Periodically over the past five years I've gotten together with our Baghdad correspondents when they're back on brief home leaves. For most of that time, their reports from the front have been grim. So I expected more of the same when a group of us took Larry Kaplow out to lunch earlier this year. Larry is a circumspect reporter, not given to bold assertions unless they're backed up by lots of evidence. But as he began talking about a quietly dramatic shift in the way U.S. Army officers were approaching the Iraqi insurgency, it was clear he was on to something significant. For the first time he was seeing midlevel officers, often on their second or third tours of duty, displaying the kind of nuance and cultural understanding required to succeed at counterinsurgency. They weren't going soft, but rather had developed a pragmatic streak better suited to the murkiness of the conflict. Larry, who's covered the war since the invasion in 2003 (first for Cox Newspapers and later for NEWSWEEK), was intrigued and proposed a story he called "The Captains' War." We've often tried to tell the story of the Iraq War through the eyes of soldiers who've been on the front lines. This week, our cover story, by Babak Dehghanpisheh, Evan Thomas and Larry, profiles the very kind of officers Larry had in mind. Capt. Tim Wright in many ways personifies the steep learning curve of our troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A West Point graduate, Wright was trained to overwhelm the enemy with massive firepower and reared in a warrior culture that often saw conflicts in black and white rather than shades of gray. But over time, Wright and many of his fellow soldiers have learned to operate comfortably amid moral ambiguity. In part that's meant acknowledging the legitimate aspirations of their enemies. It's also meant putting the "bad guys" on the payroll to win their cooperation.
Winning their loyalty is a far more uncertain prospect. Still, Larry and Babak, with the perspective of five years in the Iraqi theater, can measure the progress. Babak recalls being embedded with the Marines in Fallujah in November 2004. "It was the largest combat operation since the 2003 invasion, and there really wasn't much nuance," he says. "The mission was simple—kill the enemy and take back lost territory. In one briefing, a commander told the troops to put a bullet in the head of anyone using a cell phone, assuming that cell phones were going to be used to detonate IEDs." Nowadays, "there isn't much of the gung-ho bluster. There seems to be a genuine desire to work with and talk to Iraqis because the GIs realize that's their ticket out." Larry adds: "Soldiers in Iraq are the point men for America's hard-knocks education about our country's power and place in the world. Over their repeated tours, they've shed a lot of Yankee naiveté for a more pragmatic, nuanced understanding of the world in the places where America is distrusted and disliked."
Officers like Captain Wright are the leading edge of Gen. David Petraeus's surge strategy, and are largely responsible for the fragile successes U.S. forces have had in recent months. Still, as Evan and John Barry report elsewhere in the cover package, Petraeus's way of war faces institutional resistance from an old guard that remains wedded to a big-combat approach. The problem is that, given today's messy world of terror groups and rogue states, we'll have to prepare to fight both kinds of war. As we mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War this week, we should reflect on how far we've come, but cannot lose sight of these tough, looming questions either. Log on to Newsweek.com for full coverage of this important milestone.