In the lives of interesting people, there are bound to be interesting events. This is about one in the life of Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Gen. Petraeus of course will be all over television in September, reporting to Congress on the war, and America will be getting used to him. He is not in an easy position. The left and most Democrats are invested in the idea of Iraq as disaster. The right and most Republicans placed their bets on the president and the decision to invade.
Normal Americans just want Iraq handled. They want America to succeed: for the war to end in a way and time that prove if possible that the Iraq endeavor helped the world, or us, or didn’t make things worse for the world, or us. My hunch: The American people have concluded the war was a mistake, but know from their own lives that mistakes can be salvaged, and sometimes turned to good.
Whatever Gen. Petraeus says, it will be used politically, by politicians. “They’ll be trying to fit his round facts into their square holes,” as the novelist Tom Clancy, who has followed Gen. Petraeus’s career, put it.
But Gen. Petraeus is also in a good position. America is still open to good news that is also believable news. They will welcome hope that is grounded in data.
They have no faith in Republican boosterism or Democratic pandering. They’re tired of blowhardism on all fronts. But if Gen. Petraeus comports himself like what he is, a professional soldier, if he seems to be giving it to you straight, if he sounds as if he didn’t get rolled by the White House or pressured by the political atmosphere, if he seems to be thinking clearly, he can make a big and even decisive impression. And he will buy time.
I write as if we can guess what he will say, and to some degree we can, because he’s already said it in interviews: The job is not done and won’t be done for some time.
Gen. Petraeus graduated from West Point in 1974, 10th in his class, and his career has been the very model of the new Army: a master’s in public administration, Ph.D. in the lessons of Vietnam, a fellowship in foreign affairs at Georgetown. Wrote the book, literally, on counterterrorism. Ten months in Bosnia. Time in Kuwait. Fought in Iraq, in Karbala, Hilla and Najaf, and became known and admired for rebuilding and administrating Mosul. Academically credentialed, bureaucratically knowing, historically well read. Also highly quotable. Of his use of discretionary funds for public works in Mosul, he said, “Money is ammunition.” He is said to have asked embedded reporters after Baghdad fell, “Tell me where this ends.” That was the right question.
He is decisive. Which gets us to the interesting story.
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It happened on Sept. 21, 1991, when Gen. Petraeus was commanding the Third Battalion of the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Ky. He was at a live-fire training exercise. A soldier tripped on his M-16, and it discharged. The bullet hit Gen. Petraeus in the chest.
He was taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. A local surgeon got beeped and called in. He was told there was a Life Flight helicopter coming in with a guy with a gunshot wound to the chest. He was hemorrhaging.
The surgeon rushed to Vanderbilt and arrived before the helicopter. It landed, the elevator doors opened, and the surgeon saw a soldier on a gurney with a tube in his chest. A uniformed man was next to the patient, along with a nurse carrying bottles of blood draining from the wound.
Doctors at busy Vanderbilt hospital were used to treating gunshot wounds, and the fact that the patient was military was “a nonissue,” as the surgeon said the other day in a telephone interview.
What was an issue was that the patient had lost a lot of blood, was pale, and was losing more.
The surgeon had to decide whether to open Gen. Petraeus up right away or stabilize him. The general was conscious, so the surgeon said, “Listen, I gotta make a decision about whether to take you straight to surgery or stabilize you first, give you blood.”
Gen. Petraeus looked up at the surgeon and said, “Don’t waste any time. Get it done. Let’s get on with it.”
“That’s unusual”, the surgeon told me. “Usually patients want to stabilize, wait.” This one wanted to move.
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At this point I’ll note that the surgeon that day 16 years ago was Dr. Bill Frist, who later became Sen. Frist, and then Majority Leader Frist. He had never met Gen. Petraeus before.
Dr. Frist got Gen. Petraeus to the third-floor operating room, opened his chest, removed a flattened bullet that had torn through the top of a lung, stopped the hemorrhaging, took out part of a lung.
The operation was successful, and within 24 hours Gen. Petraeus asked Dr. Frist if he could be transferred back to the base hospital so his soldiers wouldn’t be too concerned. “As soon as he was stable, we got him over there. His soldiers were first and foremost in his mind. That’s why they like him so much.”
Gen. Petraeus, says Dr. Frist, now describes his wound to troops as damage done by a round “that went right through my right chest—happily over the ‘A’ in Petraeus rather than over the ‘A’ in U.S. Army, as the latter is over my heart.”
Over the years, Dr. Frist and Gen. Petraeus became friends. They found they’d both done graduate work at the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton, where Dr. Frist is about to return as a teacher. They ran the Army 10-miler in Washington together—”He left me in the dust!” exclaims the doctor—and the Frists spent time with Holly Petraeus when her husband was fighting in Baghdad.
The majority leader also visited Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, and wound up, three years ago, standing with him “on a hot, dusty compound” where the general was leading exercises training young Iraqi soldiers.
Mr. Frist says that after observing the young recruits carry out their exercises, Petraeus gathered them around and told them what happened on that fateful day in 1991. He introduced the senator and told them of the role he’d played. “He didn’t say we got the majority leader of the Senate here, he said, ‘This was my doctor.’” Why was he telling them the story? “The point was to tell them, ‘Listen, if you’re not perfect right now you can grow, you can make mistakes, people are forgiving, you’ll grow.’” The point was also to thank the soldiers at Fort Campbell who cared for them in the minutes after he was shot.
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What does it all mean? Life is interesting, mysterious, and has an unseen circularity. You never know in any given day what’s going to happen or who’s going to have a big impact on you and on others. A future military commander got shot, and a future leader of the Senate stopped the bleeding.
What Mr. Frist, a supporter of more time for and renewed commitment to Iraq, gets from the story is this: What he saw and heard that day 16 years ago, is what he’s seen from Gen. Petraeus in the years since: “straightforward decisiveness” and a “call for action with results.”