“In 2005 the United States came close to losing the war in Iraq.”
So writes Thomas E. Ricks, the Washington Post’s senior military correspondent, in his gripping and brilliantly reported new book, “The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.” This is contemporary history of a vivid and urgent sort, and Ricks has produced a book that deserves to be read by any American who realizes that something other than today’s economic news also is of vital interest to the nation.
Ricks begins this sober -- and deeply sobering -- account with the military’s heretofore secret report on the massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines at Haditha, an incident that stands as exemplar for a strategy that not only was failing tactically but also seriously eroding the morale and morality of the American forces deployed to Iraq. The author then goes on to document the previously untold history not only of the failure of the White House and the Pentagon under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld but also of the Joint Chiefs and the commanders.
Essentially, this is the story of two insurgencies: One is that of the Iraqis and the Islamists who flocked there after the American invasion; the other has to do with the small number of dissident U.S. officers (of whom Gen. David H. Petraeus was the most prominent), retired officers (particularly Gen. Jack Keane), military historians and conservative defense intellectuals centered on the American Enterprise Institute who mounted a guerrilla campaign to make the Bush administration confront its mistakes and adopt an effective counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq.
We know that strategy as “the surge,” and, in essence, it was a distillation of the counter-insurgency lessons that had been learned in every such conflict from postwar Malaya and Algeria through Vietnam. An insurgent, as Mao pointed out, must “swim like a fish in the sea of the people.” To fight him, Keane, Petraeus and their allies -- like AEI’s Fred Kaplan -- would successfully argue to the White House, U.S. forces would have to do the same. It all worked, though, as Ricks carefully points out, in a limited way: The surge staved off defeat, but it did not achieve anything like victory in any sense in which we conventionally understand the word.
One of the insights on offer here is one that military historian Eliot Cohen -- a major player in the intellectual drive toward the surge -- offered in a critical White House meeting with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Drawing on the most recent scholarship about all that went wrong for the U.S. in Vietnam, Cohen told the president that Lyndon B. Johnson’s great failure had not been micromanaging the military effort, as conventional wisdom asserted, but in failing to force “serious strategic debate” among his generals.
The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika had repeated exactly that mistake, ignoring what Cohen’s formidable scholarship had led him to regard as an executive imperative: “Generals disagree, sometimes profoundly. . . . Civilian leaders, to discover these disagreements, force them to the surface and probe them.”
Within his own ambit, it also turns out to be what Petraeus did.
Petraeus’ staff was studded with officers who had doctorates from elite American and British universities -- as well as combat experience -- and, most striking, with foreign advisors in key positions.
His most important counter-insurgency aide, for example, has been an Australian, David Kilcullen, son of a noted medievalist. Deeply experienced as well as learned, he has a doctorate in the anthropology of Islamic fundamentalism. He’s also apparently possessed of that instinctive Aussie irreverence for authority and consequent frankness. As he said at one point, “Just because you invade a place stupidly doesn’t mean you have to leave it stupidly.” Later, he would add, “In ’03, we confused entry with victory. What we have to do now is not confuse departure with defeat.”
Petraeus’ other foreign-born advisors include Sadi Othman -- a Palestinian American raised in Jordan and educated by pacifist Mennonites -- and Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert, whom Ricks describes as “fiercely anti-war.” (Othman appears closest to Petraeus, according to Ricks.) Sky ultimately became a particularly close advisor to Petraeus’ then-deputy, Gen. Raymond Odierno -- now his successor in command -- and, to her own surprise, an admirer of the U.S. military: “I love them,” she said, adding that they’re better than the country they serve. “That’s the way I feel about it -- America doesn’t deserve its military.”
No need to force disagreement to the surface in this crowd.
The second half of “The Gamble” is a detailed and utterly gripping account of what Petraeus and his commanders did with their own theories (and all that unconventional advice) and how “the surge” that resulted achieved the tenuous -- though, according to Ricks, tenuous and temporary -- quasi-stability that now prevails in much of Iraq.
In “The Gamble,” Ricks has produced a book of critical importance not only to our understanding of recent history in Iraq but also one that makes an indispensable contribution to our grasp of contemporary relations between our government’s military and civilian authorities and to our understanding of the Pentagon’s leadership. Three direct quotations from this vital work of first-water journalism will stand as an effective summary:
“The surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war. . . . The surge campaign was effective in many ways, but the best grade it can be given is a solid incomplete. It succeeded tactically but fell short strategically.”
“ ‘Why did the American military establishment so fail to come up with a war-winning strategy that it was up to a retired general and a civilian think thank, AEI, to do their job?’ asked retired Army Col. Bob Killebrew. ‘This is a stunning indictment of the American military’s top leadership.’ ”
“The quiet consensus emerging among many people who have served in Iraq is that we likely will have American soldiers engaged in combat in Iraq until at least 2015 -- which would put us not at about the midpoint in the conflict. . . . In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”
Sobering, indeed; there are mistakes that cannot be put lightly or easily behind us.
And yet, there’s also something rather heartening about Ricks’ story of the internal military insurgency -- or, more precisely, the loyal opposition -- that appears to have rescued America, at least for now, from defeat in Iraq. In another awful winter, when the Baron von Steuben began drilling George Washington’s Continental Army into an effective fighting force, he wrote to a friend back in Prussia about the difference between the soldiers he’d commanded there and his new subordinates. European soldiers, he wrote, simply needed to be told what to do, and they grudgingly would do it. The Americans, he wrote, first needed to be told why something was necessary -- and, if convinced, executed the order vigorously and without further instruction.
May that always be so, for it is in that quality that our national security ultimately resides.