Former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and was chief architect of the troop surge that turned a corner toward victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom, told hundreds gathered Saturday evening at the National World War II Museum that today's top military officers and intelligence personnel are every bit at as capable as those who defeated Axis powers nearly 70 years ago.
"They are very different kinds of wars – make no mistake about it," said Petraeus, marquee speaker in the George P. Shultz Forum on World Affairs, the final event of the conference hosted by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
World War II Supreme Allied Cmdr. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower "had a lot of challenges, but he didn't have a 24-hour news cycle," Petraeus said in his discussion titled “Grappling With the Lessons of History: The Legacy of WWII in Modern Combat and Intelligence.” The forum was moderated by renowned historian and military adviser Max Boot.
Petraeus described the war on terrorism as "grinding, maddening and frustrating at times." Similar descriptions were applied during the conference to characterize the Allied effort among multiple nations with differing leadership philosophies during World War II. Petraeus said Eisenhower was uniquely suited to manage the various personalities and difficulties among the Allies during World War II. "What he did was masterful at times," Petraeus said. "It wasn't very easy, and it was worth it."
The war on terrorism has had its own brand of difficulties, he said. "You make progress some days," Petraeus said of his time leading U.S. forces in the war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. "Some days, you slide back. It's a challenging situation, but we can never forget why we went into Afghanistan in the first place … being the commander of the surge in Iraq is awesome on a good day. There just aren't many good days. That's the reality of war. War is, as it always has been, brutal, harsh, dehumanizing and all of that."
He said the results – dismantling the Taliban, removing Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden from power and crippling al Qaida – were achieved objectives of the war that would not have happened without a concerted effort by military leaders and the intelligence community alike.
"We were fairly stern that the folks we had in key positions were quality people,” Petraeus said. “I would put the quality of those folks up against any staff, anywhere."
He noted that while the United States provided about 80 percent of the resources necessary to prosecute the war on terrorism, unlike the global effort of World War II, “all of the forces out there took some casualties, some a great deal more than others, but this is life. Life is not perfect. Coalitions are not perfect.”
In response to Boot, who raised the question of why the U.S. military continues to train personnel in conventional warfare tactics pioneered during World War II, like parachute invasions and amphibious landings, Petraeus explained that parachute drops were used, though minimally, in Iraq, but even if such tactics are not common today, they do tell you something about soldiers.
“The fact is, the fastest way to get a brigade to the ground is you put them on planes, you open the doors, and they jump out,” Petraeus said, adding that parachuting would likely be the province of a handful of elite U.S. military forces going forward. “There is something to be said about people who will hook up to a static line and go out the door of a plane with 100 pounds of equipment hanging off of them. That’s the guy I want when the going gets tough. If you want to find the fiber of somebody, go to 12,500 feet and have them dive out. It’s a pretty revealing deal.”
Furthermore, added Petraeus, the variety of military capabilities tested and perfected since World War II may be more applicable to future conflict than that of the war on terrorism, which continues to shift. “Our record, certainly since World War II, of predicting where we might fight and how we might fight, has been near perfect: it’s zero. We didn’t predict Korea. We didn’t predict Desert Storm. We didn’t predict Afghanistan.”
He warned against thinking that conventional warfare lacks a place in the 21st century U.S. military equation. “This is tough stuff. This is what you’re engaged in. It will be a mix, always, of offense, defense and stabilization. We can’t forget that latter part. We probably didn’t give that enough attention when we launched the fight for Baghdad.”
As for 21st century intelligence, compared to World War II, the former CIA chief said, “You don’t hear about it, and you shouldn’t hear about it.”
Near the end of the session, Petraeus made the point that no matter how today’s war is prosecuted, “a lot will depend on what we leave behind.”