The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008
by Thomas E. Ricks
The Penguin Press, 400 pages, $27.95
With The Gamble, Thomas Ricks, the former Washington Post Pentagon reporter, resumes the story he began expertly in his prior book, Fiasco, which described the Iraq war’s flawed origins and failed execution through 2005. Fiasco was an account of unmitigated failure on almost every front. The Gamble picks up the story of the war at its lowest point, at which it seemed to have been irredeemably, ingloriously lost, and describes how the leaders of a small revolution within the ranks of the American military persuaded the Bush administration to change course utterly in a desperate attempt to salvage something – anything – from the conflict. This new strategy, known generally, if somewhat misleadingly, as “the surge,” was, Ricks writes, a triumph only in relative terms, the least bad option that might in the end lead to the least bad outcome, but almost assuredly a bad outcome nonetheless.
One thing this war has made miserably clear is that the American military is at least as culpable as its civilian leadership for the disaster it has been, start to finish. This is not a popular thing to assert, and Ricks does not do so point-blank, but the conclusion is inescapable. He opens the book with a brief description of the horrific massacre at Haditha, a west-central Iraqi town where, in November 2005, U.S. Marines killed 24 Iraqis, most if not all of them non-combatant civilians – including a one-year-old baby, numerous other small children, and an old man in a wheelchair – then concocted a story to hide what had happened. To date, all but one of the Marines involved have been absolved of any blame for this. Indeed, one of them explained that he had followed his training perfectly. “I am trained to shoot two shots to the chest and two shots to the head and I followed my training. . . . Personally, I think I did everything perfectly that day. Because of me, no one else died.” He was referring, of course, to other Marines, not innocent Iraqis.
This is not a small point. One of the main focuses of the modern, much-praised professional American military, is force protection. Virtually any act of violence against perceived enemies is permissible if performed under the suspicion that those perceived enemies threaten American forces. If the target turns out not to have been a threat, or even an enemy, well, that’s a cost of doing business. Force protection has become an end in itself, so well-taught and ingrained as to be almost instinctual. This is part of the larger psychology that led to the foolhardy invasion of Iraq in the first place.
While our power and battle doctrine are well-suited to killing enemies, they are not necessarily the best way to win wars. Ignoring the collateral damages that by now include tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dead Iraqis has been as damaging to the U.S. fighting effort as a well-equipped opposing army might have been.
The change in strategy that Ricks recounts – delaying the transition of combat operations from Americans to Iraqis, and adopting modern counter-insurgency methods instead – turns the force protection dictate on its head. Counter-insurgency definitionally puts the counter-insurgents at risk. A main part of the surge strategy was moving American troops, augmented by an infusion of another 35,000 of them, from large, well-secured, presumably safe bases beyond reach of insurgents into neighborhoods where some of them were almost certain to die.
The redeeming moral feature of the surge, whether or not it was intended to right the moral balance, was that it focused on protecting Iraqis. This was literally the first time in what was then a four-year war that the Americans gave anything more than lip service to the protection of the citizens of the country they had invaded. In the early months, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was dismissive of the idea of expending any American effort on the protection of the populace, the infrastructure, or the organs of a functioning state. “Stuff happens,” he said.
The subtitle of the new book aside, the most compelling figure in it is not David Petraeus but Raymond Odierno, who in his first tour of duty in Iraq was one of the most ruthlessly efficient practitioners of the old, Rumsfeldian way of doing business. Ricks makes a strong case that when Odierno returned, he set about trying to fix what he had helped to break. He was the principle initiator of the new strategy when he preceded Petraeus back to Baghdad in 2006, and later became Petraeus’ operational commander.
That U.S. forces had no counterinsurgency strategy in effect sooner was due in large part to Pentagon leadership – particularly, but not exclusively, Rumsfeld – refusing to acknowledge that insurgents existed. The vanity of this conceit is almost unspeakable.
Among its many other virtues, it must be noted that The Gamble is a journalistic achievement of high order. It is a triumph of beat reporting. Ricks, a military affairs reporter for decades, is extraordinarily successful doing what the very best beat reporters do – accumulating institutional knowledge and cultivating sources. He gains astonishing access, especially considering the critical nature of Fiasco. Do you want to know what Petraeus reads in the bathroom? It’s here.
There is, of course, a danger in such access. One need look no further than Ricks’ Post colleague, Bob Woodward, who in several Iraq books traded access for credulity. Woodward wrote, in the infamous words of Judy Miller, what his sources told him. Ricks demonstrates the value of knowing the subject you are writing about. He knows when he’s being spun. He writes with inside information, but from an outsider’s perspective.
There are almost no unnamed sources in this book. Almost everything in it is attributed on the record to the person who said it. This extends to Ricks. If he has an opinion, which he sometimes does, he voices it as his opinion. The book ends with his pondering the future course of the war and America’s role in it. He concludes that the U.S. has to stay in Iraq for years.
To what end is not certain. In the final judgment, the only metric – to use the military’s word – that will matter in determining the worth of this war is whether it leaves Iraqis better off than they were. It is obvious they are not better off now. Will they be? Ricks quotes one analyst saying that if the U.S. simply abandons Iraq, we “will have bequeathed a highly unstable state to the Middle East and a great deal of suffering to the Iraqi people, for nothing.”
While most would point out that ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein is more than nothing, it isn’t at all obvious that it was worth the price. If not a failed state, Iraq, by any measure, is a fractured one. Whether repairing it is possible is unknown. The United States, whether it stays or goes, no matter what policies it follows, lacks the means to do so. It isn’t yet clear if the Iraqis lack them as well.
Terry McDermott has worked for the Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, and several other newspapers, and has won numerous awards for his journalism. He is the author of
Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It. His next book, 101 Theory Drive: A Scientist’s Pursuit of the Memory Machine in the Brain, will be published this fall.