02.10.09

Why I Went Back to Iraq

The bestselling author of Fiasco vowed he was done writing about America’s unending war. But in The Gamble, he discovered a new tale: How a small group of people bucked the US military establishment—and did surprisingly well.

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When I finished Fiasco, I told my wife I was done with the Iraq war.

I was wrong. As I watched Iraq from afar in 2006 and early 2007, I realized that I couldn’t stay away. I formulated a variety of ways to reduce the risks I would take and discussed it with my wife. She wasn’t pleased but understood.

I think we are stuck in Iraq for many years to come. Obama’s war there may well be longer than Bush’s war.

The first big surprise to me when I got back to Baghdad in May 2007 was how many doors Fiasco opened. This may seem counterintuitive, because the book was sharply critical of the conduct of the war. But remember that many of the criticisms it carried came from active-duty soldiers. And by 2007, many of the military’s internal dissidents had risen in the ranks, and indeed some were being put in charge. I found it wasn’t unusual for an officer I was interviewing to finish the session by asking me to sign his copy of my book. I did so with pleasure.

But I didn’t want to just write another Fiasco. That would be boring and, what’s worse, inaccurate. The war had changed several times, from an invasion to an occupation to a civil war. I wanted to see how it would change again.

Read an exclusive excerpt from The Gamble.

I also was curious in 2007 about where the war was going. The attention of the American public was waning, and the number of reporters in Iraq was declining, so it was harder from a distance to figure out what was going on. Also, I thought that reporters had kind of lost track of the narrative on the war—that is, the larger framework in which to view events. The proper framework was that of counterinsurgency theory, but not many journalists knew much about that.

When I started work on The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, I didn’t know what its story would be. I reported it in real time, going on five trips to Iraq in 2007 and 2008. On each trip, I’d interview Gens. Petraeus and Odierno, and many of the people around them, as well as commanders and soldiers I knew. I’d also try to look up people like Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Almost all the hundreds of hours of interviews I conducted were embargoed—that is, not for publication before the end of 2008. That enabled people to be more candid. With the passage of time, I was able to ask people about what they had said to me before, and how their views changed, and why. Between trips I would stay in touch with people by e-mail, and also see them when they were back in Washington D.C., to testify before Congress or meet with fellow government officials.

The story I wound up with is, I think, a better read than Fiasco. It is a tale of how a small group of people bucked the US military establishment, came up with a different way to operate in Iraq, and did surprisingly well, going through some very hard times in the process.

One of the biggest surprises to me as I worked on the book was just how tough the spring of 2007 was. This was the “surge” period. For a long, hard spell—in February, March, April ,and May of that year—the number of US dead rose every month, and with no sign of a turnaround in security as the payoff. I think people back here probably never understood that that spring was the toughest period in the war.

The subtitle of the book indicates that it is about generals, but my two favorite parts of the book are about small units. The first one is the tale of the battle of Tarmiyah, when a small outpost of American troops came under a powerful surprise attack. It was almost like an American version of the old Michael Caine classic movie Zulu. By the end of the day, of the 38 troops in the outpost, two were dead and another 29 were wounded. But they held the post.

The other part, oddly, also has a movie in its title: “The Insurgent Who Loved Titanic.” This section, about a captain who met with an insurgent who had planted 200 bombs against the Americans, really captures the essence of the war in 2007-08.

The other thing that people don’t understand is that this war is far from over. It has changed several times, and it is changing again now, but it hasn’t ended. The surge succeeded militarily, but it failed politically, because it was supposed to create a “breathing space” in which the country’s fundamental problems could be addressed. None—not one—have been solved. Not the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the power relationship between the country’s three major groups, or most importantly the manner in which oil revenue will be shared.

I think we are stuck in Iraq for many years to come. Gen. Odierno told me last November that he’d like to see at least 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in 2015, long after President Obama’s first term will have ended. What this bodes, I think, is that Obama’s war in Iraq may well be longer than Bush’s war there.

Thomas E. Ricks is The Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent, where he has covered the US military since 2000. A member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams for national reporting, he is the author of Fiasco, Making the Corps, and A Soldier's Duty.