his research topic. Kilcullen was the subject of a fawning profile by George Packer that appeared in the New Yorker on December 18, 2006. Despite all the gushing over Kilcullen as the second coming of Lawrence of Arabia, you can get an idea of what kind of counterinsurgency he will be organizing in Iraq:

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you—as some American initiates to counterinsurgency whom I met in Iraq seemed to believe—but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion. Kilcullen met senior European officers with the NATO force in Afghanistan who seemed to be applying “a development model to counterinsurgency,” hoping that gratitude for good work would bring the Afghans over to their side. He told me, “In a counterinsurgency, the gratitude effect will last until the sun goes down and the insurgents show up and say, ‘You’re on our side, aren’t you? Otherwise, we’re going to kill you.’ If one side is willing to apply lethal force to bring the population to its side and the other side isn’t, ultimately you’re going to find yourself losing.”

In other words, that’s the end of Mr. Nice Guy in Iraq.

Petraeus’s main goal in the dissertation is to prove that the military brass has been much less bellicose than civilian political leaders since the end of the Vietnam War. This involves creating a kind of straw-man: “Dr. Strangeloves in uniform — wild-eyed leaders eager to employ military force.” Opposed to this stick figure, there are the “cautious professionals” that Samuel Huntington described in “The Soldier and the State,” who are seen as holding a “relatively pacifist attitude.” In this work, Huntington argues that “The military man rarely favors war.” Of course, Huntington hardly seems like a reliable authority on who has pacifist attitudes or not. Only 6 years after Petraeus completed his dissertation, Huntington would formulate his “clash of civilizations” thesis that would be a pillar of the neoconservative casus belli for removing Saddam Hussein.

Whether or not there were “Dr. Strangeloves in uniform” prior to the war in Vietnam, the outcome of the war favored a more cautious approach, even if the term “pacifist” seems inappropriate. Indeed, Petraeus states that senior military officials felt the “United States should not engage in war unless it has a clear idea why it is fighting and is prepared to see the war through to a successful conclusion.” Petraeus cites a 1984 NY Times article by Richard Halloran titled “For Military Leaders, the Shadow of Vietnam” to back this up. The article contains the words of an imaginary colonel, who is obviously a stand-in for the “pacifists” Samuel Huntington referred to:

As those officers talk about the past and especially about the near future, many slip into an imaginary pose in which they seem to address the President or the Secretary of Defense. An Army colonel summed up three main points many officers make, saying:

– ”Mr. President, don’t send us to war unless you have clear-cut political goals and attainable military objectives.

– ”Sir, don’t send us unless you give us sufficient forces and enough freedom of action to use them properly.

– ”And, Mr. President, you’d better have a lot of public support.”

Considering the situation in Iraq, one might wonder why General Petraeus would be associated with a venture that clashes with all of the above stipulations. Indeed, his entire PhD thesis would seem to articulate the outlook of those Generals who were hailed in the September 8, 2006 Nation Magazine article titled “Revolt of the Generals.”

In late September [General John] Batiste, along with two other retired senior officers, spoke out about these failures at a Washington Democratic policy hearing, with Batiste saying Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was “not a competent wartime leader” who made “dismal strategic decisions” that “resulted in the unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women, our allies and the good people of Iraq.” Rumsfeld, he said, “dismissed honest dissent” and “did not tell the American people the truth for fear of losing support for the war.”

One must assume that if Rumsfeld were “a competent wartime leader” and that the war in Iraq had been going swimmingly well, neither Batiste nor scores of opportunist Democratic Party politicians would have said a word.

Against the fiasco in Vietnam, Petraeus concludes that for a chastened military “the American interventions in the Dominican Republic and Grenada in 1983 have come to be viewed as model cases of the use of force.” In other words, it is best to pick on smaller and weaker targets.

Part 2 of Petraeus’s dissertation consists of a number of case studies based on US military intervention since the end of the Vietnam War, all of which are intended to prove his case that the military is not very bellicose. Since many of them involve “low intensity warfare,” I am reminded of what many activists said in the late 1980s when Petraeus was ensconced in the Princeton library. For the victims of low intensity warfare, there is nothing “low” about it at all. Surveying the loss of life and property in Nicaragua with my own eyes, I find Petraeus’s characterization of the period to be cold-blooded in the extreme.

In his treatment of the invasion of Grenada, Petraeus finds that the Reagan White House was “gung ho” about going in, but the military “had some reservations.” This mostly involved finding out more about the Cuban willingness to fight. In any event, according to Petraeus, “the military did not emerge in any of the reports on the Grenada discussions as the aggressive party, nor as a particularly influential participant in the decision to intervene.”

Central America is the same story. According to Petraeus:

Many of the senior military have feared a Central America Vietnam, and by making their views known in advance they have sought to shape and preempt certain policies. Most important, the military have advised publicly against the commitment of U.S. combat units in the region except under certain conditions — conditions developed with an eye to avoiding another Vietnam.

Showing a certain susceptibility to objective reality, Petraeus adds that the military is quite sensitive to the legacy of “Yankee Imperialism” (his quotes, not mine) and cites widespread recognition that “military means are not the solution to many of the region’s problems.” But the real fear is less about committing war crimes: “But always lurking in the senior leadership’s subconscious has been the fear of American troops bogged down in another unpopular, nasty little war that gradually consumes the institution they have worked for the past decade to revive.” Well, Petraeus hit the nail on the head but his timing is a bit off. It is the roads of Iraq rather than the jungles of Central America that are consuming the military and it is he, the author of a dissertation that calls attention to military worries over exactly this prospect, who is consigned to the top of the shit heap.

Petraeus’s history of the Central American intervention is rather skewed. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are supposedly opposed to the use of U.S. combat troops in Central America. But the initial foray into Central America is no different than the early days of Vietnam. The U.S. provided money and training for the South Vietnamese until the situation on the ground began to deteriorate. Then it became time to escalate. In Central America, low-intensity warfare proved sufficient to keep the revolutionary forces on the defensive and eventually to defeat them. There would be no point in committing U.S. ground troops if they are not necessary. True to his imperialist myopia, Petraeus cites General Vessey–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1980’s–as being opposed to an “American military solution in Central America.” So what does that make the US-financed Salvadoran army and the Nicaraguan contras? Folk dance troupes?

Sometimes Petraeus simply uses his citations meretriciously in order to support his hypothesis. For example, he cites a June 21, 1983 N.Y. Times article by Drew Middleton to the effect that the military opposed intervention but left out the qualification that the article began with:

With unusual unanimity, senior generals of the United States Army say they oppose any American military intervention in Central America without the clear, unequivocal support of Congress and the people.

In other words, if Congress and “the people” (whipped into war hysteria by the mainstream media) backed the adventure, the military would be as gung-ho as it was in 2003 when Iraq was invaded. Fundamentally, the “pacifism” of the military is rooted in a fear of being a pawn in a game. There is absolutely no indication in Petraeus’s dissertation that the military has any political principles when it comes to being used as hired killers. For that you have to go to another military figure, who knew what he was talking about:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.

These words come from retired Marine General Smedley Butler’s “War is a Racket,” a 1935 memoir that would be of much more use than Petraeus’s dissertation in understanding how the military operates. Butler, the most decorated soldier in Marine history, approached the problem of military intervention from the standpoint of ethics rather than efficacy. It didn’t take a trauma like Vietnam to persuade him that war was wrong. He understood the word wrong in an entirely different sense than Petraeus. For Petraeus, the word wrong means something like: “It is wrong to go swimming after a large meal.” For Butler, it meant: “It is wrong to kill peasants and steal their land.”

Part 3 of Petraeus’s dissertation sums things up. It mostly consists of endless repetitions of his basic argument, namely that the military would never allow itself to end up in the kind of mess that General Petraeus is presiding over in Iraq today. It does confirm, however, one point that he makes. The civilian policy-makers are probably more bellicose than the military on a consistent basis. If one spent 5 minutes listening to the politicians who ended up on Sunday morning talk shows throughout 2003, you will know that is true. If the military chiefs urged caution in this period, it was only from the standpoint of having sufficient power to subdue the Iraqis. General Shinseki emerged as one of the more forceful critics of the invasion on this basis. Clashing with Rumsfeld repeatedly until he was relieved of his duties, Shinseki warned:

We need to have enough forces on the ground to deter and hold crises where they are. You can’t fall into the trap of organizing for specific missions and then being unable to perform other missions when the conditions change very quickly — and in places like Kosovo, they can change in 20 minutes. You may find yourself having to go very quickly, intellectually and physically, from what was a peacekeeping mission to fighting a war — and preparing the troops for this [shift]. And with the missions multiplying, you cannot go on fighting a 12-division war with only 10 divisions available.

This is the logic of Samuel Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State” and Petraeus’s PhD. You need to have the forces to get the job done, support from the Congress and a brainwashed population. Lacking these essentials, you are going to end up with another Vietnam. As they say, Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.

If David Petraeus represents the best military thinking and leadership that the U.S. can come up with at this point, its prospects don’t look very good based on his rather superficial doctoral dissertation. The whole thing amounts to an endorsement of war-making on the cheap. Despite the concluding paragraphs, which emphasize the need to use force sufficient to the task when necessary, there is little grasp of the enormity of the problem facing what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Petraeus’s formulas are geared to small-scale operations like in Grenada or El Salvador. When it comes to serious counter-revolutionary military operations against sizable entities such as Iraq or Iran, you need to ratchet up the military component.

However, the Vietnam syndrome still controls what is possible. With the U.S. military strained to the breaking point in Iraq, the logic of reintroducing the draft becomes more compelling. But to do that would risk unleashing a massive protest movement that might spill beyond the campuses. With economic conditions deteriorating from year to year, with class divisions deepening, the call to send young men off to die in Iraq against their will might ignite a general conflagration. The ruling class is faced with a dilemma. It lacks the forces to win the war in Iraq and cannot afford to surrender. To solve this dilemma will require more intellectual firepower than is at the disposal of our PhD General Petraeus.


  1. PhD. Piled Higher and Deeper.

    Comment by Binh — September 18, 2007 @ 8:22 pm

  2. Lower the interest rates half a point and watch not only the right, but the Vichy supporters of the current wannabe hup ho scurry back to their stock portfolios. If there has ever been a more intellectually vacuous and morally depraved gaggle of ruling class prigs in this country, I’d like to know when that period of history was. These guys have got to be the worst since the Mexican American war period. It is hardly surprising that their military now features “intellectual” stars like Petraeus and other sad clowns who are constantly surprised by the realities of partisan warfare.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — September 18, 2007 @ 9:51 pm

  3. “But to do that would risk unleashing a massive protest movement that might spill beyond the campuses.”

    Perhaps you mean spill into the campuses? Considering they seem to be relatively quiet compared to the Vietnam era?

    Comment by Sheldon — September 19, 2007 @ 4:27 am

  4. Thanks Louis! This is a valuable public service! I’m surprised that a professional reporter didn’t do this investigation already…

    Comment by Mark — September 19, 2007 @ 1:24 pm

  5. Many years ago, reviewing a dreadful hagiography of Stalin by a Canadian Professor, I wrote: ‘Academic qualifications do not prevent men from being fools or charlatans, or both.’ Having in the intervening years obtained a BA, MA and PhD, I stand by every word of what I wrote back then.

    Paul F

    Comment by Paul F — September 19, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  6. […] Or is he? […]

    Pingback by Kill them fast and often at Antony Loewenstein — September 19, 2007 @ 11:55 pm

  7. The pathology of conferred expertise is ever-present and almost always potent. Another superb effort by Proyect, this time adding new perspective to the phenomenon.

    Comment by J. Marlin — September 20, 2007 @ 1:33 am

  8. I heard he has future presidential aspirations.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 20, 2007 @ 7:15 am

  9. I read your last couple of posts, it’s pretty clear that your real income must come from a job that inovlves saying: “would you like fries with that?” all day long.

    If all these senior officers with PhD’s are dumb or stupid, it only means that they have their posts because they’re smarter than plankton like you. As the marxists say, everything is realitive.

    Comment by Erick Blair — October 6, 2007 @ 4:43 pm

  10. > If David Petraeus represents the best military thinking and leadership that the U.S. can come up with at
    > this point, its prospects don’t look very good based on his rather superficial doctoral dissertation

    How about based on the success of the surge?

    Comment by steve — July 18, 2008 @ 5:45 pm

  11. How about based on the success of the surge?

    Spoilsport! Blue skies! — Dan Ford

    Comment by Dan Ford — September 16, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

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