Is It a Great Victory?

Matthew Cavanaugh/epa/Corbis
General David Petraeus, right, and General Raymond Odierno testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Washington, D.C., May 22, 2008. In September 2008, General Odierno succeeded General Petraeus as the top American commander in Iraq, and General Petraeus became head of Central Command.
Three years ago, Thomas Ricks, in his book Fiasco,1 provided a searing indictment of the US military and the grave errors it had committed in the initial stages of the Iraq war. As The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent, he documented, in unrelenting detail, the military’s use of overly aggressive tactics and the alienating effect they had on the local population. By engaging in indiscriminate sweeps, mass roundups, and the routine abuse of detainees, Ricks argued, the US Army had a major part in provoking the insurgency that ended up costing thousands of American lives and causing the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis. Fiasco was cited by both supporters and critics of the war as dramatic evidence of the need for a change in strategy.

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,…

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