Thomas Ricks has written another wonderful book on the military and the importance of having the right generals during war. In this book he looks at the Surge of the Iraq war and the military leadership involved with the great “gamble” of achieving some kind of nominal success in winding down the war. Most Americans have little understanding about the Surge and those who are better informed often know about the Surge in the context of the heated partisan debate in 2006-07 between Republicans and Democrats sitting on Capitol Hill. Indeed few understood the strategy and operational perspective of the leaders “on the ground” and I think that include many politicians. It does not help that very little has been written about the military leadership that led the actual Surge since few journalists in my opinion are capable of understanding or appreciating the operational side of the military. I think Ricks is an exception to the rule and his writing as a journalist over the years has matured and display a great understanding and appreciation of military strategy and the importance of the right personnel at the level of General officers. For some he is a must read as a great introduction for military intellectuals.
In order to appreciate the surge one must first understand the military’s involvement in Iraq prior to the surge. Ricks in the book is blunt in his discussion of the early years of the Iraq war with its bad leadership, blunders and shortsightedness among those in the officer corps. He argues that bad leadership will result in ugly outcomes like that of Haditha and similar episodes. I know the incident in Haditha is rather contentious but he does make a point that how the Battalion commander and upper echelon commanders handled the incident show a lack of understanding of the basic premise of counter-insurgency is to win the people rather than further alienate them from the military’s objective. Ricks sees Haditha as a sort of turning point. The early years of Iraq was a difficult time as many Battalion, Regimental, Brigade and even Division Commanders didn’t understand just what kind of war they were waging. Ricks pointed out that the ones that did understood were actually the outsiders such as General Petraeus. General Petraeus was different than most of his peers in many ways: unlike most of the Army’s leadership in the early years of Iraq his career was spent mostly among light infantry rather than the heavy infantry (think Mechanized infantry). There is an unspoken code that officers are to separate themselves from political connection but Petraeus was comfortable with courting political support and in fact desired that. Petraeus was also highly educated and open to discussion among civilians for their expertise. This play a crucial role in his formulation of his doctrines on Counter-insurgency as General Petraeus is the one who led the re-writing of the modern Army’s Counter-insurgency manual. I have heard in the past that Petraeus wrote the manual with the legendary Marine Corps General Mattis but what I didn’t know before and learned in the book is how many people and how diverse was the make up of the group that help consulted and wrote the Counter-Insurgency manual. Petraeus had all kinds of experts ranging from the expected military officers to human rights lawyers and civilian historians of the military. What I appreciated in the book is how the author pointed out that for General Petraeus, the metric for measuring success in his strategy is not merely winning territory but winning the people instead. He saw the people not as “collaterals” in the way of a military objective but instead the people was the objective and the prize.
The war being conducted badly was what eventually drove politicians to re-evaulate how the war was being conducted—and it was also what led George Bush to finally be open for new and fresh military leadership. I appreciate the author describing the relationship of the old leadership versus the new leadership that was going to lead the surge. In particular I was delighted to read about the relationship between General Petraeus and Odierno who were both very different in temperament and approach but both worked together well. Previously I had thought of Odierno as the General who merely was famous for helping the US pack up after major military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and I had no idea how much of a role Odierno played in the surge. I’m glad I read this book! Odierno was the one who was the “hammer” while Petraeus was the soft spoken leader so to speak. Together they worked out a balance in approaching the insurgency.
There are far too many things I learned from the book and one should get a copy for oneself! At the time that I read this book towards the end of 2014, I realize that this book was published in 2009 and the book was limited in its coverage of Iraq between 2006-2008. Obviously one can’t help but to think of the future of Iraq. The author was realistic in my opinion and was no mere cheerleader for the Surge—he also caution that the objective of the Surge might fail if politicians don’t allow troops’ presence to continue longer and the author also saw that Iraqi politicians has the ball in their court to build partnership that stretches beyond partisanship in particular with the Sunni-Shiite-Kurds divide. How true that is in hindsight as 2014 has turned out to be the year of ISIS’ expansion. I think we must not forget that Iraq has now been more or less divided into three powers, the very thing that America wanted to avoid with Iraq’s future. I read this book with much nostalgia thinking about my own time in the military and deployment in Iraq. Like the author, I have many mix feelings, saw the Surge as a success but one with many limitation as to how far it will go if its not followed up on the political end both in Iraq and the United States. One thing that the author didn’t see coming that I can’t help thinking about as I read the book was how much of a role the current conflict in Iraq with ISIS owe its ability and strength from the “Sons of the Awakening” that the US military employed back in 2006 and onwards. Many of these were Sunni militants who switched sides who sought employment with the US as militias against Al Qaeda. Since the Iraqi government with its Shiite majority would have never supported this make shift army and didn’t want to incorporate them into the regular Army, what would have happened to these military aged men who were trained, armed and unemployed? It doesn’t require rocket science to connect the thought that these men would obviously be a source for ISIS to tap into once the Americans’ departure left a vacuum. I have come to a stronger opinion that the United States should really think long and hard before we train any militant groups as we can never predict what it will mean for us and the region five, ten and twenty years down the line. If history tells us anything, we often train and equipped our future enemies.