The Odierno Way

So, it’s official — GEN David Petraeus is moving (upward?) to command CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) where he’ll be responsible for the overall strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. This despite the fact that the vast majority of his experience lies in Iraq, not Afghanistan, and the general non-true-believer consensus is that the fight in Afghanistan is where the focus of our operations will be.

Petraeus is a fairly brilliant guy, though, so I think the jury’s out on whether this will be harmful to our efforts in Afghanistan.

It’s the second part of that equation that I’m going to concern myself with here, and it’s this:

GEN Ray Odierno is going to be named Army vice chief of staff, and commander of Multinational Force-Iraq (MNF-I). Yes, that’s right: GEN Odierno’s taking over for GEN Petraeus. My eyes goggled when I saw that, because I served with GEN Odierno five years ago in Iraq, albeit several cake layers down in the muck, but that’s not the only reason.

There’s any number of reasons to be worried about the ascension of GEN Odierno to that post, but two come immediately to mind.

First, the man’s already done over a year in country serving under GEN Petraeus. Traditionally, what happens in the Army is that you rotate personnel between field and staff assignments, so that you don’t get stuck in a rut, and so that a fresh pair of eyes can look at your command decisions and reinforce the smart ones and (quietly) shelf the dumb ones. You get a break, the mission moves forward in a successful direction, everyone’s happy.

That’s not what’s happening here. Out of several dozen three- and four-star generals, are we to be told that Ray Odierno’s the only qualified guy to be running MNF-I? Really? I find that a bit specious.

That’s not the only reason to be concerned, though. You see, Ray Odierno has a bit of a reputation. Here’s what I want you to do: the next time you’re at a bookstore or library, pick up a copy of Tom Ricks’ Fiasco. Go to the index and look up Ray Odierno (when you do this and look for your name, it’s called a “Washington Read”, by the way. Now you know). Read all the passages where his name comes up.

What becomes fairly clear is that the man has one approach and only one approach to fighting the war in Iraq, and that is to be as forceful and hammer-like as humanly possible. You know it because you read it in the book; I know it because I lived it.

When I was in Iraq, my division, the 4th Infantry (M), had a well-earned reputation for being the roughest, toughest division in the country. We didn’t take any guff, and we approached the war the same way Sean Connery approached Capone’s thugs in The Untouchables: the Iraqis brought a mortar attack, we brought an artillery barrage; they put one of ours in the hospital, we put one of theirs in the morgue.

During my tour there, two of GEN Odierno’s commanders were reprimanded for excessive force. I served with one of them — he was my battalion commander. I can’t speak for the other one*, as I didn’t serve with him, but I can speak for mine.

My battalion commander, LTC S—-, was, by any consideration, a phenomenal man. He was a Heisman Trophy candidate and led West Point to its first bowl game victory in a couple of decades. He finished near the top of his class, and up until going to Iraq, well on his way to becoming a general officer.

Up until the day, that is, when a friend of ours died during a mortar attack.

I’m not going to go into more detail here (because it’s tangential), and I’m not going to excuse what he did afterwards. But what he did, he did because Ray Odierno encouraged it in word and in deed, and when the crap hit the fan, Ray Odierno essentially hung him out to dry, and wrecked his career, and that of others. He may not have a choice, but that’s no defense, and certainly no consolation.

I don’t have to go to war again, thankfully. If I had to, though, I wouldn’t hesitate, so long as it was with my old battalion commander. I can’t say the same about Ray Odierno.

Ray Odierno’s about to command a situation that demands every kind of attention save for the only kind he knows to provide. If the Senate’s smart, they’ll confirm Petraeus and demand anybody but Odierno command MNF-I.

*Huh — turns out the other one, COL Allen West (who famously shot his service sidearm next to a detainee’s head during an interrogation, thus earning him a one-way ticket out of command) is running for Congress as a Republican. Go figure! I’m now rooting for him to win, on the principle that if he does, the next House hearing with him and GEN Odierno (who also hung him out to dry) will be hillariously tense. As I said, I can’t speak to COL West, but I know if my battalion commander, LTC S—-, were in Congress and GEN Odierno were there…

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