Petraeus: Conflict Requires Strong Strategic Leadership

Petraeus: Conflict Requires Strong Strategic Leadership

book cover and headshot of David Petraeus
Photo by: David Hume Kennerly & AUSA

In his new book, retired Gen. David Petraeus explores the evolution of selected conflicts between World War II and the ongoing fights in Ukraine and Gaza and lays out the importance of military strategic leadership.

During a webinar hosted May 9 by the Association of the U.S. Army as part of its Noon Report series, Petraeus points out that conflict begins with political strategic leadership that must be executed with strong military strategic leadership, beginning with four tasks.

“First, you have to get the big ideas right, you have to craft the right strategy, you have to really understand the context,” Petraeus said, explaining that the context is what is present in your own forces, enemy forces, in human and physical terrain and the elements of society and neighborhoods.

Next, the strategy’s big ideas must be communicated throughout an organization and to others who have a stake in the outcome of the conflict. Once the big idea is communicated, a strategic leader must oversee its implementation.

“This is what we think of often as leadership,” he said. “The leader provides the energy, the inspiration, attracting great people, hanging on to them as long as you can, developing them, allowing those not measuring up to move on to something else. It’s the organizational architecture that you design.”

The fourth task, which is to identify how the big ideas need to be refined once they’re implemented, is informed through battlefield circulation by any means possible to get an ear to the ground across the entire battlespace.

Co-written with British historian Andrew Roberts, Petraeus said that the idea for the book, Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine, came about when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The authors sought to provide military historical context for the conflict, he said.

A just-completed second edition adds a chapter on the conflict in Gaza, he said.

In addition to revisiting the Vietnam War, which was the subject of his doctoral dissertation, Petraeus said he also was “keen to find a vehicle in which I could recount my perspective of the war in Iraq and then war in Afghanistan, having commanded both of those and having done Iraq as a two-star, three-star, four-star and then [U.S. Central Command] and later as Central Intelligence Agency director.”