Ending the Neverending War

Reviewed by John Nagl

The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror
by Dexter Filkins
Knopf, 2008, 368 pages

Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq
by Linda Robinson
Public Affairs, 2008, 416 pages

The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2008, 512 pages

When the insurgency began in Iraq in the late summer of 2003, the United States Army was caught unprepared. Until then, it had been designed, trained, and equipped to win conventional wars, and was without doubt peerless in that arena. But it was not ready for an enemy who understood that it had no hope of defeating the United States on a conventional battlefield, and therefore chose to wage war against it from the shadows.
Yet over the five years that followed, in one of history’s most remarkable examples of adaptation under fire, the United States Army learned to conduct a surprisingly successful counterinsurgency campaign. Three new books, each by a prominent journalist, tell the story of that dramatic change, two from on the ground in Iraq and one from the corridors of Washington. Viewing the conflict from their different perspectives provides important insights into a war that America was losing badly only two years ago, and now looks to have turned around. It also suggests something about how America is likely to fight the war in Afghanistan under President Obama, and offers broader lessons about the nature of warfare in the twenty-first century.
Wars are barely controlled chaos, marked by incongruity and insanity. This bedlam that is combat is a recurring motif in Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror. Filkins, who writes about desperate and dangerous places for the New York Times, offers a series of vignettes that show the human side of war; the small deeds that make up the depth and breadth of tragedy and survival. Having lived in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, he recounts scenes of public mutilations and executions in a Kabul soccer stadium. Despite the horrors of its Taliban government, however, he became fond of the country, coming to “adore the place, for its beauty and its perversions, for the generosity of its people in the face of the madness.” Filkins also saw the results of the September 11 terrorist attacks in Manhattan, and offers a strikingly resigned perspective on those cataclysmic events, noting that “in the Third World, this kind of thing happened every day.”
But The Forever War is mostly about Iraq. Filkins spent more than three years there, watching as an impressive initial invasion turned to dust in the mouths of American soldiers who had been given no plan for the occupation that followed. It all began to go downhill early on in the campaign. Looters, unconstrained by the legal authority that it is the responsibility of any occupying power to provide, destroyed the very fabric of Iraqi society, literally removing the window frames and electric cables from buildings like the former British headquarters that housed my own battalion in late 2003.
The vice-chief of staff of the army at the time was General Jack Keane, a Vietnam veteran who knew something about counterinsurgency, and knew also that the United States Army was not ready for this fight. In 2006, when the failures of America’s Iraq policy had become visible to all, he personally took responsibility for the army’s unpreparedness, noting that, “We put an army on the battlefield that I had been a part of for thirty-seven years. It doesn’t have any doctrine, nor was it educated and trained, to deal with an insurgency…. After the Vietnam War, we purged ourselves of everything that had to do with irregular warfare or insurgency, because it had to do with how we lost that war. In hindsight, that was a bad decision.” Far too many of my friends, both American and Iraqi, paid for this bad decision in blood.
I watched the invasion from my quarters in Fort Riley, Kansas, publicly proclaiming my desire to be a part of the fight, privately—if guiltily—grateful for the time with my wife and young son as my friends fought their way into Baghdad. Assurances that the troops would be home by Christmas meant that my tank battalion resumed training for a conventional war even as a nascent insurgency was growing in al-Anbar province. My battalion was engaged in simulated tank-on-tank combat in the steamy Kansas August of 2003 when we were ordered to change direction and prepare for counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. Even then, counterinsurgency was not a word we were allowed to use in public. Our enemies were officially “dead-enders” and “former regime elements,” not Iraqi Sunnis opposed to our presence and embittered by our too often heavy-handed occupation.
Just six weeks after the abrupt cancellation of our exercise, my task force of eight hundred soldiers found itself in al-Anbar province with responsibility for the troubled Sunni Triangle between Ramadi and Fallujah. Our sector, centered on the dusty town of Khalidiyah, was home to some 60,000 souls, almost exclusively Sunnis. Perhaps 0.5 percent of them were committed to killing me and my soldiers. As near as we could tell, this amounted to about three hundred dedicated insurgents. We killed or captured twice that number over the course of the next year, but the insurgency only grew stronger. Filkins writes that in the first year of the war “the Americans were making enemies faster than they could kill them.” My personal experience supports that harsh conclusion.
To illustrate what went wrong and why, Filkins uses the story of Lieutenant Colonel Nate Sassaman, then commander of an American battalion in the Fourth Infantry Division. During his conversations with Filkins, Sassaman confirms the analysis of General Keane when he complains that, “We are doing a lot of missions that we didn’t train for.... Sometimes I wish there were more people who knew more about nation-building.” With little idea of what else to do, Sassaman simply does what he knows how to do best, telling Filkins, “We are going to inflict extreme violence” in Samarra.
It should come as no surprise that “extreme violence” didn’t solve the problems of a country torn by ethnic conflicts and shattered by the tyranny of a Baathist regime that would not release the bodies of political prisoners until a family member had paid for the bullet used to execute them. American mistakes early on didn’t help. The decision to disband the Iraqi Army, for instance, was among the worst of a series of errors. When the decision came down, a friend of mine had been working with an Iraqi division commander who had 10,000 soldiers ready to provide security on the streets. My friend had to tell him that the unit was being disbanded on Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer’s orders; the Iraqi general replied, “You know that this means that I will be fighting you tomorrow.”
Poor decisions like these, taken during that bungled first year of the war, broke Iraq and fueled the Sunni insurgency. For the next two and a half years, American strategy focused on handing over control of the country to a hurriedly regenerated and predominantly Shi’ia army and police force incapable of dealing with the ghostlike insurgents. The Shi’ia police force returned to what it knew: the manic violence of the Saddam era, using household implements to torture Sunnis suspected of being terrorists. The Sunnis, for their part, adopted equally brutal tactics. Filkins details the differences between the sects’ murder methods: “Electric drills were a Shi’ite obsession. When you found a guy with drill marks in his legs, he was almost certainly a Sunni, and he was almost certainly killed by a Shi’ite. The Sunnis preferred to behead, or to kill themselves while killing others. By and large, the Shi’ites didn’t behead, didn’t blow themselves up. The derangements were mutually exclusive.”
Filkins finally left Iraq in the summer of 2006, when the killing was at its worst and the chaos had reached a level that was simply unbearable. It is hard to overstate the impact of war on those who have lived through it, and hard for them to relate to those who have not seen what they have. Filkins’s sad words ring true to those who left much of what was decent and hopeful about themselves on the streets of Mesopotamia: “And then I got back to the world, and the weddings and the picnics were the same as everything had been in Iraq, silent and slow and heavy and dead. Your dreams come alive, though, when you come home. Your days may die, but your dreams explode.”
At this point, the focus of the story moves to Washington, where I was serving dead days in the Pentagon and confronting exploding dreams at night. Across the Potomac, the White House was slowly beginning to recognize that its strategy of hastily handing over control to the Iraqis, rather than providing sufficient forces to protect the local population, was failing. How that belated recognition came about is the subject of Bob Woodward’s The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008.
A typical Woodward epic, The War Within is sourced by often anonymous but always highly placed insiders. Perhaps because of the shellacking the White House received in Woodward’s previous book on the Iraq War, State of Denial, this time around the reporter’s on-the-record sources include national security adviser Stephen Hadley and the president himself, who comes across as maddeningly disconnected from the policy decisions for which he was responsible. “Sure would be nice if this got better,” he tells secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at one point, apparently unaware of the fact that the direction of the Iraq War rested on his shoulders. Woodward describes an administration that “lacked a process to examine consequences, alternatives, and motives,” led by “[a] president so certain, so action-oriented, so hero-worshipped by his national security adviser” that he “almost couldn’t be halted.” This deeply dysfunctional organization took years longer than it should have to recognize that the war was being lost and a new strategy was required.
Although prematurely transferring security responsibilities to unprepared Iraqi forces still remained official policy, another strategy was now being discussed in Washington, called “Clear, Hold, and Build.” First publicly articulated by secretary of state Rice before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 2005, it recognized that simply removing insurgents from an area was insufficient unless forces were left behind to hold what had been cleared and then build a functioning government and economy within that security bubble. This strategy requires a lot of boots on the ground. According to most counterinsurgency theorists, there have to be twenty to twenty-five soldiers for every thousand civilians in order for it to work. Implementing “Clear, Hold, and Build” would entail the deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq.

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