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John T. Reed’s review of The Gamble by Tom Ricks

Posted by John Reed on

The book The Gamble by Tom Ricks is about the conception, selling, planning, and execution of the so-called “Surge” and related aspects of American military tactics in Iraq in 2006, 2007, and 2008.

Basically, The Surge, which actually involved much more than just increasing the number of troops in Iraq, worked tactically.

In my military Web pages, I have criticized the following, among other things:

lack of moral courage in the U.S. military officers corps
lack of military expertise in the U.S. military officer corps
the way in which generals are chosen
the process rather than results orientation of U.S. military officers
• the morality of obeying stupid orders

The Gamble did not generally disprove what I said in those articles. Indeed, the author repeatedly reported that the heroes of The Surge constantly had to overcome the sorts of things my articles complained about.

It did reveal, to my surprise, that in the last several years, there has been a small but courageous and persistent group of active-duty and retired Army officers. They conceived the various new tactics that worked well in the 2006-8 period. They sold them to President Bush, in spite of resistance from their military superiors and Congress. And they executed the plan, including recognizing where it needed modification, and hanging in there when it did not initially seem to be succeeding. They also changed the way America’s generals are chosen.

On page 16, Ricks says,

The hard part for Petraeus would be to impose his vision on the U.S. Army, one of the largest and most tradition-bound organizations in the country.

Thank you for that vast understatement.

In my article about moral courage, I said the U.S. military officer corps was all but devoid of moral courage, naming such ancient officers as Billy Mitchell and Hugh Thompson (chopper pilot who stopped the My Lai Massacre) as the last I knew of who had exhibited moral courage. I stand corrected. According to The Gamble, the following active-duty heroes of that effort did exhibit moral courage:

Active-duty military exhibitors of moral courage:

Centcom Commander General David Petraeus
Iraq Commander Ray Odierno
Lt. Col. David Kilcullen (Australian Army)
Major General David Fastabend
Ltc. John Nagl
Ltc. Jan Horvath
Colonel Pete Mansoor
Major General Paul Eaton
Lt. Col Sean MacFarland
Col. H.R. McMaster
Lt. Col. Dale Alford
Lt. Col Paul Yingling
Colonel Tom Greenwood
Lt. General James Dubik
Col. Bill Rapp

Current civilian leaders exhibitors of moral courage:

Defense Secretary Robert Gates
Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Professor Eliot Cohen
Andrew Krepinevich
Army historian Conrad Crane
Michael Vickers
Fred Kagan
Robert Kaplan
Stephen Biddle
American Enterprise Institute generally

The following were the ones who fought against changing tactics in Iraq:

Active-duty military:

Chief of Staff of the Army General George Casey, Jr. (apparently the main villain in The Gamble)
Centcom Commander John Abizaid
Admiral William Fallon
Rear Admiral James Winnefeld, Jr.
Iraq Commander General Ricardo Sanchez
Vice-Admiral James Stavridis
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine General Peter Pace
Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli
The U.S. Air Force generally
The U.S. Navy generally

Retired officers who argued against the Surge:

General Barry McCaffrey
General Wayne Downing

Former civilian leaders:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
L. Paul Bremer, III
Lawrence Di Rita

The following retired officers were instrumental in persuading President Bush to adopt new tactics in Iraq:

General Jack Keane

Ricks expresses deep astonishment that a retired officer like Keane effectively became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the prelude to the Surge. I am less surprised. Active-duty officers are eager to get promoted or keep their jobs. They have to be moral cowards to get that job so you would not expect them to suddenly turn morally courageous after using the exact opposite approach to get to the top over a 40-year career. Retired officers have no such considerations. They are sort of the equivalent of tenured professors. Before I awarded a guy like Keane the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I would comment to him about his active-duty military career and retired military activism,

Better late than freaking never.

By that I refer to all the O.P.U.M. and O.V.U.M. Keane had to go along with to get to be a retired general. I would like him to allocute to that before he accepts his Freedom Medal. In case you’re wondering, Keane is a graduate of Fordham University, not West Point.

Ricks describes Keane as “independent and a clear thinker.” Any such independence would also fall under the better-late-than-never label. He sure as hell did not get to be a four-star general by revealing much independent thinking when he was on active duty.

Ricks quotes Retired Army Colonel Bob Killebrew thus,

Why did the American military establishment so fail to come up with a war-winning strategy that it was up to a retired general and a civilian think tank, AEI, to do their job? This is a stunning indictment of the American military’s top leadership.

Yeah, it is. It is also what I have been saying for months or years at this Web site in articles like:

Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?
Is there really any such thing as military expertise?
The 30-year, marathon, single-elimination, suck-up tournament or How America chooses its generals
the process rather than results orientation of U.S. military officers
• the morality of obeying stupid orders

Only tactical success

Ricks is careful to only attribute tactical success to The Surge. I agree. The main idea behind it was that it would buy time for the three main groups of Iraqis—Kurds, Sunni, and Shia—to reconcile with each other and establish working government institutions. That did not happen. Indeed, there is some evidence to indicate that the Iraqi politicians actually moved in the opposite direction as a result of the success of The Surge.

Basically, Petraeus’ approach is local police work, not military tactics, combined with paying huge amounts of protection money to those who previously killed Americans for slightly less money. They work for the highest bidder. Paying protection money is not a best practice military tactic. On the contrary, it is an admission of military impotence.

I have been saying at this Web site for months or years that the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan is primarily one for local police, who speak the language and know the people, not a foreign military force. If you do a search within my Web domain,, you find 13 different articles I wrote about counterinsurgency that contain the word “police.” The Gamble makes much of Petraeus’ program of making solider's and Marines walk a beat and live in urban Iraq neighborhoods rather than the prior practices of living in isolated Americans-only base camps in the boondocks and patrolling only inside armored or fast-moving vehicles (called “periodic presence patrols”).

The U.S. military is neither equipped nor trained nor capable of being a local police force in third-world countries and never will be because of lack of language, cultural, and local experience.

Ultimately, without the Iraqi politicians reconciling, the tactical successes of Petraeus et al are of little significance in Iraq. Ditto the sacrifices in blood and treasure of the American people in Iraq. Any benefits to the U.S. from The Surge involve only such things as:

• discovering best practices for counterinsurgencies in countries like Iraq
• ending the rewarding of failure and the ignoring of success in the U.S. Army officer corps
• giving at least one example of an insurgency within the U.S. military officer corps that succeeded rather than destroying the careers of the officers in question
• restoring at least some of the honest, well-earned pride U.S. military personnel had during World War II

Similarly, Afghanistan’s government is a corrupt narco-state. Again, with that weak link, our soldiers will not ultimately succeed no matter how well they do their jobs or how well they are led. If and when the Iraq and/or Afghan governments collapse into that which we were trying to prevent, the sacrifices of our soldiers and Marines in those countries will have been for nothing. That blood is on the hands of U.S. military and civilian leaders who paid too little attention to the low probability that our occupations of those countries would have the desired effect: a democratic, peaceful nation in which minority rights, like those of women and infidels, are respected.

‘Driving around waiting to get blown up’

Commenting on the pre-2006 U.S. Army in Iraq, Specialist Tim Ivey said,

It sucks. Honestly, it feels like we’re driving around waiting to get blown up.

In my Reed Doctrine article on how to fight insurgencies, the first item I recommended was to stop driving around waiting to get blown up.

I also complained about letting the enemy successfully use IEDs to kill Americans in my review of the book In a Time of War. That book’s account of the IED death of West Point Class of 2002 member Todd Bryant brought me to tears—and rage against his superiors. I also mentioned a stupid order regarding another IED in my article about the morality of obeying stupid orders.

Here’s another comment from page 35 of The Gamble:

It is like we are on a combat patrol and what we see are all the indicators of an ambush—and yet we continue forward as if we had not been trained to detect, avoid, or take preemptive measures,” said one Army colonel in Iraq who was versed in counterinsurgency theory.

On Page 89, Ricks says Retired General Jack Keane told Rumsfeld that the...

U.S. Army needed to stop conducting mindless Humvee patrols out of big bases and instead start living among the people and patrolling small areas on foot.

On page 10, Ricks echoes what Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, who served in Iraq before the Surge, said in his book Warrior King, with this comment from Iraq war U.S. Marine Captain Zachary Martin:

Some in the military suspected that commanders were just trying to get through their tours in Iraq without making waves, so they could get on with their lives and careers. “The truth is that many commands in Iraq are no longer focused on winning and instead are focused on CYA.”

“...a commander who takes no risks and thus keeps his casualties low can be reasonably assured of a Bronze Star with a combat ‘V,’ an article in the [Marine Corps] Gazette relating how well his battalion performed under his firm and dynamic leadership and, with combat command ticket punched, a decent shot at promotion.”

Martin also said that many U.S. commanders in Iraq seemed more concerned with “force protection” than winning. “Force protection” means avoiding contact with the enemy in order to avoid casualties. Obviously, if that’s what American commanders are trying to do, they and their units should have stayed in the U.S.

With regard to that Bronze Star with a V device, the V stands for valor. You don’t get it just for being in a combat zone. You have to do something specific. See my article on whether U.S. military personnel truly earned all the medals they have been awarded.

I was never in Iraq, but I did a tour in Vietnam and I never saw any behavior on the part of my superiors other than trying to acquire career-enhancing “feathers in their caps” and avoiding career-harming “black eyes,” to use the phrases from the book Catch 22. I never saw or heard any officer in Vietnam show the slightest interest in winning the Vietnam war. That was apparently the case as well in Iraq before The Surge.

As with Vietnam when I was there (1969-70), the politicians in Washington had decided that we needed to turn the war aver to the locals. In Vietnam, it was called Vietnamization and it was to proceed as if it were working whether it was working or not. In Vietnam, it was not. In Iraq, Iraqization is also more or less the current Washington policy, but the commanders on the ground in Iraq indicate that they do not trust the various groups in Iraq to behave after the U.S. forces leave. That being the case, we should not have bothered with the occupation, thereby saving about 5,000 American lives and about $500 billion. And we ought to leave immediately. Ricks book seems to draw that conclusion without saying it. It apparently is too painful for Ricks to say it explicitly after being so close to the men and women who have been trying so hard to win the war.

On page 54, Center for Strategic and International Studies Anthony Cordesman is quoted as saying about the pre-surge approach in Iraq,

It was based on a grossly exaggerated estimate of political success, an almost deliberately false exaggeration of the success of the economic aid effort and progress in deploying the ISF.

On that same page, Frances Bing West an ex-Marine said,

The strategy was a hope posing as a plan.

That is what I saw in Vietnam as well. Vietnamization was not working. The Vietnamese were not up to it or not interested. But the politicians in the states and the military officers in Vietnam who knew what was good for them simply stated Vietnamization was working because that was what the American people wanted to hear and it would put a fig leaf of respectability on the elegant bug out we were trying to pull off.

Simply put, the U.S. is going to have to stay there for decades more, with casualties and big bucks all along, and there is no guarantee that Iraq will be better off as a result of our occupation. Indeed, there are indications that Iraq may be worse off in the future than if we had left Saddam Hussein in charge. That being the case, it seems to me that the U.S. needs to leave yesterday. Fundamentally, the Middle East is a tar baby, including Israel. The people who live in the area from Lebanon to Pakistan and in North Africa are a bunch of dysfunctional, belligerent nut cakes and have been since Roman times. We are merely the latest in a long line of Western powers to try futilely to get the residents of the region to behave.

Civilian Iraq expert Eliot Cohen observed, correctly,

Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war its gets people killed.

The sad truth is that most of the American military who have died in Iraq will probably turn out to have died for no good cause, just like my fellow soldiers in Vietnam. The mere fact that one dies in a U.S. military uniform in action against a foreigner does not necessarily prove that the deceased was involved in a worthwhile activity. He was, most likely, simply following orders. The contribution of the death to preserving the nation’s noblest values is entirely dependent on the competence and wisdom of the person who gave the orders. In Iraq, there appears to have been very little competence and wisdom in our military tactics before The Surge and in our strategy throughout the entire occupation.

On page 15, Ricks quotes an unnamed “senior Pentagon official” as saying,

If you look at the promises behind the war, they were: It will be quick, it will be easy, it will be cheap, it will be catalytic.

I wrote an article about General Petraeus’ testimony before Congress. I was critical of Petraeus and I stand by that criticism, notwithstanding my giving him credit in this article for his performance in The Surge. One point I made was that he did not get to be a four-star general by being the independent thinker he is now regarded as. Ricks puts it thus,

David Lloyd George, the British prime minister for much of World War I, observed after that conflict that for officers in the British army, “to be a good average is safer than to be gifted above your fellows.” This also tends to be true in the U.S. Army. Given that conformist inclination, the most surprising fact about Gen. Petraeus may be that he is a general at all.

Correct. I expressed skepticism about his adherence to the virtues of independent thinking when he was a company grade and field grade officer. I believe, based on my experience in the Army, that he must have gone along to get along when he was lower in rank like a sleeper cell in al Qaeda to use the most ironic analogy.

Domino theory was not fulfilled’

One error I spotted in The Gamble was the Vietnam “domino theory,” that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, the other countries in the region, namely Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Maylaya would also fall. On page 76, Ricks says,

The domino theory...was not fulfilled [when Vietnam fell]

That’s bullshit! Laos and Cambodia did fall to the Communists after Vietnam fell, with horrific loss of life in Cambodia’s killing fields. Cambodia has since improved, but Laos is still a screwed-up basket case. I saw a TV documentary about American Vietnam vets who served in Laos and Cambodia going back on a nostalgia trip. They had to get the hell out of Laos because the Pathet Lao Communists were still there and no less friendly to Americans than they had been 35 years before.

Thailand proved to be made of stronger stuff. The Malay Peninsula seemed unaffected by the horrors in Cambodia being buffered by Thailand. The domino theory had four dominoes. In fact, two of them fell. Two did not.

Surprising criticism of civilians

One surprising criticism, on page 99, was that in both Vietnam and Iraq, civilian leaders did not dig deep enough into the military officers corps to discover that there were disputes about strategy and tactics. Makes sense to me. Military officers below the top military officer are afraid to reveal disagreements with anyone above them, but if the President or other top civilian leaders drag it out of them and indicate they will not be punished for disagreement with superiors, they officers will give their honest feelings. 500,000 military heads are better than one, even when the one is the Chief of Staff, especially when the one is the Chief of Staff. In the case of the Surge, the dissidents persisted and wangled an audience with the president and were persuasive.

One of the complaints the above-named morally courageous men made to the president was that no general had been relieved as a result of lack of success in the Iraq war. I would add that they were actually promoted in spite of lack of success, most notably Casey, just like Westmoreland and Abrams were in Vietnam. They also complained that officers who had success in Iraq were not promoted for that.

Bush asked whom he should promote. “Petraeus,” said Biddle, citing British military historian’s comment,

...all armies get it wrong at the beginning”the question is who adapts fastest.

Biddle said Petraeus was the officer who adapted the best and fastest among U.S. generals.

General Ray Odierno

In his prior book, Fiasco, about the lousy performance of the U.S. military in 2003-2005, Ricks made Ray Odierno the main villain. He depicted Odierno as a man who thought being the biggest bully on the block—compared to al Qaeda—was the best way to win. The Sassaman incident occurred under Odierno’s command and macho rules of operating.

In The Gamble, Odierno gets a second act, and emerges as one of the main heroes and embracers of the new approach: namely that protecting the Iraqi citizens being job one. Odierno is Ricks’ most improved player of the Iraq war. Again, better late than never and credit to Odierno for admitting he was wrong. I would also add that Odierno did not dream up his first tour “toughest mother in the valley” act on his own. The doctrine and training of U.S. Army personnel has long been biased in favor of macho violence. That was appropriate in the Korean War and before, but it has been pretty evident that a different approach was needed in the new asymmetric wars like Vietnam and the Middle East. Odierno may have been a bit more extreme than his peers first time around, but the whole Army was trained to be more or less that macho.

Also, as I have often said in my Web articles about the military, the missions in Vietnam and the Middle East are not primarily military in nature. They are mainly local police missions requiring much diplomacy, intelligence, investigation, and civics class teachers. The military’s role in such conflicts is akin to a SWAT team in urban police work. That is, they get called when the enemy configures itself such that shoot-on-sight rules of engagement and heavy duty military weapons can be used. As a police force, Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division behaved like a police brutality force during his first tour.

Odierno’s son’s wound

Odierno’s son, a 1st Cavalry lieutenant, lost an arm in Iraq. I have a problem with that. Odierno, like myself, was ignorant enough of the Army and combat to volunteer for it by going to West Point. But my three sons know better. I taught them to join the military only if and when they were drafted by lottery in a nationwide mobilization in a real war and never to volunteer for anything once they entered the military. Why didn’t his son know that? Apparently, he urged his son to follow in his footsteps. Why? Ray Odierno’s ego?

Odierno is not dumb enough to fail to see that the military is a SNAFU bureaucracy. Indeed, he was the main dissident within the military about the need for new tactics and more troops. Was his son injured because of being required to use the old tactics or because our pre-Surge troops were spread too thin? Why would anyone urge his child to also enter a SNAFU bureaucracy, especially one that gets its members killed or maimed regularly, often through friendly fire or accidents not involving the enemy? (Odieno’s son’s arm was shot off by an enemy RPG that killed the guy standing next to him.)

The usual answer is a speech about patriotism and the honorable profession of arms and freedom and the long line of Odierno’s who served and all that. In fact, the U.S. military is a bloody clusterfuck, far more so in wartime. How anyone could recommend it to his child is beyond my comprehension. Urging, or even letting, a child enter the U.S. military in the dangerous branches like the infantry and armor and Apache helicopters is akin to urging or letting your son play Russian Roulette with a revolver. The probability of dying in Russian Roulette is 1/6. The probability of dying or being severely maimed in the infantry, armor, or Apache helicopters nowadays in the U.S. Army or Marines may not be 1/6 per se, but it’s in that vicinity. It’s sure as hell orders of magnitude higher than alternatives like studying mechanical engineering in graduate school or going to work for the FDIC or becoming a high school English teacher.

I recently had an argument with the father of a college junior who is going to Marine OCS. He kept saying, “It’s his decision.” I kept arguing that applies to which college he attends or whom he picks as his wife or whether he orders chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It does NOT apply to the young man possibly making a life-or-death decision that he lacks the experience and knowledge to make in an informed way. Indeed, if you choose to volunteer for combat as an infantryman, tanker, or Apache helicopter pilot, you, by definition must not realize what you are doing because if you did realize, you would not do it. It’s a reverse Catch-22. If you volunteer for combat, you are either insane or criminally ignorant of what you are choosing.

The book A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, starts with a quote from 4th century Roman historian Flavius Vegetius Renatus along the lines of,

They who are most eager for battle are most ignorant of it.

Odierno’s son should not have been ignorant of the true nature of battle given who his father was. You only go into battle because it is a duty that fell to you by some random, fair selection process, like my father and uncles who were drafted into World War II and went. One uncle was machine gunned by the Germans and handicapped for life as a result. But he did not spend any time feeling foolish for having volunteered for anything.

Volunteering for combat makes about as much sense as volunteering to be a crash dummy in a 100-mile-an-hour car crash test. If you want to know what combat is like, stop going to war movies and get a job at a funeral home in a metro area that contributes disproportionate numbers of young men to the military. If you still want to climb into that body bag, your next stop should be a psychiatrist’s office. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” must have been coined by a combat veteran watching young men eagerly volunteer for combat.

The other phrase that comes to my mind is, “Protect them father for they know not what they do.” Those who have done a combat tour have a duty to try to get prospective soldiers and marines to realize what it really means to get caught in a fire fight. If we could succeed at that, there would be no such volunteers and our current and future wars would end until such time as the American people were willing to reinstitute the draft.


Unbelievably to me and the Surge advocates, the top brass in the Army including Chief of Staff Casey thought maintaining “readiness” was a higher priority than winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is readiness? The ability to fight World War II in Europe again.

That’s why Casey was ignored in the Surge debate. Why he and the other readiness boys have not been fired is another mystery to me. He is still the highest ranking soldier in the Army. There’s also the question of why hasn’t Casey resigned. He has been ignored. His subordinates go around him direct to the Secretary of Defense and to the President and everybody knows it. Any self-respecting person would resign in the face of such behavior by his subordinates and superiors. Apparently Casey is clinging to his position as Chief of Staff to impress those so ignorant of national affairs that they are unaware he is a discredited figurehead.

The Army has been making this mistake since Vietnam. They think asymmetric wars don’t count. In fact, now that we are the only remaining Superpower, asymmetric wars are the only kind we are going to get to fight. But World War II in Europe was the U.S. Army’s “Greatest Hit.” Ever since, the Army has been like aging actress “Norma Desmond” in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. She used to be a big star and spends all her days pretending she still is and living in the past. Here is a Wikipedia comment about her famous lines.

Several of Desmond's lines, such as, "All right Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up," and "I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" are widely remembered and quoted.

Only for the U.S. Army, it’s,

We are big. It’s the wars that got small!

What would Saddam do?

On page 119, Ricks reveals that Odierno would ask, “What would Saddam do?” as a way to figure out the best tactics. I’m impressed. That’s smart and it shows a lack of a dangerous character flaw, the “not invented here” syndrome, by which decision makers refuse to use anyone’s ideas but their own even when the idea in question is a good one. One such Saddam idea was to station troops on the outskirts of Baghdad to prevent bad guys from moving freely in and out of the city.

‘Blood pact’

Page 133 has a strong statement about what Petraeus and his allies in The Surge claimed to be about. According to Lt. General Dubik, Petraeus made a blood pact with his Iraq generals which Dubik quoted thus,

We’re gonna do this or we’re gonna go down trying. But we’re not going o do this so the next generation of Americans are going to have to go to war to finish this thing. And we’re going to have our integrity when we’re done. Act like this is your last tour of duty, and don’t worry about what comes next for you.

I love the sentiment. And it appears they lived up to it. But I have to note that “we’re going to have our integrity when we’re done” should be more accurately be stated as “We’re going to get back our integrity before we’re done.” If the Surge generals had integrity they would not have made captain or major earlier in their careers, let alone general. When the Army was run by careerist scum, they saluted and “played the game,” including signing whatever false documents had to be signed and kissing whatever asses had to be kissed. See my articles “Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?”, O.V.U.M., and “The 30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament or How America chooses its generals.”

Once again with regard to the moral courage of the active-duty and retired military heroes of The Surge, better late than freaking never.


On page 134, Ricks says,

After years of inclining toward anodyne [capable of relieving pain or distress] pronouncements about steady progress, which always begged the question of whether there was enough progress...the new team could be refreshingly blunt. “We have done some stupid shit,” Major Dave Fastabend [said]...

Here is what I said on that topic in my review of Ltc. John Nagl’s book Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife,

He was asked if General Petraeus was the first Iraq commander to do what needs to be done. Nagl said that General Casey, Petraeus’ predecessor had also “advanced the ball.”

“Advanced the ball?”

How about winning the game?

This choice of phraseology manifests the extreme difficulty of making any changes in the military. Even the most glacial progress is celebrated by military personnel because any kind of progress is so rare.

The problem is America cannot wait for a glacier to defend the nation and the free world. Wars are too important to be left to a body of people who can only make glacial progress toward doing the right thing.

Here are some other comments I made about career military officers and “progress” in my article “Process orientation versus results orientation.”

Time and materials
One of the first things I learned when I went into real estate investment is that you never agree to “time and materials” contracts with a contractor. Always get a fixed bid. Time and materials means the contractor just does the work and bills you for how much time it takes and for the materials he has to buy. The problem with agreeing to this is contractors, being human, then take forever and the job costs far more than normal.

Our first Commander in Chief, George Washington, magnanimously told the Continental Congress that he would work without a salary. He asked the Congress to just reimburse his out-of-pocket expenses. They agreed. He then submitted expense vouchers that stunned the Congress. When he became president, he again offered to work without salary. Having been burned once by that arrangement, Congress said words to the effect of “Hell no!” paid him a salary, and and made him pay his own darned personal expenses. Washington was the richest man in America at the time.

However, the U.S. military as a whole has always been on time and materials and when you take away “for the duration,” the U.S. military is far worse than any contractor about taking forever. “For the duration of the war” was the amount of time U.S. military draftees were to be in the military during the Civil War and World Wars I and II. That gives them a sense of urgency about winning it that the lifers do not have.

In March of 2008, I heard former CentCom commander John Abizaid speak. He spoke with pride and satisfaction of the languid progress that has been made in Iraq. In fact, the American people are unhappy about the cost of the Iraq war in lives and money and with how long it is taking—far longer than the U.S. Civil War or World Wars I or II.

That’s because the U.S. military is a bunch of process-oriented bureaucrats working on time and materials. Adopt a draft and tell the military it will go “over there” and “won’t come back til it’s over over there” and they damned well will wrap it up in a couple of years. [You can hear the World War I George M. Cohan song Over There at]

One of Petraeus’s guys, Col. H.R. McMaster, said of the pre-Surge conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on page 136,

A short-term approach to long-term problems generated multiple short-term plans that often confused activity with progress.

Often? Claiming activity is success is almost the definition of career U.S. military people. That’s what my “process versus results” article is all about.


I am not a Bush supporter. I voted for the Libertarian candidates when he ran. He gets almost no credit for anything he ever did. One thing I give him credit for, although I am not saying he made the right decision, is he made some decisions based on what he thought was right.

No focus group or poll told Bush to invade Iraq. He did it anyway. The same is true of the change in tactics and leaders in Iraq from 2006 to 2008. There was no consensus or political support for The Surge. He did it anyway. The invasion of Iraq was successful to an extent. The initial occupation was not. The Surge and its accompanying changes in tactics was successful militarily. Page 150 of The Gamble discusses Bush’s willingness to make such a radical change in spite of weak political support for him in general and almost no political support for The Surge in particular.

Petraeus’ job to be optimistic

Petraeus is described on page 153 as the apotheosis of “can-do-ism.” He said it is part of the role of a commander to stay publicly optimistic.

This is a slippery slope of ends-justify-the-means dishonesty. I discussed that in my article asking whether there really is any such thing as military expertise.

Having a “can do” attitude when, in fact, you can’t do, is a criminal lie in the context of life-and-death decisions.

I think the more accurate description of a commander’s role is to be honest behind the scenes and if he does not believe the plan decided on will work, rather than dishonestly try to fool his subordinates, a commander who does believe in the plan in question should instead command the operation in question.

Thousands of men under Petraeus’ command have died. I think his role as a commander was to accomplish his mission and take care of the welfare of his men. It appears likely that he should have said, “I think we can tactically get the situation under control, but without reconciliation by the various tribes and sects, it won’t matter.” Then, we would have either had another Petraeus put in charge of getting the civilian Iraqi government to get their act together, or we would have gone home and saved those thousands of lives.

Petraeus and the other officers who presided over those deaths can’t hide behind the political side being “above my pay grade.” That’s a bureaucrat’s rationalization for sinning by silence when he should have protested.

The dead soldiers and marines are permanently dead. The situation may be ambiguous, but their deaths are not. Although Petraeus et al were not the political, diplomatic bureaucrats, by dint of their closeness to the Iraqi people during The Surge, they were in a position to see the political situation better than anyone else. They had a duty to say what I said above: “We think we can do the military part, but it appears it won’t matter because the political side is not happening.”

The military careers of Petraeus and the others who supported his new approach prospered when they won their gamble. But those thousands of soldiers and marines are still dead. Those thousands of soldiers and marines lost Petraeus’ and Bush’s gamble.

I don’t want to misrepresent Petraeus’ accomplishment. He completely turned the situation around and achieved about as much military victory as was possible. My addition to the superficial news reports is:

1. In part, this was achieved by paying protection money to or hiring our former enemies
2. The tactic that worked was essentially having the U.S. military behave like New York City beat cops living in the neighborhood in question and walking, not riding, around the neighborhood making friends with locals, in other words, military commander Petraeus did not have much tactical success until he ordered his soldiers and marines to behave like police, not military. The lesson is if we are going to go ino the business of policing foreign countries, we need a new force of expeditionary policemen and women. We should not be using the U.S. military as local foreign police.
3. The military is only part of the issue. If there is no corresponding political victory creating a central government that can replace us, we have wasted our treasure and blood on these two countries.

In short, however smart and pracitcal and all that what Petraeus did was, it was not a military role. God bless him and his subordinates for pulling off this paying off our enemies and acting like Iraqi policemen ought to act with military personnel untrained for such a mission, but don’t do it again. The proper big picture policy is what George W. Bush said during his 2000 campaign.

Bush is far more tentative about committing American troops and rules out their use for what he dismisses as nation building. “There may be some moments when we use our troops as peacekeepers, but not often,” he said in the final presidential debate. In the second debate he suggested a broader philosophical disagreement with Mr. Gore: “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it’s got to be.’”
Gore, on the other hand, has repeatedly portrayed himself as a man who has come to believe in vigorous American intervention abroad
Source: David Sanger, NY Times Oct 30, 2000

Bush was right the first time and if he had stuck with that, 5,000 Americans would still be alive, $600 billion would have been spent here rather than there, and we would probably have a more bipartisan Congress/White House today. We would be better off having those 5,000 Americans alive and Saddam Hussein still in power.

‘I’m supposed to send my sons to die for that?’

In the margin of page 164, I wrote the above comment. Here is the passage that triggered it.

The goal was no longer the gradiose one that somewhat murkily grew out of the 9/11 attacks and was meant to transform Iraq and the Middle East...Instead, the quietly retated U.S. goal was to achieve a modicum of stability, to keep Iraq together, and to prevent the war from metastasizing into a regional bloodbath. That meant finding what one official calld “a tolerable level of violence” and learning to live with it.

If my sons had died there, do we put this shit on their tombstones at Arlington Cemetery?

Lt. Reed
Effort to Achieve a
Modicum of Stability
in Iraq 2005

Sgt. Reed
Died of Wounds
To Keep Iraq Together 2004

Lance Corporal Reed
Killed In Action
by the Tolerabe Level of Violence in Iraq 2006

Petraeus started saying, “We are willing to accept less than a Jeffersonian democracy.” Well that’s goddamn easy for him to say. His kid’s not in a body bag. As far as I’m concerned, he can’t take my kid’s life even for a Jeffersonian democracy unless it’s a Jeffersonian democracy in the U.S.A.

The 4/10/09 Wall Street Journal had an Op-Ed by Frederick Kagan and Kimperly Kagan. It says adequate political progress is being made, contrary to the picture painted in the less recently published book The Gamble. I would not know, by Frederick Kagan is one of the civilian moral courage heroes named above.

To be continued

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.

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