tv The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations PBS November 12, 2017 6:00pm-6:31pm PST
[♪] there were two incidents where you almost lost your life. an m16 round went through my chest, and-- so luckily it went over the a in "petraeus" rather than the a in "army." and to get out of the hospital-- they didn't want you to leave that soon. you showed you could do pushups. you did 50 pushups. it's the only time i ever stopped at 50. no, i mean-- heh. [audience laughs] you had never before had people working for you directly who were killed in combat. it's a chilling experience. president obama calls you into the oval office... if the president calls on you and asks you to do something, i think you do it. woman: will you fix your tie, please? well, people wouldn't recognize me if my tie was fixed, but okay. just leave it this way. woman: and, david-- all right. [♪] [david reading onscreen text]
david: i began to take on the life of being an interviewer even though i had a day job of running a private equity firm. [david reading onscreen text] [inaudible dialogue] david: general, thank you very much for coming. pleasure. thanks. great to be with you. now, you served our country very honorably for quite a while in government. we're gonna talk about that. but now you're in something that i consider a higher calling of mankind, private equity. [all laugh] how do you compare being in the military and leading troops to private equity? well, i'm not sure i would agree wholeheartedly with that. although i feel very privileged to be in the private equity business and also to be active in academia, in speaking, with startups and so forth. i think it's pretty hard to top the extraordinary privilege of serving one's country in uniform, particularly if you're leading our soldiers, sailors,
airmen, marines in combat. you're very famous for staying in shape. now, you told me this morning you already exercised an hour and a half this morning. i do an hour and a half a year if i'm lucky. but-- we can talk. so-- you're living in new york right now. when you're in new york, you run around central park every-- yeah. how hard is that? six point two miles actually. and do people recognize you, and they say--? not as much when you're running. if you wear sunglasses and a hat, you can generally run unimpeded and unrecognized. folks are very kind to me walking the streets. can i actually just ask though if the veterans in this audience would please stand up so that we can recognize you and thank you for what you've done for our country while in uniform? veterans. thank you very much. [all applauding] okay. okay. now, david... david, i have often said
that those who have served, particularly the post-9/11 generation, all of whom are volunteers, all raised their right hand, took an oath at a time of war, knowing that they would likely be asked to deploy to a combat zone. and i've described them as america's new greatest generation, something that actually tom brokaw shouted in my ears after he saw our soldiers in the first year in iraq when i was privileged to be the commander of the 101st airborne division up in mosul, and he saw all that they were doing, the myriad tasks. everything from combat to helping rebuild cities that had been damaged during the war, looting or... all of these different tasks. and he said, "you know, that world war ii crowd was the greatest generation, but surely the young men and women we've seen today are america's new greatest generation." and i very much believe in that. all right. well, let's talk about how you came into the military. your father was a dutch sea captain. petraeus: yes. uh-huh. david: and he met your mother who was from brooklyn. petraeus: yup.
david: and they met at a church service or church social. petraeus: yup, mm-hm. yup. david: and he later stayed here during world war ii yes. and became a commander of a u.s. merchant marine ship. during the war he sailed with the u.s. merchant marine. long war. because they all signed on, i think it was in '39, when the nazis overran holland, they couldn't go-- their ship couldn't go back to rotterdam, so they came to the united states. so you grew up in new york city or...? no, about 50 miles north of here. about seven miles north of west point, in fact. i could actually run home from west point, to and from. david: so when you were growing up, you... what was your nickname growing up? petraeus: peaches. i-- an announcer at the little league game couldn't pronounce it. the first time i came to bat as a 9-year-old, i said: [stuttering] "peaches," and that sort of stuck. and that followed me for quite a-- all the way through my time at west point, in fact. there was a woman in-- or a girl at the laundry who had been a high school friend of mine doing that as a summer job, and she would send me notes in the laundry
that you'd send to and from every week. and some upperclassman opened it up, and, you know, it said: "dear peaches," and so... so it stuck on you. it jumped to west point. it jumped the air gap to west point. how did you get an appointment to west point? you seemed you were qualified. good athlete, i assume a good scholar, but somebody has to call a member of congress to get you in. well, you just make an application, you, you know, write your congressman, and the congressman nominates you and-- i mean, it's obviously a competitive process. suppose you hadn't gotten in, where would you have gone? colgate. i had a full ride there for soccer and academics. david: ever thought how your life would be different had you gone there? petraeus: not only did i think about it, i almost-- at the end of two years, at west point we had this spectacular summer where i was up in alaska mountain climbing, glaciers, rivers and so forth, first in a training course, then with an actual unit. so this was our summer training. and then i went down to los angeles, and a friend of mine who lived in the hills out-- over there looking over in los angeles, and... had such an extraordinary experience.
i decided, you know: "should i really go back to west point for the remaining years, or should i enjoy more of this?" in the end, i went back, obviously. at west point did you play on the soccer team? i was on soccer team and a skier. you also were a scholar, graduated near the top of your class. so when you graduated, did you decide you wanted to make the military your career? i just wasn't sure, i think. you know, it's... i-- what was interesting is of all things at west point, i was in the premed program, and i just-- i love that particular body of academic inquiry. but i think it was also that it was the highest academic peak to scale. and it was sort of known as the toughest. all of a sudden, i found myself in the senior year with this-- with an actual slot in the program. and i realized at that time i wasn't absolutely certain that i truly wanted to be a doctor. i just wanted to sort of climb that mountain. so then i picked infantry instead. and i had a wonderful, wonderful experience. you got married just a few weeks after you graduated
to the daughter of the commandant of the west point. actually, the superintendent is the overarching guy. okay. so wasn't that kind of--? a three-star general. it was a strange blind date, i must say, when i found out. but it wasn't nerve-racking? you're dating the superintendent's daughter. wasn't that complicated? we tried to do it clandestinely for a while. that was not very successful. all right. i took a lot of flack for that, yeah. yeah. okay. there's even a... there's a particular general's march that they play at parades that go... [scatting] and one of my classmates-- i was on the brigade staff, so we were a little away from the crowd. one of my classmates would sing, ♪ my son-in-law my son-in-law ♪ [scats] so, yeah, i took a little flack. so you graduated and you went into the infantry. and you were working your way up, and then there were two incidents that occurred where you almost lost your life, severely damaged. petraeus: yeah. david: not in combat. petraeus: pretty aggressive live fire exercise. in maneuver, live fire exercise, very aggressive. live grenades, supporting machine gun fire, and all the rest of that. we were following-- in fact, general keane,
who was a one-star general, ultimately the vice chief of staff of the army, four-star, was with me when we were walking behind the soldiers. one of them knocked out a bunker, spun out of it, tripped, fell down, and we think as he did, he probably squeezed-- 'cause you tense up when you're about to take a blow. and a round-- m16 round went through my chest, and-- so luckily it went over the a in petraeus rather than the a in army. david: so... so, what happened? you had a bullet in there then where-- you know-- well, i... you know, obviously medics start working on you. interestingly, shock sets in, and i initially said, "hey, guys, don't worry. just go ahead, do a quick after-action review, figure out what went wrong and drive on." and they were sort of all rolling their eyes. and so they get an iv running, you get a medevac aircraft in, and they pick me up. keane went with me, held my hand all the way, went into the hospital. and in fact, it had nicked an artery but not severed it. if it severed it, you'd bleed out. you're finished very quickly.
so as the-- one of the times, when someone turned to me and said-- a doctor said, "this is really going to hurt." and he took a scalpel and cut an x in my side right down to the ribs, pulled it back, and shoved a plastic tube right into the lung to try to get suction so that the fluid is draining, and it was. and that really is what, i think, saved my life. and then i was put back in a helicopter, flown down to vanderbilt medical center. and of all people, they called in, uh, the surgeon on call that day was bill frist. dr. bill frist. and he came in later, of course, the majority leader of the senate. and some people have jokingly said: "yeah, petraeus was dying to meet bill frist." [all laugh] [chuckles] and he-- so he-- he did thoracic surgery, and i was out of the hospital-- wow. --in about five or six days. and to get out of the hospital-- they didn't want you to leave that soon. so you showed them you could do pushups. you did 50 pushups to make sure that they knew you were okay. is that right? it's the only time i've ever stopped at 50, david. no. no, i mean-- heh. [all laughing] okay.
i've never gotten to 50. i-- uh... so yeah. no, look, i wanted to get out of there. and i was-- you know, i-- things were fine. no reason to keep hanging around. i was doing laps around the hospital. i'd put all my tubes in a wheelchair and push it around. i think it was driving them crazy, so... so the other incident was you were skydiving-- yup. --and your parachute didn't quite work, i guess, and you broke your pelvis. what is that like? is that life-defining as well? it was horrific. that was actually worse in terms of pain because it fractured front and rear. and your body is literally in two parts. and anything that touches-- and i had to-- there we-- i rode an ambulance all the way in, and every single crack in the street, not just bump, was agony. and they get you in there. i mean, they can use morphine, they can do everything, and it still does not completely dull the pain. i remember, someone would just touch a sheet and it was-- and so then they operate-- once the swelling is down sufficiently,
they go in and they put a-- in the front, they try to put it all back together, put a plate over the front, screws in it, and then big screws in the back. did you ever skydive after that, or...? not sky-- i did parachute-- military parachute after that. okay. the first one, that was into a lake. and the idea was, you know, if i broke apart when the parachute opened, that at least i'd land in water, not on land, and-- but it turned out fine. i think it's probably stronger than it was before, although not as quite as flexible. but you wouldn't do skydiving now? i was told by the army... general keane, in fact, who was by then a four-star, he said: "dave, no more skydiving." i said, "okay. you know, you give me a division command and i'll quit skydiving." okay. so they gave you a command-- yeah. i was very privileged. --and you had a number of important jobs in the military, but then ultimately, a decision was made by president bush to invade iraq, and you became a commander there, and you went over there as the first part of the military-- petraeus: yeah. --that went into that.
it was supposed to be relatively quick. when did you realize, "this isn't gonna be as easy as we had thought?" petraeus: well, first of all, we did actually, in a matter of weeks, topple the regime. although there was stiffer fighting along the way in various points. and certainly what was predicted by a variety of different folks prior to the invasion, which was that, you know, the iraqi units were all gonna surrender and come over to our side, and then they'd help us establish order and so forth did not prove out. there was tough fighting along the way. and it wa-- i had this nagging sense fairly early on, probably certainly in the first week, once that dust storm blew through-- and i had rick atkinson, the washington post reporter, pulitzer-prize winner, riding in the back of my humvee, and i remember turning to him at one point and asked, you know: "tell me how this ends? 'cause i'm not sure this is gonna go according to script." the idea that we're just gonna topple saddam and his sons and his few henchmen, and then everybody else will stay in place
and there will be a little bit of a political negotiation, and we'll hand it over to them obviously proved misguided. do you think it would've been different had we not decided to get rid of the entire saddam army and the de-ba'athification process? these were-- these were huge mistakes. we used to have a question on the operation center wall when i was a division commander in other positions, and it asked: "will this operation take more bad guys off the street than it creates by its conduct?" and the same is true of policies. and the fact is that firing the military without telling them what their future was. again, you're going to have to demobilize at some point, it was a jobs program for generals and cronies and so on. but nonetheless, you can't fire them and not tell them what their future is. they all went-- took weapons home, so we now had basically riots on the streets for five weeks until they finally announced the stipend program. enormous damage. and then the de-ba'athification-- so the ba'ath party, which used to run the country-- this meant you're taking tens of thousands of people,
and there's no reconciliation process agreed. so you've just created tens of thousands of people whose incentive is to oppose in iraq, rather than they support that party. now, you led the effort to get control of mosul. is that right? we were in baghdad, which is where we'd been told we were going to end up. and then all of a sudden, we got this sort of emergency order to get up to mosul. it's out of control. there's a small u.s. unit up there. there'd been 17 civilians killed in responding to a riot. so within about 36 hours or so, we did one of the biggest air assaults in history up to mosul. we had 250 helicopters or so in the 101st airborne. we immediately blanketed the city with our soldiers. just literally pushed right into the city, calmed it down, stopped the looting and all the rest of that, and then gradually took control of it. and then we actually had an interim government up there within two weeks of arriving. it was going pretty well, actually. things were moving along, and then this double whammy of firing the military
without telling them their future and firing down the level four of the ba'ath party without a reconciliation process created a huge number of enemies within iraq. david: you may remember, i think early on in the war, it was thought that shock and awe would be all that was necessary. all we had to do was show a lot of missiles going off, and that was gonna be the end of the war. that concept doesn't really work. that didn't completely succeed. i think it did impose a little awe here and there, but, again, there were some folks certainly fighting, shooting at us. and we had casualties and lost heavy equipment and everything else. when president bush decided to invade iraq, in part it was because of the theory that they had weapons of mass destruction. right. and that information came from the cia, among other places. when you became the head of the cia, did you ever dig into it and say: "where did you get that information from?" you know, i didn't dig into that as much as i dug into some other issues, such as the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, something which i've personally opposed, for two reasons. one is i think it's wrong.
i think it's beyond the, if you will, international law and geneva convention and so forth. number two is i just don't think it's as effective as the so-called proponents of it believe it. you know, as jim mattis, again, colorfully said, you know: "give me a beer and a cigarette, and i'll get more information than by waterboarding." it's not quite that simple, but to put it, i guess, more simply, it would be that you wanna become the detainee's best friend in detention. the interrogator does. and i say this having been the commander who oversaw the holding of more detainees in iraq than at any other time, 27,000 of them. so we have some experience with what works with detainees, and treating them humanely while still eliciting information from them is the way to go about it. and then the most in afghanistan as well. now, you had never before had people working for you directly who were killed in combat. now, this experience, had people work for you. yeah. yeah. what was that like to have the command of people who were dying? it's-- you know, it's... it's a chilling experience, actually, the first time.
i remember the radio call when our first soldier was killed. and it takes the wind out of you. i remember hearing when a sister unit, the 3rd infantry division, which really spearheaded the fight, along with the marine division, up to baghdad on the ground with tanks and bradley fighting vehicles. i remember the radio call. i was monitoring their net because we were all fighting together. and hearing that they'd had a couple of heavy vehicles blown up-- right. --it's a chilling... and then i remember the first suicide bomber report. and this is one where you realize, you know: "how in the world do you deal with an enemy who's willing to blow himself up to take you with him?" it's a very, very difficult problem all right. you were there for how long before you were sent back to the states? that was about a year-long deployment. right. and then i was back for a couple of months, and was asked to go back over very quickly to do an assessment for a couple of weeks for the commander of central command and the secretary of defense of the iraqi security force effort.
came back, reported out to secretary rumsfeld, and he said, "great report. now, go back, change out of your division, and get back over there and do what you've recommended that we do." so have you thought if you hadn't written a good report, maybe you wouldn't have been sent back or--? never thought that? secretary rumsfeld had an interesting way of giving rewards. because later on-- so that was-- the next tour was a 15-and-a-half month tour. i remember in the final week or so, he came over and he was literally patting me on the back. and i thought, "this is really sort of nice." and then he said, "and, you know, on the way home, i want you to come through afghanistan." i said, "you know, that's not exactly the direct line between two points here." but-- so we did an assessment over there for him on the way home, actually. you finished your second tour of duty in iraq, yeah. you went back to united states... yeah. then we had about 15 months at fort leavenworth, kansas, commanding the combined arms center which has a number of different hats that an individual wears. it's-- you control the army's doctrine a lot. it's really quite an extraordinary command.
and we really revamped the whole process of preparing units, soldiers and their leaders-- right. --to go to iraq and to afghanistan, and we did the counterinsurgency field manual, which was sort of the intellectual foundation for that. once again, you wrote a very good report. you oversaw the counterinsurgency manual, and it was so good, you were asked to-- by president bush to go back-- yeah. right. --and lead the so-called surge. now, when he said, "i'd like you to go lead the surge," did you say, "i've already served two tours of duty in iraq, and i don't need to go back a third time"? or what did you say? no, i mean, you'd say it'd be a privilege to do that. and it's the same thing i said when president obama sat me down, you know, several years later, and said, with no pleasantries and no one else in the room except for a photographer, he said, "i'm asking you as your commander in chief to go to afghanistan, take command of the international security assistance force." i think the only answer at a time like that can be yes. what i didn't understand at the time was how many troops did we have in iraq at the time that you went back with the surge?
we had about 140,000 u.s. soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines. coalition had some tens of thousands of additional. and then we added about 25 to 30,000 additional forces during the surge. and if i could, i'll just point out-- in fact, i'm sure there are some surge veterans in here who will validate this. the surge that mattered most was not the surge of forces, it was the surge of ideas, it was the change in strategy. david: that's the point. petraeus: complete change. it was really a 180-degree shift from consolidating on a big basis and getting out of the quote, "faces," of the iraqi people to going back and living in the neighborhood with them because that's the only way you can secure them from-- realizing that you cannot kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency. you have to reconcile with as many as you can. from handing off to iraqi forces that couldn't handle-- right. --the escalating level of violence after the samarra mosque bombing in february of 2006, to actually taking back over. we created 77 additional locations
just in the baghdad divisional area of responsibility alone during the course of the surge. so we had about 140,000 american troops, we sent over additional 25 to 30,000, and that was enough, given the techniques you used, to bring it to a stable position, relatively speaking. petraeus: dramatically reduced violence. i mean, violence was reduced by some 80 to 85 percent. by the-- during the course of an 18-month period, which was about the duration of the surge-- so you-- after 18 months, you came back? no. i came back about 19 and a half months after that-- right. okay. --and then went to u.s. central command. okay. so the president asked you to head the u.s. central command, and the u.s. central command is in charge of u.s. military operations, i guess, in the middle east. it's 20 countries. it's from egypt in the west to pakistan in the east, kazakhstan in the north, to yemen and the pirate-infested waters off somalia in the south. we were very proud that it had 90 percent of the world's problems at the time. after you had one of these commands,
usually, not always, somebody gets to rise up to be the chairman of the army joint chiefs of staff, then maybe chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. so you were kind of rising up. and then one day, president obama calls you into the oval office and says: "i'd like you to give up the central command and go back and be a military commander in afghanistan." what did you think about that? well, it was an extraordinary circumstance, obviously. a very close friend of mine, an individual i regard as a real hero, stan mcchrystal, was the commander there. he had offered his resignation, as you know. and so, again, this was a pretty special circumstance. it was an emergency, really, in a sense. and so, you know, if the president calls on you and asks you to do something, i think you do it. you didn't say, "let me think about it. give me a few minutes"? you don't do that. just-- no. no. no. no, i-- i think you say-- the only answer to a question like that can be yes. now, i will say that in that case, and actually prior-- it was actually secretary gates who was the one who called me. i was actually on leave.
it was the last time i saw my father before i went to the surge. that was-- we were on a freeway outside l.a. driving to where he lived in a retirement home, and took the call from secretary gates. in each case, i actually wanted to have a little bit more of a conversation and just say, "i'd like you to understand who you're getting as your commander, because my advice on-- when it comes to drawing forces down and so forth, will be based on the facts on the ground, with an understanding of the mission that you have assigned us on which we'll have dialogue, informed by an awareness of all these other issues with which you have to deal legitimately. congressional politics, domestic politics, right. coalition politics, budget deficits, you name it. but driven by facts on the ground." and that's important because-- what i'm basically saying is, you know, i'm gonna give it to you straight. i'm not changing it based on, you know, issues you have to deal with. right. although i will obviously support
the decision that you ultimately make." and that was the case because within, you know, a year later, there was a decision on the drawdown. and as i had to tell congress the day after the decision was made, because i had a confirmation hearing for director of the cia, that was a more aggressive formulation of the drawdown that i recommended. david: you went to afghanistan. petraeus: yeah. david: you spent about 12, 13 months there. petraeus: a little over 12 and a half months, i think. david: and what did you conclude? did we really have an effort to successfully get rid of the taliban, or reduced their impact or not? well, the-- i said in congress, actually, in my confirmation hearing that we would not be able to flip afghanistan the way we flipped iraq. if you see what i mean. you can't-- i really did believe we could do in iraq what we ultimately did. what was eating at me all the time was whether we could do it fast enough, whether we could have sufficient results to report. in september of 2007, six months into the surge in iraq, we're not. and that was crucial because the congressional support was very tenuous.
and we did, and we reduced violence very dramatically, and it continued to be reduced. and it was sustained in iraq for a good three, three and a half years until, unfortunately, tragically, the prime minister undid it with highly sectarian actions. in the case of afghanistan, i was under no illusions that we would be able to replicate what we had done in iraq. the circumstances are very different. i had actually laid out for the secretary of defense after that afghan assessment that secretary rumsfeld asked me to do. the very first slide in that briefing, of course, you know, powerpoint as the means of communication of all the modern general. it said: "afghanistan does not equal iraq." so there was not going to be the prospect of a dramatic improvement. but what our mission was in that year, which we did accomplish, it was to halt the momentum of the taliban because they were on the march to reverse it in some key areas, to accelerate the development of the afghan security forces, and select afghan institutions
so that we could begin transition of some tasks, which we did, all while achieving the overarching goal, which is still a very, very valid and important mission for the united states in afghanistan. that is to ensure that afghanistan is never again a sanctuary for transnational extremists the way it was when al qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks there and conducted the initial training there. [♪] ♪ ♪ be more pbs
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