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Petraeus in 2003: "Tell Me How This Ends" -- and He Still Doesn't Know

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What will end up being the most famous quote of the Iraq war? Remember, Bush did not actually say "Mission Accomplished." Perhaps Cheney's "final throes" will win the prize. . But increasingly, as the significance of Gen. David Petraeus grows (seemingly by the minute), I have come to believe that it might up being his once-obscure 2003 remark: "Tell me how this ends." It was cited again today by Andrew Bacevich in his New York Times op-ed contribution.

Petraeus said that when he was a Major General directing the 101st Airborne during the U.S. invasion but it's clear that today he has no more of a clue to the answer than he did five years ago.

Who did he say the five words to? The lucky recipient was Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post and military historian. It shows up in in Atkinson's book about the attack on Iraq, In the Company of Soldiers, which featured Maj. Gen. Petraeus as a key character. I recommend the book for its portrait of Petraeus as a media-friendly, but somewhat scary (in his focus and drive) character.

When I interviewed Atkinson about it (there's a chapter about it in my new book on Iraq and the media), he said he considered the Petraeus quote a "private joke" at the time, but it soon became the general's "mantra."

In the post-invasion epilogue for his book, Atkinson speaks frankly. Petraeus and his soldiers had performed well, taking relatively few casualties, and showing both restraint and courage in battle. But they "were better than the cause they served." It was "vital not to conflate the warriors with the war." The casus belli f or the war, that Iraq posed an imminent threat to America, "was inflated and perhaps fraudulent." And if "the war's predicate was phony, it cheapened the sacrifices of the dead and living alike."

So I asked Atkinson in 2004 whether he felt the book was somewhat hollow, documenting the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Did he have mixed feelings about his own effort? "There's nothing mixed about it at all," he fired back. "I was against the war before, during, and after it. I have no mixed feelings about the hundreds of dead soldiers--it was a poor use of their lives. I was certain last March that we as a nation had not done all we could to make sure lives were not lost, but I'm dogmatic about it now."

As a scholar of World War II, with popular books on that to his credit, the lesson he draws is "that if you're going to fight a global war, whether it's against the Axis in the 1940s or against terrorism today, nothing is more vital than nurturing a powerful, righteous coalition." Failing to do this has placed a tragically unfair burden on our military. "They took down a country the size of California in three weeks," he pointed out, "but there was not much thought devoted to the question of what happens next. It's astonishing how little thought was given."

But what about the argument that leaving Iraq now would dishonor the soldiers who have died so far? "It's not George Bush's military," he replied, "but the country's as a whole, and the collective proprietorship means we collectively decide if it is used properly and the cause is worth their sacrifice--and whether that cause should be truncated or we stay there forever."

Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.It includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joe Galloway, and has been hailed by our own Arianna, Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald and others.

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