WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus warned at a pomp-filled retirement ceremony on Wednesday that the nation's leaders, faced with tough budget decisions, should be careful not to cut the military's budget too deeply in the years ahead.
The vast majority of the hour-long ceremony at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., celebrated Petraeus' 37 years of military service and his six years of leading troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Military bands played, medals were awarded, and Petraeus issued a long list of thanks to his mentors, his peers and the troops who fought under his command.
Petraeus is retiring as the wars that have defined his career as a general and dominated U.S. foreign policy are winding down. He also leaves amid a struggling economy and looming defense reductions that probably will cut $400 billion to $1 trillion from military budgets over the next decade. The near certainty of deep reductions is clearly on Petraeus' mind as he takes off his uniform and prepares to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
"I do believe we have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don't always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared or most inclined," Petraeus told the crowd. "Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."
Most of the ceremony and speeches focused on Petraeus's past — something of a departure for a general who throughout his career has focused tirelessly, and at times obsessively, on the future.
No soldier has had a greater impact on the way the military has fought over the past five years than Petraeus, who was a driving force behind the military's embrace of a counterinsurgency doctrine that elevated the importance of protecting terrified locals from insurgent attacks and building local governance and infrastructure. Under Petraeus' command, both tasks received as much energy and attention as killing the enemy.
Petraeus also pressed his troops to experiment and take risks in working with former enemies and building indigenous security forces whose loyalty at first seemed questionable. These gambles paid especially high dividends in Iraq, which was convulsed by sectarian violence and in the grip of a bloody insurgency when Petraeus assumed command in 2007.
"It was a time of doubt, of chaos, of death," Mullen recalled. Within a year of Petraeus' taking over, violence levels had fallen precipitously throughout the country.
President Barack Obama dispatched Petraeus to Afghanistan in 2010 after Gen. Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign under pressure. There, Petraeus oversaw a strategy that has been credited with reversing the Taliban's momentum. The outcome of the war, however, remains in doubt.
Petraeus will not be taking much of a break. In a few weeks, he will take over the top job at the CIA. "We wish (Petraeus) happiness and prosperity in his well-earned retirement," the announcer at Wednesday's ceremony intoned. The remark drew guffaws from the crowd.