Reviewed by John A. Nagl
Sunday, August 17, 2008
THE STRONGEST TRIBE
War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq
By Bing West
Random House. 417 pp. $28
We interpret reality through the clouded prism of our own experience, so it is unsurprising that Bing West sees Iraq through the lens of Vietnam. He served as a Marine officer there, and he thinks politicians and the media caused the American public to turn against a war that could have been won. Now a correspondent for the Atlantic, West has made 15 reporting trips to Iraq over the last six years and is almost as personally invested in the current conflict as he was in Vietnam; this book, his third on Iraq, is his attempt to ensure that the "endgame" in Iraq turns out better than in his last war.
It is increasingly possible to believe that it will. The Strongest Tribe is the first overview of the entire course of the Iraq war to be published since Gen. David Petraeus implemented a change in strategy that is likely to be eternally, if incorrectly, identified as "the surge." West briefly invokes the familiar litany of American errors that nurtured the Sunni insurgency early in the war -- his first chapter is titled "How to Create a Mess" -- and he presents a biting analysis of the muddled strategy that marked the war's second and third years, when the United States rushed to hand over control to an Iraqi military that was not ready to assume such responsibility. He calls it "a hope posing as a plan" that committed too few troops to accomplish the tasks they had been given: a classic ends/means mismatch. When al-Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the sacred Shia shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22, 2006, civil war between the Sunnis and the Shia erupted, and the contradictions and likely failure of U.S. policy eventually became impossible to ignore, even for a Washington that was tragically disconnected from reality on the ground.
Enter Petraeus, co-author of a new field manual on counterinsurgency that focused on the protection of the population as the key to success in this kind of war -- the same mission West had emphasized in Vietnam 40 years earlier. With his deputy (and now successor), Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, Petraeus pushed U.S. soldiers in Baghdad out of the big Forward Operating Bases that had isolated them from the Iraqi people, stationing them in Joint Security Stations with Iraqi soldiers and police. This change in how the troops conceived of their mission was far more important than the relatively small increase in the number of troops that the "surge" label overemphasizes. Petraeus also took full advantage of the opportunity presented when the Sunni tribes of Anbar province attacked al-Qaeda in a turnaround that, as West argues, "was to change the tide of the war over the course of 2007." The military was learning that in counterinsurgency, persuading your enemy to stop fighting against you -- and, if possible, to start fighting alongside you -- can be even better than killing him.
West calls it like he sees it, and there is probably no American not wearing a uniform who has seen more of this war. A large number of senior (mostly Army) generals come in for scathing reviews in The Strongest Tribe, but West reserves his most critical assessments for politicians and journalists. Democratic Congressman and former Marine John Murtha of Pennsylvania was responsible, with the assistance of the media, for "distorting and deliberately exaggerating" the Marine killings of civilians at Haditha. In West's opinion, President Bush failed at his primary responsibility, which was "to persuade the American people to support the war," and also failed to spread the burden of the war equally on all Americans. Instead, the soldiers and Marines who do the fighting and the dying endure repeated tours of duty because we have more war than our too-small Army and Marine Corps can handle. West tells the story of their sacrifices better than anyone else, with an infantryman's keen eye for combat and a father's love for those who engage in it.
During the battle for Fallujah in 2004 (a fight West chronicled in an earlier book, No True Glory), an Iraqi colonel pointed at a Marine patrol and said admiringly, "Americans are the strongest tribe." But the American exit strategy requires that the government of Iraq earn that appellation from its own people, and in this reviewer's opinion the Iraqi government will become the strongest tribe in Iraq only if it enjoys the continued support of a U.S. advisory effort for a number of years. This was the course the United States adopted in Vietnam, but in the wake of Watergate, public support collapsed, advisers were withdrawn, and South Vietnam fell to the North.
That loss had catastrophic consequences for Vietnam, Southeast Asia and the United States. The consequences of defeat in Iraq, West argues, are similarly severe, entirely foreseeable and preventable at an increasingly bearable cost. "Reducing the U.S. force in Iraq can be done prudently, as long as we don't promise a total withdrawal that signals America has given up," he writes. "That makes no sense given the progress that has been made." Looking through the prism of my own experience, I find it hard to disagree. ·
John A. Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, fought in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He is the author of "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam."