Greg Jaffe uses the recent McChrystal London-speech controversy to introduce some of the reporting and arguments in his new co-authored book, The Fourth Star. I finished the book this morning and eagerly recommend it, particularly to those without much familiarity with Army culture. Very much about the Army’s institutional flaws — its insular self-satisfaction; its difficulty with cultivating new ideas; its relentless careerism — is well-explained through Jaffe and partner David Cloud’s focus on the careers of four four-star generals: David Petraeus, Peter Chiarelli, John Abizaid and, especially, George Casey.

You should read — or, more importantly, buy — the book, but I read it for its treatment of Casey. Casey, the Army chief of staff, is an interesting case, particularly from the perspective of counterinsurgency. He’s a model of Army conventional thinking, although, as Jaffe and Cloud demonstrate, he’s had an uneasy and ambivalent relationship with the Army, particularly after losing his father, a two-star general killed in Vietnam. Casey, of course, came out of Iraq with his reputation publicly besmirched for presiding over a losing war, particularly after Petraeus — with whom he never had a warm relationship — emerged from Iraq as the most influential Army officer of his generation, and largely because he ripped up Casey’s playbook.

I tried to get Casey to talk to me for an installment of my “Rise of the Counterinsurgents” series, both to respond to the conventional wisdom that considers him a goat and Petraeus a hero; and to pierce the veneer a bit. After all, the Army has embraced counterinsurgency, more than at any time in its history, while Casey has been chief of staff. I still don’t have a good handle on how much he’s encouraged that change and how much he’s resisted it — even after reading The Fourth Star — because Casey has consistently declined to talk with me. I can say that both Petraeus and the current head of the Combined Arms Center, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, two leaders who’ve done the heavy lifting of getting the Army to accept the current concept of counterinsurgency-including “full spectrum operations,” have praised Casey to the high heavens to me, but who knows, maybe that’s just what you need to say to the press about your Chief. (More after the jump…)

The Fourth Star doesn’t clarify the question, opting instead to end rather abruptly, consigning the all-important question of the influence of Iraq on the Army to a somewhat thin epilogue. For a book ostensibly about exploring the modern Army through the prism of four leaders, that’s a flaw. But it does an estimable job of presenting Casey as a complex figure and not a caricature. “As a division commander in Kosovo, I would have said that if I can do conventional war, I can do anything else,” Casey is quoted as saying in the epilogue. “Now I know that isn’t true.”

To be contrarian for a moment, it actually might be. The Army’s counterinsurgency adoption came late in the Iraq war and at great cost. But looked at over the long view, the service ultimately did become as competent a counterinsurgency force as could be expected, given that learning curve. For all of the very-real career paths and incentives and confusion inclining the force toward conventional war, it’s instilled enough resilience, improvisation and versatility that, particularly, battalion commanders and lower-grade officers have found directly relevant. There’s an unfortunate tendency for outsiders to view changes in the military as possessing sharper corners than are actually in evidence, as if “A Failure of Generalship,” for instance, turned an Army of COIN skeptics into an Army of COINdinistas. That’s the sort of contention that helps writers on deadline, who get a data point for their narravies, and hurts their readers, who accordingly get a misleading picture.

Enough meandering. Read The Fourth Star. And then we’ll return to these questions.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman