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Iraq: A Game of Craps

Before we use Thomas Ricks’s The Gamble to revisit the now largely forgotten American escalation in Iraq, a few words on the US occupation there between 2003 and 2006 might be helpful, and Ricks himself provides them.

Distilling three years of failure through the lens of a single day’s massacre—which left over twenty Iraqis, many of them children, dead—we learn right at the start that:

What happened that day in Haditha was the disturbing but logical culmination of the shortsighted and misguided approach the U.S. military took in invading and occupying Iraq from 2003 through 2006: protect yourself at all costs, focus on attacking the enemy…while leaving the population unguarded and exposed to insurgent terrorism and coercion. This bankrupt approach was rooted in the dominant American military tradition that tends to view war only as battles between conventional forces of different states. The American tradition also tends to neglect the lesson, learned repeatedly in dozens of twentieth-century wars, that the way to defeat an insurgency campaign is not to attack the enemy but to protect and win over the people.

OK, now suppose around this same time, a trio of career army officers—with the help of a cadre of university intellectuals, policy wonks, and an Australian military contractor—decide to subvert the entire military hierarchy, seize control of the war, effectively redesign the failed approach to occupying Iraq, and force the floundering Bush administration to accept its change of course. Throw in a British humanitarian worker with a taste for espionage, and a 6-foot-7, chain-smoking, Brazilian-born Palestinian raised by Mennonites in Jordan, who abandons his life as a New York City cab driver to join the American effort in Iraq, and you have the narrative engine driving The Gamble.

If I’ve set the stage for what looks to be a hokey Hollywood war flick, that’s because The Gamble crackles with the sort of proliferating improbabilities, colorful characters, and high-stakes risk-taking usually reserved for the movies. Ricks recounts the history behind a radical reorientation in the American military—the new posture that gave life, in turn, to the famous “surge”—with a sure hand and flare for dramatic detail. At the same time, The Gamble is far from fluff; while the majority of literature on Iraq produced during this period will undoubtedly tumble into obscurity before long, The Gamble will prove an enduring artifact of the war for years to come.

The book builds on Ricks’ 2006 masterpiece, Fiasco, a scathing, smart indictment of an unnecessary and stupidly prosecuted war. Ricks took no prisoners in laying blame for the Baghdad boondoggle squarely at the feet of the goonish manly-men populating the military’s highest ranks. Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, Ricks passionately argued, allowed the US armed forces to illegally storm Iraq, with little protection and even less strategic guidance. Worse still, the Bush team dismissed credible warnings against the war from established experts with all the arrogance of high school jocks slamming the geeks against their lockers.

In The Gamble, however, we get revenge of the nerds, as a brigade of bowtie-wearing academics and PhD-holding army officers wrest control of the war from the Pentagon bullies. The first half of the book recounts this revolt, effectively arguing that the story is one of a double insurgency: the first raging in Iraq against the American occupation, the second quietly dismantling failed policies in Washington. The latter rebellion was hardly an organized, concentrated effort at its genesis, however. As we come quickly to find out, the surge was instead spawned by an orgy of entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself action taken by a host of different players, the various strands of which only later came together in united purpose. Ricks deftly navigates a slippery slope in his historical account by offering a meticulously clinical treatment of the ideas that ultimately shaped the American escalation in Iraq while at the same time crafting a captivating thriller packed with intrigue, double-dealing, and sedition in the name of saving what’s left of America’s honor.

All of which leaves the reader with the uneasily palliated concern that Ricks celebrates in The Gamble, that which he rightly condemned in Fiasco. The protagonists in The Gamble, while surely deserving of praise for attempting to make a sickening situation in Iraq a little less horrendous, did so by flagrantly disregarding democratic transparency, the institutional structures of our government and military, and in some cases, the law. The only difference between the revolt described in The Gamble and the one chronicled in Fiasco seems to be that the former boasts more sympathetic characters. In many ways, the real story that emerges from both books taken together is the willful insubordination and indiscipline that apparently became pro forma in the U.S. military during the Bush years.

Yet Ricks barrels through with his foot on the gas, dedicating the bulk of the book’s second half to chronicling the surge’s painful implementation. Of the various elements comprising the surge, the first, and politically most challenging, was a troop-level boost in the neighborhood of 30,000 additional soldiers. In newly augmented numbers, American troops increasingly left their bases, set up outposts in cities and towns, patrolled streets with 24/7 regularity, and became, in the process, attractive targets for insurgent attacks.

The first months were smeared with blood, as violence intensified throughout the country. Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops increased 70 percent, an acceleration that produced mounting casualties with shocking frequency throughout the spring and into the summer. Month after month of suicide bombings and other assaults whittled away the American presence—even as it mushroomed past 150,000 troops—leading to demands for immediate withdrawal in Washington, and leaving soldiers on the ground broken and demoralized. “In the hard-hit 1st Battalion of the 26th Infantry Regiment,” for example, “the first sergeant of Alpha Company, while on patrol, said ‘I can’t take it anymore,’ put a weapon under his chin, and shot himself in front of his men.”

But then as the summer began to close, the gamble began to pay off, at least in security terms. Attacks declined sharply by over 60 percent as the insurgency seemed to dissolve, and Iraqis took back control of their streets. The capital, for one, “felt distinctly better. Kebab stands and coffee shops had reopened across the city…ordinary Iraqis felt safe enough to venture out of their homes at night…women discarded the head scarves that Islamic extremists had insisted they wear…Ramadan didn’t bring a major spike in violence, as it had in the previous five years. Some 39,000 displaced families safely returned to Baghdad.”

This is happy news, so far as it goes, but the most glaringly obvious question is left unanswered: What would have happened had there been no surge? Hints that the bloodbath would have abated on its own do crop up briefly in The Gamble, but are quickly dismissed. Ricks notes that by the time the surge hit its stride in the Iraqi capital, “the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad had been largely completed, with some neighborhoods that were once heavily Sunni becoming overwhelmingly Shia.” According to one soldier patrolling the increasingly peaceful city, “Now that the Sunnis are all gone, murders have dropped off...One way to put it is they ran out of people to kill.” In other words, the surge’s success may have been all in the timing.

Still, even if we accept that the final months of 2008 proved the surge to be tactically successful, the first months of 2009 have revealed it to be a strategic failure. Iraq may be physically safer, but the country’s political situation remains a morass, and it looks to get worse. The Maliki government hobbles along—dysfunctionally corrupt at best, pathologically sectarian at worst—which harbors bleak assessments of what to expect on the horizon. While the surge may have averted the utter collapse of Iraq in the near-term, it also left behind a legacy that will leave the country suffering what Ricks refers to as “the same instability and violence as Yemen and Pakistan” in the long run.

But as the economic crisis continues to swallow up the world’s attention by melting all that was solid into thin air, will we even notice, or care? Ricks arrives at the deflated conclusion that “Many Americans seem to think the Iraq war is close to wrapped up, or at least our part in it. When I hear that, I worry…that we are now failing to imagine sufficiently what we have gotten ourselves into and how much more we have to pay in blood, treasure, prestige and credibility.” We have to stay, Ricks argues, whether we, or Iraqis, want us to or not. There are “no good answers, just less bad ones,” in Iraq, and while staying may be immoral, he concludes, withdrawal would be even more irresponsible, Iraqi public opinion be damned.

The Gamble closes with the disturbing prediction that “the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened,” a chilling confirmation, if he is correct, of John Grady’s realization at the end of All the Pretty Horses, “that the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that…in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.” A single flower, no matter how wilted, or imaginary.


Michael Busch

Michael Busch is a Ph.D. student in International Relations at the CUNY Graduate Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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