February 15, 2009

The Gamble: Winners and Losers (Updated)

One of the advantages of being more or less "tits up" for the past 48 hours is that my illness has allowed me to finish The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008.

As a service to my readers, here are the winners and losers who emerge from the narrative:


Odierno: The big winner. Much more a winner in The Gamble than he was a loser in Fiasco. I'm not sure why his name isn't on the cover of the book instead of Petraeus, actually. (Answer: marketing?) As many of you may know by now, there are several competing narratives that explain the surge. Team Odierno, Team Petraeus, and Team First Cav all have their different takes on what happened and who was responsible. There is also a narrative -- promulgated in Bob Woodward's books and elsewhere -- that the surge was basically conceived in the White House. The Gamble whole-heartedly embraces the Team O narrative, giving Odierno not only credit for conceiving of the surge but also for its execution. When Fiasco came out, some folks complained that Ricks was too harsh on Odierno. But those of us who served in Iraq in 2003 knew that Ricks didn't invent the reputation Odierno's 4th ID had at the time. In the same way, people will claim that Ricks is rehabilitating Odierno in exchange for access. That's equally not true. If anything, The Gamble puts a final stamp of approval on a rehabilitation process that's been going on for quite some time. General Odierno will likely be remembered as one of the great American field commanders. And if you served in Iraq in 2003 -- as I did -- that is a very pleasant shock.

The West Point Social Science and History Departments: Honestly, who says that service in the 75th Ranger Regiment is the best way to advance one's career in the U.S. Army? Let's take a quick roll call of the men and women who emerge as key figures in Ricks' narrative who taught as West Point: David Petraeus, Joel Rayburn, Charlie Miller, H.R. McMaster, John Nagl, Doug Ollivant, Paul Yingling, Gian Gentile, Suzanne Nielsen, Mike Meese and Jen Koch Easterly. I am sure I have missed a few names. Time and time again, the key figures cited by Ricks have some connection to USMA -- even if they didn't go there themselves. Lesson to junior officers: forget the Rangers -- go to graduate school.

President Bush: The guy responsible for getting us into this mess actually comes across as a leader and statesman after the electoral defeats of 2006. Against all advice, he gambles on the surge and Generals Petraeus and Odierno in early 2007. Plus, advisers to Petraeus claim Bush was curious, intelligent, and hands-on during their weekly teleconferences in 2007. What a difference between the Bush they saw and the Bush the rest of the country saw.

AEI and Jack Keane: Speaking of people who got us into this stupid war, Fred Kagan and the folks at AEI deserve a lot of the credit for conceiving of and then selling the surge of 2007. None of it would have happened, though, were it not for Big Jack Keane and his infernal meddling. But again, it is just incredible how much of this massive strategic decision and military operation was driven by a freaking think tank.

The U.S. Army: Tom Ricks hates the U.S. Army? Really? If this book is anything to go by, Tom Ricks has a lot of admiration for the U.S. Army and the officers who lead it.

The Foreigners: Emma Sky (UK) and Dave Kilcullen (AUS) earn a tremendous amount of praise throughout the narrative. Their bosses -- Odierno and Petraeus, respectively -- earn credit for listening to them. So too does Sadi Othman (PAL). We Americans have been clever enough to extend rights of citizenship to Kilcullen and Othman. When are we going to convince Lady Sky to come be a permanent member of our team?


The General Officer Corps: My goodness, where do we start? Very few general officers come out of this looking good. What does it say about the upper echelons of the U.S. military that the surge strategy was conceived of by a retired general, some analysts at a think tank, and the number two commander in Iraq over the vigorous objections of the joint chiefs, the head of CENTCOM, and the commander in Iraq? General Casey comes out of this narrative looking terrible. So too does Admiral Fallon. And General Pace. Paul Yingling's essay on generalship is cited approvingly and often. Oddly, General Chiarrelli -- widely admired and respected among COINdinistas -- also comes off not looking so good, largely because Ricks asks why he wasn't able to change strategy in Iraq in 2006 when he was the Number Two while General Odierno was able to do so in 2007. Anyway, overall, the general officers corps emerges from this narrative quite bloodied.

Gian Gentile: I know Gian is upset by the way he comes off in the book. Ricks basically gives supporting fire to something that has been said for quite some time in whispers -- that the performance of Gian's battalion in Baghdad in 2006 was actually quite poor. Again, this is something that I have heard from a lot of officers, so there's no sense in blaming Tom Ricks for promulgating this. (Especially since Tom cites Gian respectfully several times in the book.) But this has to hurt. It also undermines much of what Gian has argued about the surge -- specifically, that we were doing all the right things in 2006. Major General Hammond: "Gentile had a different stance. It was night and day. He was FOB-centric. We are JSS-centric."

Anyone British Not Named Emma Sky: Well, really, just the British Army. Who come off as humiliated by the way in which the Americans reverse their losses in Iraq while the British lose the plot in southern Iraq -- and after being quite sure of their superiority in all things COIN from 2003-2006.

Curious Omissions:

Brigade Commanders: The surge was mainly executed by brigade and battalion commanders, so where are they in this narrative? Two of the most highly-praised brigade commanders in 2007 were old battalion commanders of mine, Steve Townsend and Mike Kershaw. Townsend is mentioned only once, and Kershaw isn't mentioned at all. The book cites the testimony of tactical leaders occasionally, but for the most part, the focus is at the general officer level. This means there is another good book on the surge waiting to be written, focusing on the role played by brigade and battalion commanders. (Ricks does focus on what Sean MacFarland was able to do in Ramadi, but that was pre-surge.)

The National Security Council: Just to give one example, Meghan O'Sullivan's name was not mentioned once -- a little odd considering the oversized role she has played in the Iraq war. And the adult supervision General Lute has restored to the Iraq team on the NSC was also not mentioned.

The New Media: Ricks cited a discussion on Small Wars Journal once and also cited some things on PlatoonLeader.org but never considered the way in which the new media has revolutionized the lessons learned process in the U.S. military. (Forget Abu Muqawama, though, because this lowly blog started around the same time as the surge.) Instead of just feeding information to the Center for Army Lessons Learned and waiting for lessons to be disseminated, junior officers are now debating what works and what doesn't on closed internet fora -- such as PlatoonLeader and CompanyCommand -- and open fora, such as the discussion threads on Small Wars Journal. The effect of the new media on the junior officers fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was left curiously unexplored by Ricks, now a famous blogger himself.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. I would recommend you buy it, but if you're reading this blog, you probably already have.

Update: Gian and I have written back and forth over the past 24 hours about this post and The Gamble. I think Dave Dilegge says all that needs to be said here, though. I am glad Gian stuck his neck out by getting into this debate in the first place.