Why such confidence in Gen. Petraeus? Well, he is obviously bright, thoughtful and articulate. He has enjoyed some recent tactical success as a division commander. And, well, there are all those medals and ribbons.
Fully nine rows by my count.
Ornamentation serves to introduce the military man as a person of experience and accomplishment. A courageous man. A war hero. A patriot. Someone who commands respect. But the fact is, until 2003 Gen. Petraeus had made his way up the career ladder largely via success in staff positions, not in line leadership, let alone combat assignments. He wasn't even in uniform during most of the '80s. He spent upwards of five years in graduate school, earning a doctorate in political science at Princeton. After earning his degree, he returned to West Point to teach. In a recent article written for the American Interest, he argues for the importance of graduate education -- and it shows. His much-touted counterinsurgency manual reads more like an extended essay in political science than it does a manual of military tactics and strategy.
Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974, thus he missed the Vietnam War. Then came Princeton. He was doing other things during the first Gulf War. For the rest of the '90s he did well in more staff jobs. Finally, in 2003, after 30 years in uniform, he was given the opportunity to lead a combat division and did very well.
But about those nine rows of ribbons? Of his entire display, only three medals go to his military prowess -- a Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars. Except for his two distinguished service medals, almost every other ribbon on his chest has more to do with his being in some place at some time and conducting himself properly while there.
The general could have made the case that his lack of a war record didn't matter all that much anyway. He makes just this argument indirectly in his counterinsurgency manual when he instructs us that an Iraq-type war is 80 percent about politics and 20 percent military. But if he is right, should we not have been more concerned about Ryan Crocker's ambivalent assessment of political progress than Gen. Petraeus' more optimistic report of tactical military success? And might not this shift in concern have informed public policy? I think so.
Notably, many of our more famous war heroes over the years disdained ornamental display, apparently taking the view that their record spoke for itself. Eisenhower, for example, never wore more than a row or two of ribbons.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & uring the '50s, I finally got my very private father (U.S. Naval Academy, Class of 1935) to talk, just a little, about the war; after all, he had been through it all, including surviving two kamikaze strikes. Mostly he talked not about himself but about friends and former Naval Academy classmates. Eugene Fluckey's name would come up again and again.
"Gene" Fluckey, who died at 93 this past June, commanded the submarine U.S.S. Barb, which made an astounding 11 patrols. Fluckey is credited with sinking 16 Japanese ships and setting the war record for tonnage. He won the Medal of Honor and four Navy Crosses, plus numerous other medals and ribbons. He earned his Medal of Honor for taking the Barb into a shallow harbor (six fathoms -- that's 30 feet!) on the China coast, where, operating on the surface, the sub scored torpedo hits on eight ships. He then managed to get out safely by driving his boat over uncharted and mined waters at 23.5 knots per hour, a record for surface speed.
Admiral Fluckey dressed a whole lot more like Dwight Eisenhower than like David Petraeus.
Now replay the recent Senate hearings in your mind's eye and imagine Gen. Petraeus ornamented more like a Gene Fluckey. Imagine him showing up wearing only those three ribbons -- Legion of Merit and two Bronze Stars. Then ask yourself if his testimony would have had the same political impact. Changes things, doesn't it?
Oh, and about the man whose proposal on behalf of the troops fell in the wake of Petraeus' testimony? In Vietnam, Sen. James Webb earned a Navy Cross, Silver
Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Perhaps Webb should have shown up for the general's testimony with his medals -- pinned on his suit. Why not?