By: Corwin C. Mallonée
I chose to write about my cousin General David Howell Petraeus for the Howell Family Scholarship because he is an important and distinguished world personality. Over the past year, through research and correspondence, I have come to admire his efficient blending of politics, diplomacy, kindness and humility. I realize what a gift the general’s words are to me; and, that the Howell character, expressed through his thoughts and words, needs to be shared with others.
General Petraeus (born November 7, 1952) rose to international prominence through his role in the implementation of the Iraq surge. Controversy concerning the righteousness of the Iraq war will probably continue forever. People on both sides of the political aisle will also repeatedly argue about whether the surge of 30,000 troops was right. However, one thing almost all American’s have ha to concede is that the surge in Iraq worked. The brilliant execution of the surge by General Petraeus was key to our subduing the Al-Qaida terrorists. The success of the surge also led to the emergence of General Petraeus as “one of the foremost American generals of our time.”
Yet, becoming a general isn’t an indication of true greatness (such promotions have been bought and sold in the past – although not in this century!), just as success in battle is never an indicator of lasting greatness. General Petraeus earned his position of respect and prominence, and weathered the political and military storm of the Irag war, because he did not resort to the ugliness conquerors and occupiers usually dish out to the vanquished. In contrast, General William T. Sherman burned Atlanta to the ground and pillaged all the way to the sea. Sherman’s military actions did not reflect true greatness. While his campaigns were important to a Northern victory (a “Preserved Union”), they left the south improverished, broken and humilated for decades.
Others may have a different opinion on the effects of Sherman’s tactics, including General Petraeus; who, upon reading this report responded, “OK, to a point, but this is a bit debatable; the subsequent treatment of the south after the war was probably a more important factor in the south’s subsequent “improverishment for decades.” Indeed, the general brings up a good point. His insight reveals an important Howell characteristic: that of forward thinking. Surely, a degree of mercy and a tighter grip on the actions of Sherman’s troops during his campaign would have been desirable; and, an equal measure of restraint toward the southern way of life (and how it differed from the habits of Northerners) would have been desirable in he months and years of Northern occupation that followed the campaign. Tolerant and protective polices would have elevated Sherman’s accomplishments beyond the mere use of successful strategy and attack capability; General Petraeus displayed greatness before, during and after the surge by not employing the less refined routines used by Sherman.
Many Americans thought that the “Shock and Awe” strategies of the Iraq war were very Shermanesque – perhaps in the beginning “shock and awe” could have been viewed as such. However, by Jsnuary 10, 2007 the beginning of the surge, President Bush had created a new mandate. The President described the overall objective of the surge (a deployment of more than 30,000 soldiers into Iraq, most to Bagdad, and extended the tour of 4,000 Marines already in the Anbar Province area) as establishing a “Unified, democratic federal Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself, and sustain itself, and is an ally in the War on Terror”. President Bush appointed Petraeus Commanding General of the Multi-National Force-Iraq.
Bush needed someone who could handle the major change in strategy the surge represented. General Petraeus was perfect because not only was he a distinguished West Point graduate (top 5% of the Class of 1974; ranked 43rd overall), he also held a Ph.D. in International Relations (earned in 1987) from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Bush knew he needed someone with diplomatic skills; a person who could think beyond the use of force. President Bush was confident that Petraeus could provide the time and create ocnditions conducive to reconciliation among political and ethnic factions. The major goals of this strategy were “to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind were capable of providing the security”.
In his Report to Congress on the Situation in Irag, delivered in September 2007, General Petraeus stated that because of the deployment of forces in counter-insurgency operations designed to protect Iraqi civilians, improving capabilities and ongoing expansion of the Irqi Army and police forces, significant losses inflicted on Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Iraqi insurgents, violence had been reduced significantly and that “fragil” and “reversible” improvements had been achieved. General Petraeus pointed to the “Anbar Awakening” in which Sunni leaders rejected insurgent leaders and formed the Sons of Iraq groups to defend themselves, and sectarian homogenization and physical hardening (barriers) between Baghdad neighborhoods. He also stated that he directly engaged Iraqi’s elected leaders to reduce intra-Shiite conflicts, such as those between al-Sadr and the Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.
By June of 2008, the surge had been declared a success of massive proportions by even the harshest critics speaking out against the war. Correspondents on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer state that “few would argue about he success of the so-called surge in Iraq”. The New York Times stated that “The surge, clearly, has worked, at least for now…The result, now visible in the streets, is a calm unlike any the country has seen since the American invasion.” Throughout it all, General Petraeus remained modest: “I don’t use terms like victory or defeat…I’m a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist. And, the reality is that there has been significant progress but there are still serious challenges.”
All modesty aside, General Petraeus has proven time and time again that resolve, coupled with proper planning, devotion to duty, and diplomacy are strategic commodities that are greater than any terrorist jihad. In September of 2008 General David H. Petraeus formally gave over his command in Iraq to General Raymond T. Odierno. For his efforts on behalf of the US in Iraq General Petraeus was awarded the Defense Distinguished service medal.
It was at this point that I began to correspond with General Petraeus. I felt very honored to communicate with him. I knew that he was a cousin of mine (from my father’s side of the family) and I was excited to contact him. While all US citizens have the right to question their leaders, very few are related to one (especially one that they admire!) As such, I was eager to seize the opportunity to get a more personalized glimpse into my cousin’s values and his ideas for the future our family and country.
So I sent General David Howell Petraeus an Email with a few questions out of curiosity. Of course it wasn’t as easy as I just made it sound. There was two days of haggling, questioning, answering, redirecting, automatic voice messaging, scrutinizing, begging, and all around frustration as I tried my darndest to get a hold of someone in the US military complex who knew what the heck I was talking about. Fortunately, even the US military could not hope to thwart me and my constant barrage of phone calls. I finally got hold of a nice lady named Heather at military command, and upon hearing of my relation to the General, she promptly sent him an email with my questions. I did not entirely expect an answer from him; and at the very least not within 3 weeks time. But to my absolute surprise he sent me an email the very next day, and was very happy and pleased that he was the subject of my questions. He answered many of my questions and I was thrilled. That’s when the thought hit me, why should I be the only one to benefit from his answers to my questions? “I should do an essay on the dear General” I said to myself, and that is when I started work on the finished product you see now.
People watch exposés on television to learn the down and gritty dirt on famous people they either admire or despise. As a society, it is only natural that we should want to hear General Petraeus’s most personal thoughts and ideas; and, that is exactly what he sent me in several emails. General Petraeus told me,
“I have come to appreciate that at its esssence, a leader’s job is to provide vision, set the right tone, and give energy to those around him or her.”
General Petraeus conveyed to me the importance of always striving to be a leader, not a follower. However, at the same time he also cautioned me that diplomacy was a necessary part of leadership. He told me, “Don’t be a leader just for the sake of being one. Be prepared to be wrong and alter your views and ways of thinking because not everyone is like you.” He went on to say, “I have found that different individuals and different groups respond to different leadership styles. A leader must be prepared to alter his (or her) approach to whatever group he is given the responsibility of leading. And as he does so, he must always remain loyal to himself and to the values he-and the unit and country her serves-hold dear.”
I am grateful for the thoughtful words and wisdom General Petraeus has shared. His have given me, and now all of you, a valuable life lesson. If I was to codify this lesson it would look something like this:
“Be prepared to fail; but like the phoenix, rise from the ashes
of you mistakes and become stronger because of them.
Be vigilant: head off problems before they start, and once in a while give yourself a break”
Another reason for writing General Petraeus was personal. As a cousin, I asked him for some words of advice and I wanted to know what i could do to succeeed. I told him I was starting college on a Running Start scholarship; that it was all new and confusing. General Petraeus told me to “Be active: acquire as many unique experiences as you can and hold them close.” He said to read the newspapers daily and be open to new ideas. I can do this by, “Seeking out new opportunities at school, by traveling, by participating in sports and other extracurricular activities, by finding some great teachers and role models who can help guide me, and by being open to learning from other’s experiences.” Most importantly, he told me I should remain loyal to myself; “Don’t change the way you live your life without good cause; don’t change on a whim.”
I consider General Petraeus to be exactly the type of important role model he says I should seek out. He, like my father, gives me a light to follow. In one of our correspondences General David Petraeus gave me these parting words, In terms of doing-you (Cory) must remember that everyone can make a difference every day, whether he is a student in high school or a senior leader in the Army. One’s tone, example, competence, energy, and vision will all matter to those around him, especially those who are privileged to lead or influence. And we should never forget that the one thing each of us can always control, every single day, is our individual attitude!”
I am glad I decided to write about General David Petraeus. His abilities as a leader have helped our country and the Iraqi people considerably. He truly is the foremost General of our time. General Petraeus is now a four star general! A poll recently conducted by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines selected Petraeus as one of the world’s top 100 public intellectuals; and, in 2007, Time named Petraeus one of the 100 most influential leaders and revolutionaries of the year; as well as one of its four runners up for Time Person of the Year.In 2008, Der Spiegel magazine voted General Petraeus “American’s most respected soldier”.
Recently, I asked our “most respected soldier” if he would share with me why he chose to join the military. His response provided insight into why the General is held in such high regard by myself and many others. He replied, “Because I subscribe to the values of our military and have found it to be a great privilege to serve with others who have raised their right hand and sworn the oath of enlistment or commissioning.” I also asked the General if had ever had a”moment of truth” situation where he felt the light bulb come on and then knew exactly what he needed to do? He answered, “I’d like to think that we generally had the right ideas on the conduct of counterinsurgency ideas for Iraq at the time of the surge.”
General Petraeus’s answers are significant to me because they reveal that he is humble. He understands that some are followers, and that some are leaders; but all of us are Americans. General Petraeus believes in his country and understands that “We the People” is not just a phrase. He understands that being part of something great is more important than personal glory. The us of the word “We” in General Petraeus’s response emphasizes his belief in the philosophy that a collective consciouseness can react with greater competency that a single individual. His message from the two quotes above is clear to me: a shared identity enables people to prtect, preserve, uphold, interpret and internalize the ideal of our constitution, and serves the needs of our allies more efficiently.
I admire General Petraeus, not only because he domonstrates his loyalty to his country; but, because he demonstrates his loyalty to his Howell heritage by his prompt and sincere desire to communicate and share his knowledge and wisdom with a distant cousing (me) even though he is indescribably busy. He always answers promptly within a day. He has shown me that being part of a family creates a special, powerful and more complete state of being that only happens because it transcends the needs and uncertainties of the individual by placing that individual in a state of collective consciousness, mutual beliefs and shared heritage.
Having questined General David Howell Petraeus, and having read his detailed, solid responses, I can say I would be proud to have my cousin run for President in 2012. I think he would work to install and renew a sense of family in our whole culture. However, while some news reports have speculated that Petraeus may have interest in runnin for the Presidency, the General has categorically stated that he has no political ambitions. I know he will follow his heart, and will chose to serve his country faithfully; no matter what the future brings. By: Corwin C. Mallonée.