Iraq, Round Three

by Victor Davis Hanson

Policy Review

A review of Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New ‘Greatest Generation’ of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope by Michael Yon and Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search For a Way Out of Iraq by Linda Robinson.

We are now seeing a third generation of books about the five-and-a-half year-long Iraq war. After the spectacular removal of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, a number of quickly written accounts by journalists and historians such as John Keegan, Bing West, Bob Woodward, and Karl Zinsmeister praised the conventional military professionalism of the Anglo-American-led coalition that had so quickly in three weeks removed the Baathists at so little cost. Those were heady times. Not just neoconservatives, but a consensus of Democratic and Republican observers alike believed that the quick removal of Saddam Hussein, coming on the heels of the flight of the Taliban, might usher in a new democratic era for the Middle East that would eventually undermine radical Islam.

But as the Iraqi insurgency spread and coalition losses mounted, by late 2003 gloom began to set in. Soon even zealous former advocates recanted their support for the war. Polls showed that the American people went from a 70 percent approval rating of the effort when Saddam’s statue fell to less than a majority by early 2004. The general feeling could be best summed up as “My brilliant three-week war” was ruined by “Their fouled-up long occupation.”

This new legion of anti-war critics cited the absence of Iraqi arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, poor planning for the occupation, and flawed decision-making in Iraq on the part of Gen. Sanchez and Proconsul Paul Bremmer. Douglas Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and other high-ranking Pentagon officials were vilified, and in succession most all eventually resigned. Their story is only now beginning to surface and no doubt will counter many of the often one-sided portraits offered by their critics thus far.

Even the emergence of an elected Iraqi government, the new military leadership of Gens. George Casey and John Abizaid, and the popular expulsion of Syria from nearby Lebanon during the so-called Cedar Revolution of spring 2005 did not bring quiet to Iraq. Accordingly, exposés of the supposed American quagmire continued to come thick and fast from 2004 to 2007. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Michael Gordon, Thomas Ricks, Bernard Trainor, George Packer, Bob Woodward and scores of others tore apart the Bush administration, ridiculed the out-of-touch Green Zone sanctuary, suggested Abu Ghraib was more typical than a mere aberration, questioned the competence and morality of the U.S. military, disclosed the ineptness of American diplomacy, and offered a dismal prognosis of failure and withdrawal. Their more detailed symptoms of failure were nearly always the same: We had too few troops to quell the insurgency; our equipment and tactics were ill-suited to battle a largely urban insurgency; we had wrongly disbanded the Iraqi army and could not reconstitute it in time; we underestimated Shiite-Sunni hatred; and we were clueless about the nefarious role of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria in fanning the violence. These widely referenced books provided the intellectual support for a growing anti-war movement, especially in the halls of Congress where motions to cut off funding were introduced and supporters of the war, even among Republicans, soon became almost impossible to find.

But now there is yet another cycle of war reporting from Iraq that takes account of the dramatic decline of violence and the growing confidence and competence of the Iraqi elected government. The current turnaround is largely due to the combination of the surge in American troops in 2007, the innovative counterinsurgency tactics of Gen. David Petraeus, the growing Iraqi abhorrence of both the fundamentalism and the decadent violence of al Qaeda, and the cumulative attrition of jihadists brought about by five years of hard fighting by American soldiers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that parts of Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit are now more dangerous than is Ramadi or Fallujah.

Had the invasion of Iraq been seen as a necessary war by the American people; had we, like Americans in the 1940s and 1950s, been a generation with a more tragic view of the horrors of war; and had Michael Yon written for the New York Times, Reuters, or the Associated Press, then he would now probably be famous in the tradition of World War II front-line correspondents like Ernie Pyle and Richard Tregaskis. Instead Iraq remains an unpopular war. For most of the conflict, the unsalaried, free-lancing Yon’s work was found only on his own website. And he described the soldiers he lived with in terms of the politically incorrect, collective pronoun “we”— as if, as a fellow American, he wished them to “win” a controversial war as he chronicled their courage under fire.

Indeed, the theme of Moment of Truth in Iraq is that the singular bravery, competence, and sophistication of contemporary American soldiers have trumped the wrongheaded practices of the Bush administration and the Pentagon. And for Yon this is true to such a degree that the new grunts have now pulled off the once unthinkable: the likelihood of a viable, constitutional Iraq in the heart of an otherwise tribal, dangerous, and hostile Middle East.

Moment of Truth
 is largely a collection of Yon’s prior posted dispatches. He adds here a few final thoughts about the war — careful to point out that he agrees it was an elective war, wrongly hyped by supporters and unduly demonized by critics. There is little strategic analysis, much less geopolitical thinking about the role of Iraq within the larger currents of American foreign policy. We do not even get a chronology of the war or a systematic account of its main campaigns and battles. The figure of David Petraeus looms large as Yon notes how his counterinsurgency doctrines brought the necessary missing pieces to the baffling puzzle of rebuilding civil society in Iraq.

Instead Yon — nearly always at the front and often under fire — presents battle in mediis rebus. His desire is twofold. We are first to understand that American soldiers — out of place in their bulky armor under a 120-degree desert sun, supported by layers of often obtrusive bureaucracy and impeded by needless protocols, often naïve in their assumptions about the Arab world — nonetheless prove to be superb combat fighters. Even in the foreign landscapes ideally adapted to indigenous terrorists, Americans repeatedly defeated jihadists — and often in small skirmishing and hand-to-hand combat without air support and accompanying artillery. Usually American combat veterans were simply more skilled, stronger, and as courageous and wily as those who fought on their own turf. This is an apparently unpopular truth that is little reported upon — and when known, even less likely to be appreciated.

Second, Yon stresses that Americans are moral soldiers who tend to sick Iraqis, evacuate rather than kill their wounded enemies, and ultimately win the hearts and minds of Iraqis in a way that the Islamic al Qaeda terrorists utterly failed to do.
His combat accounts of Lieutenant Colonel Erik Kurilla’s “Deuce Four” Infantry Battalion in Mosul in latter 2005 are riveting. When first posted in autumn 2005, these dispatches had the unintentional effect of making the wounded Kurilla a cultural icon among bloggers. In a chapter entitled “High Noon” on the arrest of Iraqi General Hamid, Yon reminds us how hard it is not just to motivate Iraqis to fight the insurgents, but to do so in a fashion that ensures such leaders — unlike the brave but flawed Hamid — avoid unconstitutional brutality and petty corruption. In short, Michael Yon has proved to be the best combat reporter of the Iraqi war, and one hopes this collection of his postings will gain enough readership to remind the public why that is so.

Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends is a much different sort of book, although it ultimately reaches nearly the same conclusion as Yon’s: Despite the legion of errors, the United States under David Petraeus has in its power the real chance to leave the Iraqi people with a humane, constitutional state in place of the constant war, dictatorship, genocide, and chaos of the past quarter-century.

Her theme is the genesis and conduct of the Petraeus surge at all its multifarious levels. Robinson details how a group of scholars, maverick generals, and Washington insiders — among them retired General Jack Keane, General David Petraeus, American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan, and National Security Council member Meghan O’Sullivan — were the catalysts who convinced the president to gamble on sending five additional brigades in early 2007 to stop the cascading sectarian violence centered in Baghdad.

Robinson’s story of success is, surprisingly, largely a military one. While the ultimate solution in Iraq rests with the ability of the Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation and demonstrate governmental competence, all that is impossible without security and general quiet. Going after terrorists from fortified compounds in 2004–06, unfortunately, cemented the image of an occupying American power that used a hammer instead of a scalpel. But its antithesis in late 2006 and early 2007 of drawing down regardless of conditions on the ground, to ensure a smaller footprint and less resistance from resentful Iraqis, was equally problematic: While insurgents and their environs were not sometimes bombed to smithereens, they weren’t dealt with sufficiently either, allowing jihadists to bully and murder any Iraqis brave enough to step forward to participate in the new Iraq.

In Robinson’s first seven chapters, she gives a detailed and balanced narrative about the Petraeus change of strategy, the difference between counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the delicate mixture of political, humanitarian, and military endeavor necessary to achieve success, and the role of a number of brilliant colonels whose first-hand experience on the ground made its way to Petraeus, who in turn quickly institutionalized this grassroots maverick thinking. But in the second half of the book, Robinson suddenly assumes the angle of vision of a Michael Yon, offering a fascinating accounts of how all this was actually carried out on the ground. In riveting and often heart-rending stories Robinson describes the horrific toll that was taken on American soldiers in Adhamiya, Ameriya, Kadhimiya, and other suburbs of Baghdad as well as the once volatile cities of Anbar Province.

There are many heroes in Robinson’s sober analysis — among them Ryan Crocker, our ambassador to Iraq, who probably opposed the decision to go to war but as the consummate professional lent his experience and savvy to salvage what others had nearly lost; a host of brilliant and courageous colonels; Meghan O’Sullivan on the National Security Council; and, of course, the soldiers in the field who did the actual fighting — and in too many gruesome instances were incinerated, blown apart, and maimed by IEDs, snipers, and suicide bombers for the sometimes abstract idea of a peaceful and humane Iraq.

Critics will complain that the narrative serves as a hagiography of David Petraeus, who allowed Linda Robinson free access in Iraq. But it is hard to fault Robinson’s portrait of Petraeus, one that only confirms what others, in and out of the military, have previously attested. She is clearly right that Petraeus’s unique blend of intellectual rigor in assessing the crises, personal courage in inspiring his men to risk their lives for his vision, and cool temperament in dealing with a labyrinth of feuding — and often dangerous — Iraqis created a framework in which the surge could succeed. Should Iraq stay quiet, Petraeus will enter the annals of military history among figures like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Patton, and Matthew Ridgeway, who turned around wars when most others thought it impossible.

Robinson ends her inspired story as no triumphalist, but rather as an empirical observer and analyst of the baffling military, political, and cultural maze that is now Iraq:

The Iraq war was a folly as egregious as Vietnam. But it was a war with far higher stakes, and the consequences of defeat would reverberate throughout the Middle East. Petraeus gave Iraq a chance to climb out of its civil war and America a chance to redeem itself for the errors it made there. The next president can seize that chance to bring the country together after this bitter experience. The opportunity should not be squandered.

One might nit-pick with both Yon and Robinson, whose damning of the earlier pre-Petraeus war (note the buzzwords “defeat,” “disaster,” and a “way out” in the subtitles of their respective books) is widely at odds with their optimistic conclusions. Clearly wars are not entirely won in a simple matter of weeks. Some greater credit is due to the untold thousands who, from 2003 until 2007, for all their mistakes, nevertheless took a terrible toll on the enemy and forced al Qaeda into ever more desperate and ultimately counterproductive measures. And in comparison with past American military blunders that cost far more thousands of lives in the successful Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Korea, Iraq’s bloody mistakes were, sadly, not surprising — given that the stuff of war is error, victory going to the side that learns the most quickly from inevitable catastrophes. That said, both authors are to be congratulated for much-needed books. Their respective manners of reporting may differ, but their personal courage and objectivity are shared and exemplary.

©2008 Victor Davis Hanson

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