The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008
by Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin, 394 pp., $27.95
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 …