A Vision So Noble

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[A slightly different version of this review appeared in the Weekly Standard for March 16, 2009]

Twenty years ago, the American strategist John Boyd was watching a feature film about the Vietnam War. As the cinematic GIs blundered through a hamlet, killing residents at random, Boyd protested: "We should be the ones in the village, not the people attacking it!"

Anyone wondering why "the surge" worked in Iraq should read Thomas Ricks's account of the battle of Tarmiyah in February 2007. Al Qaeda ran the Iraqi police out of town, after which the police station was occupied by 38 Americans of the 1st Cavalry Division. "AQI" tried to run them out, too, assaulting the station one morning with rifle fire, rockets, and a humungous truck bomb. "The battle that followed," Mr. Ricks tells us, "resembled the movie 'Zulu,' in which a small detachment of British soldiers fends off thousands of African warriors." One soldier died, 28 were wounded, and their building was destroyed-but not overrun. By sundown the 1st Cav had set up a new base in an abandoned school nearby.

No longer would U.S. soldiers "commute to work," in the words of Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq. Increasingly, as 2007 wore on, the Americans became the people in the village. I think it's fair to say that the Iraq war was won at Tarmiyah, two years ago this month.

Not that we believed it at the time! As Mr. Ricks points out, when the surge was at its height, nearly 60 percent of Americans thought it was failing. They included Senators Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid, who on April 13 declared that "this war is lost.... The surge is not accomplishing anything," and in June bizarrely complained that Gen. Petraeus "isn't in touch with what is going on in Baghdad." Republicans too were heading for the exits, as were our British allies, many American soldiers, and most of the retired officers' corps.

One of the few stout hearts credited in this book is that of Sen. John McCain, who voiced "cautious, very cautious, optimism" that "we're finally getting it right." But of course there was another stout heart, though he gets no credit for it in an otherwise meticulous account: George W. Bush.

Mr. Ricks wrote an earlier bestseller about the Iraq war, called "Fiasco." Having identified the Bush White House as the font of all stupidity with respect to Iraq, it's evidently impossible for him to concede that the president finally got it right, and that by disregarding the wisdom of Messrs. Obama, Biden, Ricks, and most of the American political and military establishments. Mr. Bush made the decision and saw it through, but he's the missing man in this account.

Apart from that omission, Mr. Ricks does a commendable job of explaining how the war turned around. He gives most of the credit to retired Gen. Jack Keane and, more grudgingly, to David Petraeus and Ray Ordierno, who presided over the surge. Both had been division commanders during the 2003 invasion, and afterward, in Mr. Ricks's word, they became "quiet allies against the blustery incompetence of ... Lt. Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez, and ... the clumsy micromanagement of L. Paul Bremer III," the military and civilian overseers of the initial American occupation.

Starting in January 2007, Gen. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Ordierno could do it their own way: First, they'd ring Baghdad with troops, so munitions couldn't reach insurgents in the city; second, once troops went into a community, keep them there so the insurgents couldn't return; third, target Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents; and fourth and most important, work with the tribal chiefs, who were getting sick of al Qaeda's brutal presence. It was these tactical changes, more than the added manpower, that made the new strategy work. (Gen. Petraeus has since been appointed to Central Command, while Ordierno-now a four-star general in his own right-holds the top job in Iraq.)

"The Gamble" has excellent maps and illustrations, though tellingly the sole photo of Mr. Bush is out of focus, drawing the eye to Gen. Petraeus. Of great value to students of the Iraq war, Mr. Ricks includes 41 pages of documents, including extended examples of that uniquely U.S. military instructional tool, the briefing slide.

In the short run-if that term can fairly be applied to a military operation that has lasted almost six years-the Iraq war has been won, a fact that's hard for its critics to bear. Mr. Ricks seems to be betting that we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and toward that end he finishes his narrative with the downbeat observation that "today we may be only halfway through it.... In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened." I look forward to what he no doubt expects will be the third volume of a trilogy, perhaps to be called "Calamity."

Some quibbles ...

Tom Ricks is smarter than most authors, who when faced with criticism respond by questioning the reviewer's parentage. I got a gracious email from him in which he wrote:

'First, thanks for reading it and reviewing it. I am glad you picked up on the Tarmiyah section, which is one of my favorite parts of the book....

'I do have two quibbles:

'--I thought I gave President Bush pretty good credit, especially in the section titled "Bush Rises to the Occasion" (starting p. 122), where I likened his surge speech to one of FDR's fireside chats. This is when Bush became commander-in-chief, instead of cheerleader-in-chief.

'--The notion that the Iraq war is hardly over doesn't come from me, but from Ambassador Crocker, who gets the last quotation in the book.

'But those are quibbles. Again, thanks for reading and reviewing it.

'Best, Tom'