Every great country has always honored its finest warriors. School children are taught the names of our nation’s war heroes: John Paul Jones, Ulysses S. Grant, Billy Mitchell, Alvin York, Jimmy Doolittle, Douglas MacArthur. Great warriors were the first celebrities — and often, celebrity was hard-earned.
Can an army general be a celebrity in 21st century America? We may be about to find out — because it turns out that America has a general who is a rock star among military leaders. If the surge in Iraq is going to work — and I am an unusual Democrat who supports it and hopes that it will — it will be thanks to the determination and skill of the Army’s newest general.
He is 54 years old and routinely strips off his shirt and challenges soldiers half his age to push up contests — and whips them. In the rare event they beat him in a short run of four miles or so, he takes them on a ten mile run and just “smokes them” according to a colleague.
People describe him as not only “the most competitive man on the planet” but exceptionally smart. He graduated near the top of his class at West Point. He was accepted into Army Ranger School — perhaps the most physically and mentally demanding training program anywhere — and emerged with all three of the top prizes awarded in his class. He earned the George Marshall award as the top graduate in his Army Command and General Staff College. The Army sent him to Princeton, where he quickly earned a PhD in International Relations at the Woodrow Wilson School writing about the military lessons of the Vietnam War.
He has survived two nearly lethal accidents. Shot in the chest by an M-16 that accidentally discharged, he spent five hours in emergency cardiac surgery with Dr. Bill Frist — the man who went on to become Senate majority leader. While skydiving in 2000, he survived the collapse of his parachute and had his shattered pelvis reassembled with a plate and long screws.
Why don’t we all know about this guy?
The army put this action hero in charge of the fabled 101st Airborne — arguably the finest fighting force ever assembled — and sent him to Iraq. He completely changed how the Screaming Eagles fought and developed, documented, and introduced an entirely new counterinsurgency doctrine. He not only quietly earned the respect of Iraqis for his occupation of Mosul and northern Iraq — he won his corner of the war.
Would we know if we had an outstanding performer in the middle of a war that however badly it may have been conceived, was horribly planned and executed? Would anybody notice that reporters as early as 2003 were writing about a commander in Northern Iraq who was not only loved by his troops, but who won widespread acclaim by resurrecting the local economy, restoring services and preserving order — including giving Saddam Hussein’s two sons the killing they so richly earned?
He is featured in some of the best military writing about Iraq. Even Iraqis took note — he remains one of the few US military leader to receive the Order of the Palm, Iraq’s highest military award.
He is David Petraeus — and every American, and especially every school kid, should know this guy’s name.
Why isn’t this guy on television every night and on billboards in every town? Why do our kids know the name of gangsta rappers but not the name of David Petraeus unless they are lucky enough to enlist and serve under him?
Why do our leaders not understand that the warrior ethos: “I will always place the mission first; I will never accept defeat; I will never quit; and I will never leave a fallen comrade” represents an extraordinarily high level of commitment and human achievement, not — as too many people who should know better will claim — the opposite?
Do Americans realize that our President has pushed aside several senior generals, promoted Petraeus to full general, and put him in charge of all Iraq combat operations? You could stand at your average suburban mall for an hour before meeting someone who could place this guy’s name.
Why is that?
To the extent this war still has military objectives (and I think it does), General Petraeus and 135,000 soldiers will achieve them. It also appears to me, that however late the day, the American military now thankfully has a leader worthy of the men and women who serve.