Neil Shea

writer | photographer | story consultant

This story was commissioned by The Atlantic Monthly in August 2008. Photo: American soldiers patrol Baghdad in early 2006.

Stacking The Decks

General Peter Chiarelli and the Army of the Future

Sometime before his first tour of duty in Iraq, then-Major General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, decided he would do things differently. It was late 2003, and his division, the largest and heaviest in the army, 17,000 soldiers and their fleets of tanks, trucks, and helicopters, was slated to take command of Baghdad. Chiarelli had closely watched the invasion and what came after. A kind of chaos washed into the streets. Looting, revenge killings, silences that swallowed Iraqi goodwill. It was a fluid, dangerous time.

Chiarelli understood his soldiers would need to think a lot about work that had nothing to do with combat. So, with advice from commanders in Iraq, he prepared his officers for Baghdad by sending them to Austin, Texas, a city about the same size as the Iraqi capital and near to the 1st CAV’s base at Ft. Hood. They studied garbage collection, learned about electricity and water distribution. He sent young lieutenants and captains to city council meetings. And then some of Chiarelli’s soldiers flew to Jordan for crash courses in Arab culture, to see just how different their world would become.

Soon the 1st CAV was running Baghdad and encountering fierce resistance. An insurgency was forming, militias were gathering. Chiarelli’s troops countered, in part, with urban planning. They sent “shit sucker” trucks to slurp away the raw sewage congealing in the streets. They funneled money to local government, steered lucrative contracts to Iraqi companies. When 1st CAV troops were not fighting they tried rebooting a nation by becoming, one officer told me, like Swiss Army knives—good for many uses. Hardly a standard approach for a division built to blast toward victory with tanks. But the efforts won a measure of calm in some of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods, and today Chiarelli is often described as one of the first who “got it right” in Iraq.

In August 2008, Chiarelli became Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, a job something like that of a chief operating officer. As a four-star general, one of about a dozen in the army, he occupies exclusive territory but is not particularly well-known. The timing of his appointment means he and his perspective will remain well into the new presidential administration. Most importantly, Chiarelli arrives as the strategies he used in Iraq are ascendant, and the army is changing the way it views war.

Recently I asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates why Chiarelli had been chosen for that job, rather than, say, another combat command. Gates said he was preparing for the wars of the future, which he believes may look a lot like the wars of today.

“My understanding coming into the job was that we needed to find a way to institutionalize what we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “What I’ve tried to do is create a constellation of people who are going to be a significant influence in the army for years to come.”

“Pete is a great influence.”

In the year and a half before he became Vice Chief, Chiarelli worked alongside Gates as his military advisor. He spent more time with the secretary, accompanying him on tours of the sun burnt bases, on trips to deliver speeches, than any other officer. More time than the President. The two shared similar perspectives, and soon some soldiers noticed Gates was beginning to sound a lot like Chiarelli.

In a speech in July, Gates outlined the issues Chiarelli was promoted, in part, to address. Gates said the military could no longer rely solely on its ability to deliver violence. If preemptive or preventive war against enemy nations had become fixed policies during the last eight years, Gates said preemption must also apply to people and ideas. We must engage people before they become hardened enemies. “We cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” he said. Victory would require stepping into roles the military—and particularly the army, as the largest branch—has not wanted.

“What the Pentagon calls “kinetic” (deadly) operations should be subordinate to measures to promote participation in government, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies,” Gates said.

“It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideology.”

Gates’ words echoed what Peter Chiarelli had been writing in military journals and occasionally saying in interviews for several years. The fact he had been saying it at all is perhaps surprising. By his own account, Chiarelli spent most of the last three decades “preparing to win our Nation’s wars on the plains of Europe.” He envisioned “large, sweeping formations” shuddering across battlefields like game boards against Soviet armies. Tanks searching for “points of penetration,” destroying columns of troops by precise percentages until the enemy, realizing the inevitable, surrendered. In Iraq, the enemy did not surrender after reaching reasonable conclusions. Suicide bombers and jihadis followed an alien logic, if they used logic at all.

But the Cold War path to victory was so thoroughly tread into officers’ minds that when the army charged into Afghanistan and Iraq, many weren’t able to veer from it onto the new landscape of war. Chiarelli made the transition. In trying to account for his break with years of indoctrination, officers and civilian analysts said Chiarelli was unusual and flexible for the same reason he will excel as Vice Chief: because he’s a detail-oriented intellectual. The description was used so often it seemed a piece of army lore, pulled from a common script.

The word intellectual is also hoisted onto General David Petraeus, who will soon leave his much-lauded command in Iraq to lead the army’s Central Command, which oversees all operations in the Middle East. As four-star generals who will work closely for several years, Petraeus and Chiarelli share some traits. Both men in are in their late 50’s, at the apex of distinguished careers. Both spent many years as post-graduate students while serving in the army. Each holds a Masters’ degree in Public Administration (Petraeus also has a Ph.D. in international relations). Early in their careers, both taught international relations and other subjects at West Point and both have published scholarly papers in respected military journals.

In other ways the men are very different. Chiarelli, who is from Seattle, received his bachelor’s degree from Seattle University. Petraeus, who is from Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, attended West Point. Petraeus’ habit of being highly organized and competitive, sometimes challenging his soldiers to long runs or push-up contests, contrasts sharply with the picture of Chiarelli, who was chided in Iraq by subordinates for not getting enough sleep or exercise, and for staying up past midnight answering emails from officers. Where Petraeus is well-known, a kind of military celebrity, Chiarelli is hardly a house-hold name. When I asked one retired officer to contrast the men he said flatly “You’ll see a lot more in print about Petraeus than you will about Chiarelli.”

Chiarelli also possesses an unusual charisma, and other qualities not usually associated with intellectualism. His sense of humor has a relaxing effect; he has the affability of a football fan whose team is doing well. A combat analyst told me of his first meeting with Chiarelli, back in the mid-1990s. “When I walked into his office he gave me a bear hug,” the officer said. “Chiarelli’s a big guy, he’s 6-foot something. He’s intimidating. But it put me at ease. It wasn’t expected.”

“Our intellectuals are strategic thinkers,” said retired General Eric Shinseki, a mentor of Chiarelli’s and former Chief of Staff of the Army. “There’s no wonkish look about them.” Military intellectuals share an ability to think creatively within the sometimes rigid cage of military culture. When necessary, they are also able to escape the cage completely.

“I think intellectually Peter is one of our better officers,” Shinseki said. “But he doesn’t pound the table about it.”

During his first tour in Iraq, Chiarelli championed “full spectrum operations.” Full spectrum ops imagines military action along a continuum, with large-scale conventional and nuclear war on the far right and non-combat operations—say, something like flood relief—at the far left. Each type of mission on the spectrum, whether handing out food in Haiti, tracking Taliban in Afghanistan, or dealing with a resurgent Russia, requires a mix of skills and a ratio of force. In some situations the army might go on offense; in some it might concentrate on defense. And at other times the army might be required to focus on what is called stability operations, projects that work toward calming volatile areas, winning hearts and minds. Stability ops are to the left on the spectrum. Many of the things included in them could also be considered nation-building, the loaded phrase that summons visions of endless, expensive operations, black holes that drain resources, manpower and public will.

Iraq is not a traditional war, but it certainly isn’t New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, either. It requires a mix of offense, defense, and stability ops. The problem, at the beginning, was that the military considered offensive and defensive capabilities more important. Chiarelli bucked that by putting his finger somewhere middle-left on the spectrum and saying “this is what we need to do.” It involved non-combat tasks the army had considered almost exclusively in theory, without much real-world training for the soldiers who would perform them.

This is why Chiarelli sent his officers to Austin; they had no solid model for putting the broken capital of a shattered nation back together. A Humpty-Dumpty problem. At the start of the wars, even at the start of President Bush’s Global War on Terror, the army wasn’t well prepared for what it was stepping into. This is somewhat ironic, because the army has always done stability ops – from rebuilding Germany after World War II to peacekeeping in Kosovo, Haiti, and Mogadishu. Still, after each brush with such activities, the army has pulled back to its comfort zone on the right end of the spectrum, preparing to fight the big one with high-technology and ground troops against an enemy that looks like the Soviet Union.

At the beginning of April 2004, the 1st CAV arrived to take over Baghdad from the 1st Armored Division, lead by Martin Dempsey, a friend of Chiarelli’s who had warned him about what he would need to prepare for. Suddenly Shiite militias in Baghdad’s Sadr City rose up, hammering U.S. troops. The first test of Chiarelli’s command. He remembers the details, seven men killed that first day, the Apache helicopter shot down not long after. His “kids” and the letters he’d write to their grieving parents. A ceasefire temporarily calmed the city, and Chiarelli’s officers plotted the spots where they’d been hit hardest on maps of Sadr City’s neighborhoods. Overlaying layers of data, they saw that insurgent attacks flared where Iraqis lived in squalor, where electricity barely flickered, uncollected garbage festered in the sun, and sewage pooled in the streets. Insurgents were exploiting the rot. They stoked anger and fear, recruiting support from families who, through their shattered windows, saw only a landscape of ruin.

The link seemed clear: people living in hopeless conditions have more reason, any reason, to fight. So Chiarelli attacked the ruin. It was a time of wildly varied approaches. Some commanders responded to violence with more violence. They tightened their grip, increased kills and captures, using tactics that often backfired. While many ignored or dismissed spreading unrest, including highly placed civilians like then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his assistant, Paul Wolfowitz, Chiarelli tried applying remedies.

“It really required a significant mind shift for the leadership in the 1st CAV division,” said Brigadier General Kendall Cox. “Your natural tendency was, ‘we’re at war.’ That was absolutely not Chiarelli’s focus.”

Cox, an officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, worked closely with Chiarelli in Iraq. He became a liaison between the military command and other groups responsible for development projects, such as the wobbly Iraqi government and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Chiarelli decided he needed to “plug a gap” by using things intrinsic to the army, such as manpower and money, to help those smaller, unarmed and understaffed groups accomplish what they couldn’t do on their own. James “Spike” Stephenson, a career foreign service officer who headed USAID while the 1st CAV controlled Baghdad, found a partner in Chiarelli and the two accomplished much, but almost in spite of the system. “The Coalition Provisional Authority (which was in charge of Iraq at the time) was the most Kafkaesque, bizarre organization I ever experienced,” Stephenson told me in an email. For his part, Chiarelli realized the army was the only player capable of doing what the CPA was failing at–the complicated work of stabilizing Baghdad and the rest of the nation.

Chiarelli targeted “fence sitters,” Iraqis who had not yet decided which side to support. “We had to reach out and convince them that our efforts were to help the Iraqi people,” Cox said. Chiarelli sent photos of Baghdad to his mentor, Eric Shinseki. One showed a small girl sitting in a slick of sewage. The photos were graphic examples of problems Chiarelli was determined to address. “He said, ‘This is why we’re here. If we don’t influence this, it’ll be a long mission,” Shinseki remembered. “There was one photo that even said something like ‘1st CAV OK’, which some youngster had scribbled on a wall. He was proud of that.” It was a sign of progress, but an increasingly rare sentiment. And it would become a very long mission indeed.

Chiarelli did not see his strategy simply as altruism or charity, but work that saved his troops’ lives. In Baghdad, the increase in public projects and jobs corresponded with a drop in violence. The young captains and lieutenants, who had hated attending boring city council meetings in Texas, came back and said the experience had been incredibly valuable as they tried planting democracy and helping Baghdad’s residents run their own affairs.

The achievements were fragile. Several officers told me Chiarelli wasn’t always supported by higher commanders. Cox lamented that some projects collapsed soon after the 1st CAV handed Baghdad off to a new unit with a different philosophy in early 2005. “A lot of the things we put in place basically got a cursory look but it was not the focus,” he said. “I personally feel that set us back by at least a year.”

Chiarelli’s methods were similar to those used by a few other commanders, including David Petraeus. Today Petraeus is permanently linked to the “surge,” but he enjoyed early acclaim in Mosul, north of Baghdad, by relying on a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic tactics, including economic development and security, things aimed at resolving Iraqi doubts and fears.

“They were the first two notable guys who did well with counterinsurgency strategies,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies the military and foreign policy. “Chiarelli every bit as much as Petraeus, with this remarkable focus on the economy.”

Both men seemed to understand that Iraq was becoming a battlefield of ideas and perception, that guns alone would never remove the despair and fury fueling the violence. Extensive reporting on this period shows that other military commanders and civilian leaders were not on the same page. Some two years would pass before the lessons of Baghdad and Mosul sank deeply into the minds running the war.

George W. Bush ran his first campaign for president on a platform that denounced nation-building. Then he awkwardly, ominously, began to do just that, in two countries. From the start the Bush administration decided, without really deciding at all, that U.S. interests lay in stabilizing failed states. So far it has not worked very well. But on October 6, the Army released a new field manual that explicitly discusses full spectrum ops and codifies the approaches of commanders like Chiarelli. In other words, the army has embraced nation-building. The new manual—canon for the army’s mid- and high-level officers—installs stability ops as co-equal with offensive and defensive abilities. In a way, the army has stopped waiting for the government. Now it will prepare to stabilize and build nations just as well as it blows things up.

“We can’t go into another Iraq or Afghanistan without a plan about how we’re gonna secure the peace,” said Lt. General William Caldwell IV, commander of the Army Combined Arms Center, which created the new manual. “In Iraq, there were challenges right after the invasion. We just didn’t have in our military systems the resources to take on stability operations in full force. Not at all. Everybody had always sort of planned for someone else to do it.”

Caldwell served under Chiarelli in Iraq in 2006, when Chiarelli returned for a second tour and commanded all coalition ground troops. Now at the CAC, Caldwell heads a command that includes more than a dozen army schools and training centers. The CAC calls itself the army’s academic center; before Caldwell, it was run by David Petraeus. Caldwell says stability ops are now part of doctrine, the intellectual DNA that informs how soldiers see the world and make decisions.

Of course, not everyone in the army is pleased with the changes. In 1999, under then-Chief of Staff Shinseki, the army began a complicated, painful transformation to become more agile, more high-tech, and to exorcise the Cold War ghosts that still haunted strategic thinking. In recent years not only has the army wrestled with Rumsfeld—who disagreed with Shinseki and scorched the halls of the Pentagon with his own ideas about transformation—but the current wars have pushed it to keep changing. First the army realized it needed to get better at counterinsurgency; the ascension of stability ops will now require even more. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has watched army transformation for many years. He says there is danger in constant change.

“Ironically, this is a period when the army has so many mini-revolutions going on simultaneously that it’s hard to keep track of all of them. I would just rather see some of this slow down,” he said “Consolidate, learn certain lessons, save money. I’m not as comfortable being as revolutionary as the army seems to want to be right now. I think they’re overcompensating.”

As the army shifts to the left on the spectrum of operations, away from its comfort zone, some argue that committing to stability ops will spread the army too thin, ask too much of young soldiers. Others believe it hurts the army’s ability to dominate conventional wars. Colonel Gian Gentile, an Iraq veteran and military historian at West Point, has been among the voices warning that too much focus on counterinsurgency and stability degrades the army’s core abilities. “The danger in full spectrum ops is that it doesn’t force the army to make hard choices with limited resources,” he said. “I think that as an operational concept it is dangerous, especially in light of watching what the Russians did to the Georgian army a few weeks ago.”

Gentile points to a cautionary paper written by three colonels who commanded brigade combat teams in Iraq. In the paper they warned that the army’s ability to handle complex artillery operations has eroded in recent years, especially as artillery soldiers have been grafted into jobs they were not designed for, like kicking down doors in sweltering Iraqi cities.

Austin Long, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who studies counterinsurgency, said that by embracing the full spectrum the army is, in a way, agreeing that it will become good at everything. He said that exalting the approach Chiarelli used in Iraq—focusing on SWEAT, or sewer, water, electricity, and trash—is too simple, perhaps even ephemeral. And it doesn’t consider the hazards Gentile described.

“It’s this impossible dream—to have the army hand out blankets and fight high intensity wars. Unless you think we’re gonna do Iraq over and over again, I’m not sure it’s worth the costly change, even if you can make the change,” Long said.

“Can we lose some of our conventional ability to get better at other things? Well, I think that’s a discussion we need to have and we’re not having.”

At Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, home of the Combined Arms Center, Lt. General Caldwell said his latest class is filled with over 1,000 mid-level officers, most of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. They have asked the same questions as Long and Gentile. Caldwell said he isn’t worried. The details in full-spectrum operations are all connected, he said, and good training–whether for stability ops or conventional battle–develops skills that can be applied to all kinds of missions.

“You need to be thinking about all these things no matter what the conflict is,” Caldwell said. “We have never lost a battle in Iraq. But we haven’t won the peace yet. Why is that? Because it takes far more than military force. We can either ignore it and be faced with the same challenges that we face now, or we can accept it and understand that the army is gonna be called upon to do these things for the foreseeable future.”

Tradeoffs are part of military evolution. And since the military is a tool of national power, it reflects the nation’s fears and its desires. The problem is that the nation does not know what it wants to be, or really, what it should fear. Questions of broader strategy, of the U.S. role in international affairs, have largely been left to political elites, who dump many of them on the military. The immediacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so consumed—and dulled—the public’s attention that it no longer pays attention, and so another question arises: is the new focus on full spectrum ops—trying to be good at everything, ready for everything—really just the scattershot strategy of a nation adrift?

Chiarelli recognized the problem of a national lack of focus in a 2007 paper he co-wrote in the journal Military Review. He called for a “brutal assessment” of U.S. policies, and, by extension, the ideas giving them shape.

“The U.S. as a Nation—and indeed most of the U.S. Government—has not gone to war since 9/11,” he wrote. “Instead, the departments of Defense and State (as much as their modern capabilities allow) and the Central Intelligence Agency are at war while the American people and most of the other institutions of national power have largely gone about their normal business.”

When I asked him whether the army’s shift to embrace nation building was the right response to a vague national strategy, Chiarelli said “I’m not sure we have an option at this point.” He worried there was a danger the army would attempt to excel at too many things, and, in the process, become not very good at anything.

“We are seven years into this conflict that we are predicting will not end anytime soon,” he said. “The Army has had to adapt to the environment by embracing tasks that are probably better suited to others … yet we are executing. I’d say we need a ‘whole of government’ approach to the changing nature of conflict.”

On September 11th, 2001, Chiarelli was at work in the Pentagon when hijackers slammed an airliner into it. He had been brought into a job in the building only a few weeks before, at the behest of then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki. Today, Chiarelli’s new office overlooks the steel benches and slender, light-washed reflecting pools of a memorial to those who died in the attack. Not far away is the office of his boss, current Army Chief of Staff General George Casey.

As Vice Chief, Chiarelli will serve under Casey, the army’s highest ranking officer. Both jobs are essentially bureaucratic. If Chiarelli is the chief operating officer, Casey is the the CEO. While Casey thinks big picture, imagining the army of the future, laying out wide-ranging plans, and reporting to the President as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chiarelli will help implement Casey’s vision. He will also handle whatever Casey doesn’t want to do. There will be a lot of anniversary events, speeches at bases, obscure ceremonies. Dinners. Long days and a buzzing Blackberry. Shinseki, who served in both positions, recalled recently that “the Chief’s job is very rewarding. The Vice Chief, that was just hard.” 

Chiarelli’s most important duties will concern the “care and feeding” of the army. He will juggle the day-to-day tasks of assembling budgets, planning troop rotations, and ensuring commanders in the field get what they need to continue the enervating business of fighting two wars. He is also likely to influence such things as the Quadrennial Defense Review, a massive report which every four years scrutinizes and guides the nation’s defense strategy, and army budgets. Chiarelli will help decide funding requests and where the money goes. These roles mean Chiarelli will have a hand on the wheel during a sensitive time for the army, as the new president settles in with new policies and desires. It will also mean the changes that Chiarelli and like-minded officers are trying to make do not shrivel from lack of funds.

The Chief and Vice Chief work closely, and Casey and Chiarelli have done so before in similar capacities. In 2006, when Casey was the top American commander in Iraq, Chiarelli was number two. Through much of that year, Iraq was disintegrating. Al Qaeda brutally exploited divisions between Sunnis and Shiites, and Shiite militias exacted horrible revenge. The generals did not always see eye to eye; at times their strategies seemed divergent. Casey spent much of his command preparing for troop draw-downs and security handovers to Iraqi forces. His plans envisioned decreased American involvement in Iraq. Chiarelli was carrying out Casey’s orders while pushing economic and development projects like the ones that worked for him during his first tour. A retired officer told me Chiarelli’s efforts were hampered because commanders above him were saying “we’re not going to get into any long term projects because we’re gonna be outta here.”

Some of Casey’s work, and his vision of a short U.S. timeline in Iraq, was reversed when he left command in Iraq in early 2007. David Petraeus and the surge replaced him. “Casey always thought that what we needed to do was get ourselves out,” Michael O’Hanlon said. “I think that became less and less probable as things went on.” Casey returned home to a promotion—President Bush recommended he become Chief of Staff—but also to a nation looking for someone to blame. At Senate confirmation hearings it seemed Senator John McCain had chosen Casey to shoulder most of it.

“I question seriously the judgment that was employed in your execution of your responsibilities in Iraq,” McCain said. “And we have paid a very, very heavy price in American blood and treasure because of what is now agreed to by literally everyone as a failed policy.”

McCain voted against him but Casey was confirmed as Chief of Staff by a large margin (Barack Obama voted for him). McCain’s attack seemed shallow; mostly political bluster. Generals don’t make “policy.” It is impossible to blame Casey for years of decisions, including ones McCain supported, that lead to the chaos of 2006. One civilian who worked in the Green Zone at the time said “The feeling was that Casey was given a bag of shit with holes in it, and then he was told to walk across the room.” Still, recent revelations in Bob Woodward’s new book, The War Within, show that even President Bush privately began losing confidence in Casey during that year—though he still apparently believed his own decisions were solid.

Chiarelli seems mostly immune to political chills and roasts like the ones Casey has endured, though he hasn’t avoided criticism. Some soldiers thought he was too detail-obsessed, too focused on infrastructure and oblivious, or unwilling, to recognize the reality of civil war while he was in command in Baghdad. “While he and Casey were running things, the scene here was quite a horror show,” one sergeant who served under them in the Green Zone told me. “If I could ask Chiarelli a question, it would probably be something along the lines of ‘what the hell were you thinking?’”  In some corners Chiarelli’s record is seen as workman-like but lacking creativity, his temperament seen as friendly but not particularly dynamic. It is perhaps part of the reason why he appears less in the press than peers like David Petraeus. Another Iraq veteran reflected a common opinion of Chiarelli in an email: “My sense is that he won’t stray too far from the reservation.”

In August, Robert Gates gave the Chief of Staff his vote of confidence “Casey gets it,” he said. He described Casey as one of the minds helping change the army, a man whose experience in Iraq led him to recognize the need for new doctrine. Most officers retire at age 64 or earlier, and Casey, who is 60 and half-way through a four-year term, is unlikely to take another army job. Chiarelli, 57, may yet move on––several Vice Chiefs, including Shinseki and Casey himself, have risen from that office to higher commands. In the meantime Casey has called the army “out of balance” after the strains of Iraq and Afghanistan and said it will take years to recover. Chiarelli agrees, and it is, after all, his job to stay on Casey’s reservation. The two must now define equilibrium and decide how to achieve it.

Without guidance from civilian leaders the task will be difficult. The new administration’s need to focus on big questions looming over Iraq and Afghanistan—do we pull troops from one war and inject them into the other? What is victory?—make it unlikely Chiarelli’s “whole of government approach” to conflict will develop. There will probably not be an attempt to craft broad, bold national strategies, either, or jump start a discussion of the nation’s role in the world. But already, with its commitment to new doctrine, the military has shown it will make some of these decisions on its own.

“The U.S. cannot assume that it will be able to retreat from other nations’ problems for very long,” Chiarelli wrote in his 2007 paper. “At some point in the not-too-distant future, our national interests may require us to engage in situations even more complicated than the ones we face today.”

Gates, who has served in many positions under seven presidents—and who may be asked by the new president to remain in his job—has been preparing for that complexity. Speaking by phone from a plane as he traveled home from Canada recently, he checked his way down mental lists. He named future challenges: failing states, internal conflicts spilling past their borders; insurgencies; humanitarian disasters. Then he named his team of top generals and the positions from which they will face those challenges. General David Petraeus taking charge of Central Command. General Martin Dempsey (who advised Chiarelli before Chiarelli first went to Baghdad) running the training and doctrine command responsible for planting army ideas in every soldier. And then Peter Chiarelli, as Vice Chief, with his hands on army budgets.

“You’ve got the people in place—money, combat, doctrine,” Gates said.

It is that constellation of leaders he spoke of, the guiding lights in the firmament. The men respected for their combat experience and their similar vision. Together, they might make the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq hold. It was clear that Gates, who speaks in public much like Chiarelli does in private, considered Chiarelli an important influence, one that would last.

“That’s the way you do this for the long term. In my view—I’ve done this long enough—you’ve got to get people in there or else it evaporates.”

Gates was looking beyond his tenure, to a time when the army would be considered a monument to the success of his team, or the artifact of its failure. I asked if he was stacking the decks. Gates laughed.

“I’m doing what I can.”