General David Petraeus recently spoke with General Sir Nick Parker at the Oxford Union. Here, you can read his thoughts on modern warfare and the role of education in the military.


By Oliver Lewis

General David Petraeus began his career in the United States Army as the Vietnam War ended. Over thirty-seven years of service, the general played a major role in the transformations of the contemporary US Army: from the vast mechanized forces of the Cold War through to the small unit counterinsurgency operations of Iraq and Afghanistan; and from an unpopular Army recovering from the draft and Vietnam to a highly professional force experiencing unparalleled levels of public support for the military. 

On Friday 20th June 2014, General Petraeus discussed his career in public service with British General Sir Nick Parker, on the occasion of the annual lecture of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme. As the two generals sat in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union the affection and respect between them created an atmosphere of intellectual challenge and honest answers. At times it felt as if they could have been back in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Sir Nick was the deputy to General Petraeus as the commander. But occasionally we broke free of the intimacy and saw glimpses of Petraeus’s presidential demeanour, the humour and self-deprecation of the military leader coupled with the confidence and certainty of an American political heavyweight.

As the general began his career the US Army had shut the door on Vietnam. It was ‘awesome’ to be in the Cold War army, Petraeus remarked, because they ‘were huge forces, well-resourced, and you didn’t have to fight!’. But that was not the Army for this warrior-scholar. Instead, the general praised the leaders of the 1970s who took the ‘hollow Army’ and turned it into an effective military by conducting force-on-force exercises in the Mojave Desert, just outside Las Vegas. Through those exercises, Peatraeus observed, the ‘opposing force was the best trained in the US Army because all they did was fight’. The mantra, that you do not train to fight, you fight to train, is clearly in the general’s mind. 

Desert Storm in 1991 was the ideal fight for that training, where unstoppable armoured divisions could roll across the sands, dominating the opposition through the scale and superiority of US forces. But throughout that period, Petraeus was thinking as well as fighting. From 1983-87, as well as teaching at the US Military Academy at West Point, he earned a master’s degree in public administration and a PhD in international relations from Princeton.

Developing the US Army into a learning organisation is one of the defining marks of Petraeus’s career: it is a theme that he has championed and promoted at every level of command. As the general’s influence increased, so did a culture of intellectualism and an emphasis on the value of education in the military. The ‘after action review’ culture, where tactics, operations and strategy are scrutinised post-event, often brutally, has been ‘instrumental in developing [the US Army as] a learning organisation’. After action reviews are the military’s manifestation of critical, academic reflection and so it is fitting that they should be praised by Petraeus given his commitment to showing that theory can, in practice, save lives. 


Throughout his career he was crucial in overhauling the US Army’s education and realigning training towards the reality of experience in theatres of war. Nowhere is this more encapsulated than in the publication in 2006 of the new US Army and US Marine Corps field manual on Counterinsurgency. Petraeus is rightly proud of the publication produced under his watch. Unusually for military doctrine the field manual was produced in record time by just ‘driving this process with bright young people, including Rhodes scholars’. True to his convictions, Petraeus made the writing of the field manual unusual by sharing the drafts with academics and journalists and asking them for criticism. For Petraeus, ‘the press is not optional’. 

But it comes with certain risks: ‘you can’t win if you don’t play, but you can lose if you don’t play at all’. Any military leader, he said, has a responsibility to the parents of the soldiers under their command to fulfill their ‘right to learn about the commander and the objectives of the campaign’. The press, however, has an allied responsibility to those parents to ensure that commentaries on military campaigns are contextual, characterizing operations properly rather than with simplistic generalization.

Petraeus’s manner and comments are honest and thoughtful. He defends the necessary complexity of his answers with ferocity. But they do not make easy sound-bite’. He sounds more like a university professor than a soldier, despite his combat experience. His reflections on the current turmoil in Iraq are not a quick defence of his decisions but considered and careful, a blend of military and political themes. Politically, the general criticised the Iraqi government for ‘becoming increasingly sectarian and authoritative, consequently undermining the efforts at reconciliation’. It is dangerous, Petraeus believes, ‘when people have a stake in Baghdad’s failure rather than success’. 

However, replacing competent Iraqi commanders with loyalists and then altering the chain of command so that they report directly to the Iraqi executive is not primarily a political problem, but a military one: inexperienced and incompetent officers ‘cannot command brigades and manouvre warfare’ and leave regular Iraqi soldiers without that ‘crucial sense that someone is going to rescue you’ if you hold out long enough. For Petraeus, the answer is typically one of leadership and integrity: Iraq requires a leadership that reaches beyond sectarianism and needs a leader trusted by all components of Iraqi society, ‘but there will be some tough fighting’.

A recurring theme in the general’s comments is that success requires more than just winning a fight. All the relationships of power and influence have to be navigated, from international and multinational to domestic and personal. Alliances and diplomacy are not only about the number of troops from a contributing nation. Petraeus would often ‘spend more time in minutes with a national leader than they were giving me troops’. But you have to. In the complex environment of twenty-first century Coalition warfare, the general becomes a diplomat. The general also becomes a politician. But there is a clear line: ‘the best professional military advice is informed by politics but driven by the facts on the ground’. 

However, what best prepared General Petraeus for the political and military demands of contemporary generalship was not military education or training but ‘civilian graduate school, learning from brighter people with fundamentally different perspectives’. So it is no surprise that the general’s final words were to ‘preserve and protect provocative thinkers’.