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By Andrew Callam Staff Writer January 31, 2010

David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, The Fourth Star (New York: Random House, 2009)

David Cloud and Greg Jaffe, The Fourth Star (New York: Random House, 2009)

In hindsight, one of the most curious victories of General Peter Chiarelli’s career came in the summer of 1987 in Grafenwöhr, Germany. Chiarelli, then a Major, was in charge of training the 3rd Armored Division’s tank battalion for the prestigious Canadian Army Trophy (CAT) competition. The winner of the CAT would claim the honor of the best tank platoon in NATO, a prize the United States had never won. That year, Chiarelli and Delta Company’s tank battalion barely edged out the Germans, signaling to the world that the U.S. military had finally recovered from its post-Vietnam nadir.

This is just one of the many anecdotes described in David Cloud and Greg Jaffe’s book, The Fourth Star, but it is unique in its irony. The book outlines the intertwined careers of Chiarelli, George Casey Jr., John Abizaid and David Petraeus, all four-star generals who have led a dramatic transformation of military doctrine in the 21st Century. The CAT competition symbolizes what these four generals sought to leave behind: an Army that prepared for tank battles in Europe, adhered to the overwhelming force doctrines of Caspar Weinberger and Colin Powell and avoided entanglements in low-intensity conflicts. The Fourth Star is the story of the Army’s movement away from this paradigm towards one that has begun to embrace the importance of low-intensity and counterinsurgency warfare.

The strength of The Fourth Star lies in its incredibly detailed anecdotes, which provide intimate portraits of each general. Cloud and Jaffe, both veteran Washington news correspondents, rightfully avoid psychoanalyzing their subjects, but one cannot help but conclude that the personalities of each general ultimately led to both their successes and failures. For example, the book begins with George Casey Jr. learning of his father’s death in the Vietnam War and goes on to describe his career in an Army that was struggling to overcome the embarrassment of that conflict. As Commanding General, Multinational Forces – Iraq from 2004 to 2007, it seems that Casey tried to avoid dragging the Army into a similar quagmire by pushing for a quick transfer of authority to the Iraqis and eschewing requests for more troops to stabilize the deteriorating situation. Rightly or wrongly, he now shares a large portion of the blame for the Army’s failures in Iraq. Casey’s stories, woven with those of the other generals, create a compelling narrative of the internal evolution of the Army from Vietnam to the Iraq War.

While this series of anecdotes make for interesting reading, however, Jaffe and Cloud fail to bring forth a coherent argument that ties them together. With neither an introduction nor conclusion, the narrative aimlessly floats along towards no foreseeable end. It is clear that Jaffe and Cloud believe that the story of these four generals describes a struggle within the U.S. Army that resulted in the shedding of the post-Vietnam “Powell Doctrine” and a turn towards counterinsurgency, but they offer little suggestion of why this change occurred or what the new “doctrine” will be. It is understandably difficult to draw a conclusion from biographies of four men from very different backgrounds who have disparate and often conflicting opinions. Yet The Fourth Star’s major weakness is its failure to explain the how and the why of the Army’s transformation, rather than just the what. Answers to those questions could be prescriptive to policymakers in hopes of avoiding the mistakes these four generals struggled to overcome.

For example, one of the few summarizing thoughts is provided in the final paragraph, which explains that “the most important legacy of the [Iraq war] had been cultural.” About this cultural change, The Fourth Star could have had much more to say. The changes within the Army that lead to marginal success in Iraq appeared to have come from below; junior officers who initiated tactics at the division and brigade level that ran counter to the conventional strategy. While Petraeus and Chiarelli—two excellent officers who also knew how to play the political game—eventually climbed the institutional ladder, it took them more than three years to reach a position where they could affect the organization. The U.S. Army has demonstrated time and again its inability to quickly adapt to the changing environment of warfare, often with tragic consequences. Iraq is no exception. Ultimately, it was Petraeus who forced the Army to focus on counterinsurgency, but he was apparently only able to do so because of his powerful personality and supernaturally strong work ethic. Jaffe and Cloud give no suggestion of other factors that allowed these transformational generals to rise in the ranks or what might be done to encourage adaptable leadership.

It is also unclear whether or not this struggle to transform the military has reached its final act. While the Obama Administration has begun to reduce the United States’ conventional capabilities to focus on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military is nevertheless carrying out only a limited counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan; in Iraq, it has fallen back to counterterrorism operations. Further, there is strong institutional and political resistance to transforming the Army into a low-intensity force. Many are still very reluctant to engage in small wars, and there is plenty of reason to believe that U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan may lead to a similar feeling felt during the post-Vietnam era. If this is the case, The Fourth Star describes just the opening act in a struggle that will proceed for decades to come.