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Is It a Great Victory?

In his new book, The Gamble, the picture that Ricks presents of the military could not be more different. As part of the 2007 troop surge, he writes, the Army adopted a wholly different approach to the war, one focused not on capturing or killing the enemy but on protecting the local population. Showing new respect for the Iraqi people, US soldiers gradually succeeded in gaining their trust—and help—in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists. The Gamble offers many testimonials to this from the troops themselves. “I’ve built real relationships and care about these people,” a soldier is quoted as saying. “And they care about me…. I’ve taught myself Arabic and can converse pretty well.” Thanks in large part to the new emphasis on cultivating Iraqi support, Ricks maintains, the military was able to sharply reduce the violence in Iraq and pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

The contrast between the military leaders of Fiasco and of The Gamble is personified by Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno. In the earlier book, the six-foot-five, 245-pound general with a gruff manner and shaved head was one of the villains. Under his command, the 4th Infantry Division, operating in the Sunni Triangle in the months after the 2003 invasion, specialized in the type of harsh, heavy-handed tactics that, according to Ricks, earned the Army such odium. “Of all the major conventional combat units operating in Iraq in 2003,” Ricks wrote, “the one that most consistently raised eyebrows was Gen. Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division.” Ricks even implicated Odierno in the Abu Ghraib scandal, asserting that his mass detentions of military-age males helped create overcrowding at the prison and some of the resulting lapses in supervision.

In The Gamble, by contrast, Odierno is the hero. On becoming the second highest American commander in Iraq in December 2006, Ricks writes, Odierno, now in charge of the day-to-day war effort, adopted a new, more respectful attitude toward the Iraqis. And, working closely with General David Petraeus, who became the commanding general in January 2007, Odierno made sure the forces under his command became similarly disposed. In Ricks’s view, Odierno is the true father of the surge and as such Iraq’s “unlikely savior,” and Ricks laments that he “hasn’t gotten the public recognition he deserves,” especially for his “ability to adjust effectively in wartime.” As to why Odierno underwent so dramatic a change, Ricks offers several theories, including the broadening effects of a tour he spent in Washington working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff between late 2004 and 2006 and the sobering effects of the severe wounds that his son, a lieutenant, suffered in Iraq in 2004. In the end, though, Ricks admits to being baffled by Odierno’s metamorphosis.

Ricks’s own transformation seems no less perplexing. Fiasco upset many people in the military and in Washington. The Gamble, by contrast, will upset very few. It is, in effect, a love letter to the US Army—a tribute to its ability to overcome earlier misdeeds and in the process provide Iraqis a chance for a better future.

To a degree, such praise seems warranted. The military leadership did make an about-face in Iraq, and in many ways the surge achieved remarkable results, reducing the levels of violence in Iraq to a degree many observers (myself included) thought impossible. Yet as Ricks himself makes clear, the surge was only partly successful. While highly effective from a military standpoint, it failed to bring about the political changes sought by the Bush administration, such as ethnic reconciliation and a strengthening of the central government. Ricks also notes widespread fears that, once US forces leave Iraq, Iraqi commanders could relapse to their earlier brutal ways. With many of Iraq’s underlying problems still unresolved, Ricks writes, the war may well be no more than half over, and the United States will likely have to keep a sizable force there through at least 2015. In the end, he declares, the best grade the surge “can be given is a solid incomplete.”

Why the surge failed to achieve its broader political aims is one of two key questions that remain outstanding about that policy choice. The other is what exactly caused the drop in violence. Was it the Sunni Awakening, the turn begun in 2006 by tribal leaders and former insurgents away from al-Qaeda and toward a tactical alliance with the United States? Was it the cease-fire declared by the populist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army in August 2007? Was it the ebbing of the vicious sectarian fighting that had engulfed Baghdad in 2006 and that some say had played itself out by the start of the surge? Or was it the new counterinsurgency tactics that were adopted by the military and carried out in 2007 and 2008 by the expanded force in Iraq? It’s impossible to say for sure which factors were paramount, but as the United States struggles to contain the growing violence in Afghanistan and to apply there a version of what it sees as the surge’s successes in Iraq, untangling these strands seems of pressing importance.

Thomas Ricks offers many interesting reflections that bear on these questions. In the end, however, they go largely unanswered. This failure, I think, reflects some major shortcomings in the way Ricks has chosen to write about the surge—shortcomings that, in turn, reflect broader problems in the coverage of the war.

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Fiasco was an old-fashioned exposé, serving up revelatory facts with equal doses of zeal and outrage. The Gamble, by contrast, is more retrospective, seeking to tell the story of the origins and execution of the surge. It borrows heavily from the novelistic techniques that are much in vogue among journalists today: Ricks seeks to invest his tale with great drama, performed by a cast of colorful, larger-than-life characters. Whatever narrative value this approach has, it ultimately gets in the way of Ricks’s analysis and distorts the bigger picture.

The hero of the book’s opening section is Jack Keane, a retired general and former vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Big Jack Keane,” Ricks writes, “could easily be mistaken for an old-style member of the New York City Police Department.” But “underneath that old-school appearance, Keane is crackerjack smart, and extremely articulate, often in a concise, blunt way. Most importantly, and unusually, he is an independent and clear thinker.”

In 2006, Ricks writes, Keane “would grow so deeply concerned by the direction of the Iraq war that he would set out to redesign its strategy, an unprecedented move for a retired officer.” In the first three years of the war, the military, he felt, treated Iraqi civilians as “the playing field” on which the contest occured. From his two tours in Vietnam, Ricks writes, Keane believed strongly in the principles of counter-insurgency, which hold that “you must protect the people and separate them from the insurgency, and to do so you had to live among the population. And doing that required a lot of troops.”

Protect the people” becomes the driving idea behind Keane’s campaign to change US policy, and the central theme of Ricks’s narrative. In pushing for it, Ricks writes, Keane

effectively became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [displacing General Peter Pace], stepping in to redirect US strategy in a war, to coordinate the thinking of the White House and the Pentagon, and even to pick the commanders who would lead the change in the fight.

In that campaign, Ricks writes, he would get help from another outsized figure, Eliot Cohen. A professor of strategy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Cohen had been in and out of government for years and was an associate of such neoconservatives as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle—credentials that would seem to make him a member-in-good-standing of the Washington establishment. In Ricks’s account, however, he becomes an idiosyncratic nonconformist. The “perpetually bow-tied” Cohen, he writes,

is an unusual figure in Washington, influential in several circles, with an extraordinary range of contacts inside the government, from the White House to the Congress to the military and intelligence establishments, a network created mainly because those institutions send many of the best young people to him to study strategy. He makes that study both intense and concrete, suggesting thousands of pages in readings, from Sun Tzu to Winston Churchill, but also leading his students on walks of battlefields, from Gettysburg to Italy to the Middle East, to mull campaign strategies.

In June 2006, Ricks writes, Cohen, along with Michael Vickers, Fred Kagan, and Robert Kaplan, all like-minded supporters of the war who had become critical of its execution, met with President Bush at Camp David to impress on him the need for a new approach. The meeting didn’t sway Bush, but, according to Ricks, it set in motion a behind-the-scenes effort to change the course of the war. That effort began to take hold after the midterm elections in November, when strong gains by the Democrats led Bush to dismiss Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

In early December, in what Ricks sees as another milestone, the American Enterprise Institute convened a three-day meeting of analysts and military planners to propose a new plan. “One Weekend at AEI Changes the War,” a subhead dramatically declares. On December 11, Cohen, together with Keane and several others, again met with Bush, and this time, Ricks reports, the professor was determined to be “clearer and more emphatic” than he’d been the previous June, stressing the need for a new strategy, a change in commanders, and more troops.

General Ray Odierno was doing the same from Baghdad. Taking over as the number two commander in Iraq, he became dissatisfied with the strategy being pursued by General George Casey, then the commanding officer, which called for training the Iraqi army so that it could take over responsibility for security and let the Americans go home. Even as the violence on Baghdad’s streets soared, the Americans had mostly retreated to heavily fortified Forward Operating Bases (FOBs). A protégé of Keane’s, Odierno agreed with him about the need to get soldiers off their bases and onto the streets; together the two men waged what Ricks calls a “guerrilla campaign” to make that happen. The chain of command is normally sacrosanct, Ricks observes, but Odierno, “making one of the most audacious moves of the entire war,” bypassed two levels of command above him “to talk to officials at the White House and aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” In doing so, Ricks asserts, Odierno “was laying his career on the line.”

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    Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006).

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