The Strongest Tribe. War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq, by Bing West

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Ed. Random House, 2009. Size 23 x 15,5 cm. With 34 photos in color. State: Used, very good. 444 pages

When I first met Capt. Doug Zembiec in 2004, he was sitting on the roof of a shot-up house, nibbling on a cracker and shouting into a headset over the cracks of rifle fire. The fierce battle for Fallujah had been raging for weeks. Black stubble covered his cheeks and his eyes were bloodshot. He flashed a wicked grin and said, “Welcome to chaos.”

Crouched behind the sandbags lining the rooftop wall, two snipers sat hunched over rifles with telescopic sights. Zembiec pointed to a few insurgents darting across a street several hundred yards away. One sniper fired a .50-caliber shell, big as a cigar, and the recoil rocked him back. The other took a shot with a smaller M14 rifle. “The corporal with the Ml4,” he said, “has more kills. If we keep knocking them down out there, they’ll get the message”.

An All-American wrestler while at the Naval Academy, Zembiec took care of his men, adored his wife and baby daughter, bragged about his dad, shared food with the civilians hiding downstairs, stored the china away from the bullet-shattered Windows, and shot at every insurgent. He was a fighter, an infantryman. His men had dubbed him “the Lion”.

I stayed with Doug and his company inside Fallujah, and several months later caught up with him again on patrols outside the city. We stayed in touch and just missed linking up in May of 2007 in Baghdad, where his unit was hunting down al Qaeda terrorists. Later that month, while leading his team on a raid, the Lion of Fallujah was killed.

From the summer of 2003 until the fall of 2006, we were losing militarily. Sunni and Shiite extremists were threatening to break Iraq apart. Then the tide of war swung. This narrative describes how warriors like Doug Zembiec turned the war around.

There are two broad views of history. By far the more popular is the “Great Man” view: that nations are led from the top. Leaders like Caesar and Lincoln shape history. Most accounts of Iraq subscribe to the Great Man view. The books about Iraq by senior officiais like Bremer, Tenet, Franks, and Sanchez have at their core a wonderful sense of self-worth: History is all about them.

The other view of history holds that the will of the people provides the momentum for change. Leaders are important, but only when they channel, or simply have the common sense to ride, the popular movement. “Battle is decided not by the orders of a commander in chief,” Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace, “but by the spirit of the army”.

Iraq reflected Tolstoy’s model. Events were driven by the spirit, or dispirit, of the people and tribes. Iraq wasn’t a “Great Man” or a generals’ war. There wasn’t a blueprint and scheme of maneuver akin to what guides units in conventional war. The generals were learning at the same time as the corporals. At the top, it was easiest to talk with those officiais who had spent time on the lines and didn’t substitute theories to cover up what they didn’t know. Generals Casey, Petraeus, Mattis, and Odierno were remarkably candid, willing to share with a fellow grunt their feelings about leadership and operations. I was struck that all four used the word “complex” time and again. Iraq was a kaleidoscope. Turn it one way and you think you see the pattern. Then along comes some unexpected event and the pattern dissolves.

This book has two parts. The early chapters bring us through mid-2006, amidst strategie mistakes and a growing frustration among the troops. At that time, many in the States believed the only course was to leave Iraq, despite the consequences. Then came a remarkable U-turn, described in the later chapters. By 2008, the steadfastness of our soldiers and excellent leadership had reversed the course of the war.

A cottage industry has sprung up in academia to study counterinsurgency as if it were a branch of sociology. In this book —a narrative of war— you meet the troops. War is the act of killing. As a nation, we have become so refined and so removed from danger that we don’t utter the word “kill”. The troops in this book aren’t victims; they are hunters.

Iraq was my second insurgency. As a grunt in Vietnam, I patrolled with a Marine squad and Vietnamese farmers in a Combined Action Platoon, or CAP, in a remote village. Later, as a counterinsurgency analyst at the RAND Corporation, I visited Malaysia and Northern Ireland to look at British techniques and wrote a book, «The Village», about fighting in combined units in Vietnam.

In Iraq, over a span of six years I accompanied, or embedded with, over sixty American and Iraqi battalions. In the course of hundreds of patrols and operations, I interviewed more than 2,000 soldiers, as well as generals and senior officiais. In this book I also cite campaign plans, because they illustrate how senior staffs assessed the war, and how difficult it was for senior officiais in Iraq, let alone the White House, to understand what was going on.

In conventional war, the locations of the battlefields change as the armies move on. In counterinsurgency war, the goal is to control a population that does not move. The adversaries fight on fixed battlefields —the same cities and villages. What changes is time rather than location. To describe the war, I bring the reader back again and again to the same cities in Anbar Province —the stronghold of the insurgency— and the same neighborhoods in Baghdad, the heart of Iraq. These two locales accounted for most of the fighting and most of our casualties.

This narrative describes how the war was fought by our soldiers, managed by our generals, and debated at home. The tone is not gentle toward those at the top, military and civilian, supporters and detractors of the war alike. After Vietnam, I never envisioned that I would again know so many who died so young. What angered me after six years of reporting from the lines was how so many at the top talked mainly to one another and did not take the time to study the war. The same was true of the war’s critics. The turnaround in the war went largely unacknowledged.

The generals, ambassadors, and senators will write their own books. The intent of this book is to deepen the reader’s understanding of the performance of our soldiers and the war’s complexity. It lays out the mistakes and the learning, drawing conclusions and lessons. Our society imposed restraints and expectations that can lead to failure on a future battlefield. At the same time, no reasonable observer could watch how our military adapted without being impressed by the resilience and learning up and down the chain of command. It was a remarkable turnaround.

The confused fighting in Iraq has been distant from our lives at home. Only the families of our soldiers sacrificed. The rest of us stood on the sidelines, applauding the soldiers —whom few of us knew— while criticizing their leadership and their mission. Our domestic politics became ever more divisive and impervious to progress on the battlefield.

Our soldiers deserved better. No nation ever fought a more restrained and honorable war. Having changed its strategy, our military has merited a fresh hearing. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been shattered. The Sunni tribes have aligned with the Americans. Iraqi forces have taken the lead against rogue militias. In 2008, the battlefield is under control and violence has subsided.

Iraq remains a long-term project about which reasonable people disagree. Whether critics of the war can acknowledge the gains as well as the defeats is problematical. Political attitudes have hardened into articles of faith. In an election year, Iraq will be an incendiary topic, with politicians making assertions that aren’t true. I hope this book will inform the reader. Understanding the war is the best antidote to demagoguery.

Shortly before he was killed, Doug Zembiec wrote to his family, “I honestly believe we can win this one now”.

Our soldiers fought to give us a reasonable choice. We can persist in Iraq at reduced cost or we can leave altogether. Regardless of what we decide, we owe it to the Doug Zembiecs to give a fair hearing to what they accomplished.

CONTENTS
Map of Iraq
Map of Baghdad
Preface
1- How to Create a Mess
Summer 2003
2- Descent into Chaos
September-December 2003
3- A Near Collapse
January-June 2004
4- War
July-December 2004
5- Inadequate means
2005
6- Widescale Fighting
2005
7- Contradictory Goals
2005
8- The Second War Begins
2006
9- The Islande Caliphate
2006
10- Haditha: Explosion on the Home Front
2006
11- A Flawed Assessment
Mid-2006
12- Al Qaeda: Murder and Intimidation
Fall 2006
13- The Turnaround Begins
Fall 2006
14- The Civil War
Fall 2006
15- Bush Weighs His Options
Fall 2006
16- The War Turns
November 2006
17- Washington Turns
December 2006
18- The Sunnis Change Sides
Winter 2007
19- Momentum
Spring 2007
20- Overview
Summer 2007
21- Victory in Anbar
Fall 2007
22- Baghdad: The Surge Takes Hold
Fall 2007
23- Washington Assesses the Surge
Fall 2007
24- Progress and Uncertainty
2008
25- The Strongest Tribe
2009
Afterword: «How the War in Iraq Will End»
Appendix A: Insurgency and Unity of Command in Vietnam
Appendix B: Memo to Gen. George W. Casey, USA
Appendix C: Bing West’s Counterinsurgency Lessons
Notes