The Magazine

Victory in Iraq

How it was won, how it may be lost.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By BARTLE B. BULL
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When General George Casey, the four-star commander of allied forces, finally leaves Iraq in 2007, after almost four years, he gives his service revolver to then-and-now-prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. Could there be a better expression of the sincerity and futility of those wasted Casey/Rumsfeld years? Later, in 2008, months after the new strategy has proven successful, the authors give us another vignette: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice kicking General David Petraeus under a table in the White House as the general tries to suggest his own trip to Syria. In the 68 pages of notes, we see why Gordon and Trainor are such a formidable pair when it comes to pulling such scenes into a narrative. Their work is so comprehensive and deeply sourced as to be something akin to a documentary history in its own right. There are hundreds of interviews with the players, from Army grunts to presidents, prime ministers, and generals. There are private notes, shared confidentially with the authors, of numerous others: an unnamed “meeting participant,” “SEAL officer,” or “former [Coalition Provisional Authority] official.”

Gordon’s extensive reporting from the American side provides welcome color. When the surge pushes American troops into the vicious “Baghdad Belts” around the capital, we are there on the ground with the participants as the big picture plays out in wild local battles. When fighting erupts in a tiny place called Hawr Rajab, we see the “England” logo on the T-shirt of a sheikh of the local Sunni Awakening while we hear the American soldier not far away shouting, “I need another body bag.” 

The result coalesces as a valuable reminder of the trajectory of a conflict which, by 2008, had ended in a military victory that gave the United States a historic strategic opportunity. Even many who followed the war closely will have forgotten the fact that the hapless Jay Garner, first ground commander of the U.S.-led occupation, had cut his teeth in the field of air defense. From these early days through to the end, we repeatedly see American civilian officials “trapped in the Green Zone,” unable to visit and understand the country beyond their blast walls. It can be easy to forget just how soon—and how successfully—Iraq’s first free election occurred. In January 2005, despite attacks on over 300 polling stations, 58 percent of the voting population turned out. 

In February 2006, we see the key moment in Iraq’s descent towards the sectarian war that the Sunnis required if the Americans were to be persuaded to leave: the Sunni bombing of the Shias’ Samarra mosque. At the end of that terrible year, we see the Baker-Hamilton commission deliver its report recommending a swift withdrawal and a “transition” to Iraqi security forces that were known not to exist. We see this declaration of defeat taken up by freshman Illinois senator Barack Obama, who, a few months later, will cite it as the model for his Iraq War De-Escalation Act. 

The year 2007, then, was a stunning one: Americans pushing small units deep into the streets of Iraq’s towns and cities, especially Baghdad, during bloody summer months; the Anbar tribes reaching out—near Ramadi at first, and then elsewhere—for an alliance against al Qaeda; the Surge of Concrete—25 miles of temporary blast walls carving up West Baghdad alone—helping to calm the capital after the blood-letting. Six years later, as we divine what the second Obama administration will do with the “flexibility” it has promised Russia (and presumably Iran), it is useful to be reminded of what happened when General Petraeus went to Washington for his confirmation hearing at the beginning of that remarkable year. How many recall that, on the day of Petraeus’s testimony, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware was holding his own hearing, calling for the breakup of Iraq itself? Now that personal scandal has blighted Petraeus’s career, we ought to remember the dignity with which he handled the “General Betray Us” accusations of presidential candidate Obama’s key allies and donors. Now is not the time to forget the claims of Senators Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that Petraeus’s numbers and conclusions were simply not to be believed.

Replete as it is with hidden moments of the little picture, and comprehensive as it is in reminding us of the larger events in America’s third-longest war, The Endgame is ultimately about a different perspective altogether. It is the story of strategy, of the big picture. This story is told as it happened, through the quotidian developments of a long conflict. Related this way, the war takes shape before the reader’s eyes as the painful effort of a stubborn power, half-blindfolded, stumbling about a new and vicious place and trying to find a formula that worked.