Ahmed Chalabi died Tuesday, at his home in Baghdad, without many honors. He had egged on the U.S. invasion in 2003 by circulating stories of Saddam’s nuclear facilities, wanting to be president of his old country. But when none were found, he became infamous in his new one instead.
It is jarring for veterans of the Bush wars that nobody really remembers Chalabi, especially young people. They don’t remember Hans Blix, Don Rumsfeld, Chemical Ali or the Hussein boys. They remember Iraq, sort of, as a byword of disaster, but not the world-famous marquee from a decade ago.
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, a book of leadership lessons learned by Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, is thus extremely welcome; not necessarily because of its leadership lessons, but as a highly engaging memoir of what America did in urban Sunni Iraq.
We forget that Iraq was a profoundly different war than Afghanistan. One operator called it a buzzsaw. In places like Ramadi and Fallujah, U.S. troops were locked in a fight that looked far more like Hue City or Stalingrad than anything they did later in Kandahar, Somalia, Libya, or Yemen. Americans were engaged in brutal, block-by-block ground combat, and Willink and Babin’s SEALs were at the tip of the spear. They pulled sniper overwatch, patrol reconnaissance, occasionally a hostage rescue. And a lot of captures and kills.
At its best, the book offers vivid battle scenes, such as the horrifying accidental shooting of a friendly SEAL, the stillness of American Sniper Chris Kyle tracking a target, and the sudden shock of two men chasing a fleeing Iraqi into the side alleys of Ramadi at night, only to find themselves lost and alone, surrounded by armed enemies in the dark. The pages go by very fast indeed.
Occasionally, the language can veer into the campy. Veteran SEALs are “tough as nails.” On one page, U.S. Tomahawk missiles, RPG rockets, and friendly machine gun fire are all “deadly,” fired with “alarming accuracy” in a battlefield navigated “courageously” by “fearless” U.S. troops. Likely so; but the modifiers snap by.
The challenge of writing about leadership is that the concepts are fairly simple. For Willink and Babin, Extreme Ownership being totally responsible for the entirety of the success or failure of the operation, up, down, and across the chain of command. Give clear instructions. Set priorities and make timely decisions. Own everything, which is the rub of their book’s title. Simple stuff, but effective.
The lingering leadership question, however, is that those who try out for the SEALs are the Navy’s best. Those who make it are the best of the best. The SEALs of Task Unit Bruiser in Iraq are, by Willink and Babin’s own description, the best of the best of the best, performing a mission of the most vital national importance. Most other people aren’t and don’t. Can Extreme Ownership trickle down to the laundry officer? What about United Airlines’ baggage handler at LAX? A Walgreens’ clerk? Maybe. Maybe those would be cases where Willink and Babin press their claim for “extreme ownership” most vigorously. But maybe we’re not all SEALs.
Andrew L. Peek was a U.S. Army intelligence officer and is currently a professor at Claremont McKenna College.