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The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006–2008

 By Thomas Ricks. 394 pp. Penguin Press, 2009 $27.95

In 2006, Thomas Ricks, a reporter for The Washington Post, published Fiasco, a scathing indictment of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. As he saw it then, the war was ill conceived, poorly carried out, and inevitably headed for a disastrous conclusion. In this well-written sequel that covers the famous surge, along with the American military shift in favor of an innovative counterinsurgent strategy in 2007–2008, Ricks amends his thinking somewhat. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews with an impressive range of key American military officers and civilian policymakers, along with Ricks’s own experiences reporting from Iraq, this book is the tale of an improbable American success.

Ricks splits his story into three parts. The first covers the nadir of the war, 2005–2006, when the United States was on the verge of defeat. Americans were mired deep in the sludge of a horribly failed strategy, focused on turning the war over to the fledgling Baghdad government. At this stage, retired Gen. Jack Keane, a veteran of the war, and a few other like-minded advocates sensed that the Iraqis were not ready to take over. Only a dramatic strategic change in favor of more boots on the ground and a true counterinsurgency approach could turn the mess around, they felt.

In Part II, Ricks explains how this small clique of military leaders, most notably Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, along with civilian think-tankers, eventually persuaded President George W. Bush to try their new strategy. In 2007, against vocal and tenacious opposition (in both major U.S. political parties), Bush gambled what remained of his badly depleted political capital on the new strategy.

The final portion of the book outlines the dramatic success of the surge in reducing violence and, most notably, American casualties. Ominously, however, all this took place with little in the way of political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites—vital for the long-term peace and stability of the country. This leads Ricks to the cryptic conclusion that “the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”

The heroes of Ricks’s narrative are Keane, the old warrior who enjoyed more high-level influence in retirement than he had during his active duty career; Petraeus, an intellectually brilliant energy ball whose integrity and charisma drove the turnaround; and Odierno. The author sees Odierno as an example of the U.S. Army’s remarkable ability to transition from conventional, firepower-dependent warfare to agile, nation-building counterinsurgency.

Ricks actually breaks the story that, even after Bush’s approval for the surge, Petraeus and Odierno constantly had to struggle against their own military superiors to stay the course on the new strategy. What emerges from all this is a fascinating, accurate insider’s view of a recent historical event, with a minimum of hyperbole. Rare indeed, such accounts tend to endure as staple sources for decades. Such will be the case with this one.

The book does have a few warts, though. Ricks begins with an account of the infamous Haditha incident in 2005, when marines allegedly killed Iraqi civilians in cold blood. Ricks strongly intimates that the marines were guilty, even though charges against them were later dropped, but he presents no smoking gun. In fact he offers very little on-the-ground perspective from enlisted soldiers and marines. The book is almost entirely about—and told through the eyes of—the higher ups, so much so that I came to wonder if he ever rubbed shoulders with enlisted personnel in his many travels. His work would have been even more valuable with a section on how privates, corporals, and sergeants perceived the events of 2007–2008. I also sensed that, like many other Beltway reporters, he found it difficult to credit President Bush for the success of the surge.

These are just minor quibbles, though. Ricks is perhaps the leading military journalist of his time. Like any good reporter, he is imbued with a natural skepticism and a critical mindset. Anyone who wishes to understand the Iraq War, or even the modern U.S. military, simply must read his work, especially this outstanding book. I view it as an instant classic and highly recommend it.


Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here