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In the spring of 2005, I watched two U.S. Army units training Iraqi National Army soldiers at a base in Baghdad. One Iraqi brigade was in the care of a 100-man company belonging to an armor battalion of the Third Infantry Division. The company’s officers and men lived on the base with the Iraqis, went on patrol with them, and sent complaints up the line when they found their trainees were being deprived of pay or food or equipment by the corrupt and incompetent Iraqi ministry of defense. Their jundis, as Iraqi soldiers are called, eventually became an effective unit.

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

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins

Another Iraqi unit was being trained by members of an American cavalry regiment that commuted daily from a base 40 minutes away. Its commanding officer would occasionally turn up and make it clear that he considered the mission a waste of time and a distraction from the real war. The Iraqi troops under his tutelage never developed the tactical or marksmanship skills they needed, and their officers never adopted a U.S.-style leadership culture, preferring instead to treat their men almost as servants.

Both Iraqi brigades were eventually certified as fully trained by the United States, even though one was excellent and the other almost useless. The difference between the two was traceable entirely to the personalities of the Americans charged with responsibility for them. One was an armor captain who put his heart into the job, the other a lieutenant colonel of cavalry who thought the job beneath his dignity. The captain helped win the war; the lieutenant colonel slowed its progress.

One could find similar examples all across Iraq over the five years of the war. Because the American military is remarkably decentralized, and because the struggle against the insurgents was spread out across at least half of the nation’s eighteen provinces, conditions in Iraq have risen and fallen over the years in accordance with the conduct of individual American officers of relatively modest rank. “This is a captains’ or a colonels’ war,” an astute commander once told me.

For anyone relying on the mainstream media, that fact may come as news. Nor will one find an awareness of it in most of the books written about the war by members of the foreign press corps in Baghdad. Their sense of events on the ground has usually borne some relation to the attitude of that colonel in the cavalry: deep skepticism, ignorance of military strategy, superciliousness toward the difficult tasks being undertaken around them, and an overarching vanity. They are, moreover, frequently too influenced by the partisan struggle at home to provide fair and clear portraits or analysis of a wildly complicated and multi-sided conflict.

In order to offer an honest and useful explanation of why the war went as wrong as it did, and why, after five painful years, it has undergone so remarkable a turnaround, a good book about Iraq would have to explain to readers the failure of the White House, the Pentagon, the National Security Council, and the State Department to work together effectively. Such a book would also have to help readers grasp the limitations of a military that, although unbeatable in open battle and much better at urban warfare than anyone expected, could nevertheless not finish its task without a comprehensive change in strategy and culture that began four years after the first shots were fired.

To this end, the book that is needed would show how, when it came to distributing aid and playing local Iraqi politics, the military proved much cleverer and more efficient than either the State Department or the Agency for International Development. And yet it would also reveal how some of the most highly-praised senior officers in charge of the war were foolish, irresponsible, or wrong-headed: men like General Tommy Franks, guilty of criminal complacency in the spring of 2003 when he presumed his job as overall commander was completed after a few weeks and promptly retired from duty; Generals John Abizaid and Ricardo Sanchez, neither of whom was up to the difficult task of running the military effort in Iraq; and even the Marine generals who made the disastrous call to halt the first attempt to retake the city of Falluja from Sunni, Baathist, and al-Qaeda forces after the slaughter of four American contractors in 2004.

Above all, such a book would explain the nature of the “captains’ and colonels’ war.” It would show how the revolutionary alteration in tactics undertaken by General David Petraeus in 2007, by seizing advantage of this great fact, brought about a vast change for the better that no one dependent on mainstream reportage would ever have imagined possible.

 

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The great accomplishment of Bing West, whose new book, The Strongest Tribe,1 is his third on the Iraq war, lies precisely in his demonstration of how this captains’ and colonels’ war came to be. West, who served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam and as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, always connects events on the ground that he has witnessed with his own eyes to the discussions and decisions in Washington among politicians and generals. The Strongest Tribe is also remarkably up-to-the-minute, taking note, for example, of policy debates in Washington revealed only this past May with the publication of Douglas Feith’s War and Decision. Finally, West displays a profound understanding of military doctrine and a wealth of experience that together make The Strongest Tribe an invaluable guide to the conflict.

But as a piece of writing, unfortunately, The Strongest Tribe is problematic. It is marred by a tendency toward repetition and an excess of anecdotes that confuse rather than elucidate the core narrative. Worse, West is uninterested in and dismissive of Iraq and Iraqis. He has no time for Iraqi politicians, even though some of them, like Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, are extraordinarily brave and able, arguably fit heirs to our own founding fathers. He also exaggerates the parallels with the Vietnam conflict, underplays the role of the Army in favor of the Marines, has a surprising soft spot for the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group—whose recommendations would have certainly led to an outright American defeat—and an even more surprising suspicion of General David Petraeus’s new manual on how to fight a counterinsurgency. Not least, he often seems unaware that there is more to the story of Iraq than can be gleaned from touring the theater with lieutenant colonels.

For these reasons, impressive though it is in many respects, The Strongest Tribe cannot be judged the book on Iraq we have been waiting for.

What, then, of another new book, The Forever War2? This memoir of a reporter’s two-and-a-half years in Iraq is almost certainly the most moving, exciting, and atmospheric portrait of the war yet published. Its author, Dexter Filkins, worked there as a correspondent for the New York Times, and during his tenure earned a well-deserved reputation for being bolder and more hardworking than many of his colleagues in the Baghdad press corps. Filkins went out into the field when other reporters felt constrained to stay in fortified compounds or hotels, sending their Iraqi stringers to conduct interviews and gather local color for the stories they relayed to their editors and readers with the presumption that they truly grasped the nature of the conflict they were covering.

 

Throughout The Forever War, Filkins shows a kind of street smarts all too rare in much reporting from Iraq. Early on, for example, he began to notice that Iraqis had a tendency to tell foreigners what they thought the foreigners wanted to hear. This behavior—perhaps an overhang of 30 years under totalitarian rule—worked to skew American reporting on Iraq toward the negative, since most mainstream reporters arrived in the country with an already developed hostility to the Coalition effort, only to find congenial locals ready to confirm their predetermined positions.

Time and again, common sense served Filkins well. Unlike his colleagues, who were given to reporting Iraqi rumor-mongering and conspiracy theories with a straight face, Filkins kept his eyes open and his wits about him. Thus, arriving at the scene of a car bombing and standing amid neighborhood residents screaming that the car had been hit by American missiles, Filkins notices a still-smoking engine block, the signature result of a vehicle rigged to explode. Similarly, he offers unforgettable snapshots of some of the significant but underreported oddities of the war, like the way Iraqis continue to hang their laundry or to go shopping in the middle of a firefight—behavior that often results in civilian casualties.

To his credit, Filkins also expresses genuine compassion for the millions of Iraqi victims of Saddam Hussein, and evinces a comprehensive grasp of the horrors of the Baathist security state that was ousted by the 2003 invasion. More than many of his colleagues, he appreciates the courage of those thousands of Iraqis who, beginning in 2003, stepped forward to build their own country and, as he writes, “went to the slaughter” at the hands of Sunni and Baathist insurgents.

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And yet, for all its virtues, The Forever War is also not the book we need. If anything, indeed, it is the kind of work that has made it so difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to understand the war in Iraq. In the end, it is instructive less for what it tells us about that war than for what it inadvertently reveals of the peculiar institutional biases that have left Americans less informed about this conflict than about any other in recent memory.

Some of these biases are revealed in the use of language. Filkins often refers to “the Americans” as if he were not one himself, or as if the New York Times was some kind of neutral nation of its own. But this stance of seeming neutrality turns out not even to be neutral. For Filkins, the Mahdi army, the militia led by the renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, is made up of “guerrillas,” a term that legitimizes a loose association of street gangs and private armies, while the Blackwater corporation bodyguards hired to protect American diplomats are mere “gunmen.”

Filkins’s language reveals bias in ways that go beyond the assignation of improper words. His prose affects a world-weary, tough-guy stance in the manner of Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir Dispatches (or of Herr’s narration as spoken by the actor Martin Sheen in the movie Apocalypse Now). The combination of Hemingwayesque swagger, Hollywood cliché, and a dash of the Vietnam anti-war movement’s hostile attitude toward Americans in uniform yields such nuggets as this: “The insurgency: it was everywhere and it was nowhere. The Americans brought in the heavy machinery and the storm troopers.” At another point, he presumes indiscriminate murderous intent of a kind one rarely encounters among experienced combat troops: “The heat outside was astounding but the guys still went out most days, loaded with guns and gear. Into the night, into rubble. Looking to waste people.”

Relating his first sight of American troops during the 2003 invasion, Filkins writes: “The Americans were pouring into the town, young and overfed and heavily armed. They were kids mostly, nineteen-year-olds from Kansas and North Dakota.” As it happens, I was there during the invasion, and I did not see too many “overfed” soldiers or Marines. Arriving in Iraq after training in the desert for months, they were lean and weathered. And they were not “kids.” In today’s military, most soldiers and Marines in combat units are not nineteen, as they were during Vietnam when the draft was still in force. Most are men in their early to mid-twenties, and they seem a great deal more mature than students or young professionals of the same age. The word “kids,” which Filkins employs all too frequently, simultaneously infantilizes, patronizes, and belittles the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have fought in the war.

Filkins makes much of the fact that he was often unfamiliar with the names of the small towns from which some young soldiers came, as if that in itself was cause for pathos. The implication here is that they were poor dumb hicks, with no other opportunity in life but the military. The truth is that three-quarters of American high-school graduates are unable to meet the intellectual and physical standards of today’s armed forces. But to Filkins these soldiers must evidently be either victims or villains, sacrificial lambs or brutes—anything but highly trained and often remarkably selfless professionals.

Here is Filkins reflecting on Marine casualties:

There wasn’t any point in sentimentalizing the kids; they were trained killers after all. . . . Sometimes I envied them their patriotism and their faith, honed out there on the plains of Oswatomie. Sometimes I thought they needed to ask more questions.

 

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Ask more questions, indeed. Has any nation, or military, asked itself more questions about its conduct in the midst of an ongoing conflict? The Army and Marine Corps have invested tremendous effort in preparing documents, referred to collectively as “Lessons Learned,” in which they acknowledge their errors and try to devise ways of doing things better.

The military has come to see, for example, that it makes sense to preserve institutional knowledge by sending the same units back to the same places in Iraq where they know the people and the people know them. The Army in particular has had to overcome its excessive emphasis on “force protection,” according to which accounting for the safety of the American fighting man is the first and most important task of a unit. On this point, senior commanders listened to their juniors, who insisted it would be safer in the long term for soldiers, and vastly more effective for the mission as a whole, if American troops were out on the streets, attuned to local events, instead of being hunkered down in heavily fortified bases far from the heart of battle.

If Filkins is aware of any of this, The Forever War betrays no sign of it. He clearly knows much more about Iraq and its various tribes, factions, and cultures than he does about his own country’s military. This is significant, and profoundly so, because the military has its own tribes, factions, and cultures, and no writer can convey a proper sense of its conduct without being aware of them.

 

Thus, the culture of the Marine Corps is different from the culture of the Army, and within the Army the culture of the 82nd Airborne Division, say, is different from that of the 3rd Infantry Division. Within those divisions, there are radical discontinuities not just among different battalions and companies but between combat and support troops, between staff officers back at base and their front-line counterparts, between the mortar platoon and the scout platoon. Some of those differences are matters of leadership, and dissolve over brief periods of time; others are institutional. If all military units are the same to you, if an awareness of the details of military culture is beneath you, then you will not be able to figure out why one U.S. unit killed a great many civilians at checkpoints while another, which did the hard work of getting to know the neighborhood, received a steady stream of intelligence tips from local Iraqis.

Filkins’s ignorance of military matters is compounded by his complacency about it, another attitude he shares with too many of his colleagues in the mainstream media. Beginning the superb account of his time embedded in Falluja, he writes, “the Marines were all from Kilo Company.” But there are scores of companies in the Marine Corps that bear the name of Kilo Company, “Kilo” being merely the word assigned to the letter “K” in what is known as the NATO phonetic alphabet (“alpha, bravo, Charlie,” and so on). The name “Kilo Company” alone, without reference to the regiment, division, or Marine expeditionary unit to which the company belongs, tells a reader nothing. It is both incomplete and discourteous, akin to reporting on an industrial dispute and not bothering to learn or state the full name either of the company involved or of the union local.

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Filkins left Iraq in 2006 to take up a position at Harvard. The Forever War, the book that has resulted from his labors there, is composed essentially of a series of atmospheric snapshots, devoid of chronology and redolent of the days when the war was arguably at its worst. Absent from it is any sense that Iraq is a very different place today, and that a war once on the verge of being lost is now on the verge of being won.

Granted, The Forever War is a personal account and not a history, but there is something strange, verging on the bizarre, about a book published in 2008 that makes no attempt to reconcile the two. The Anbar Awakening of 2007, when Sunni tribal leaders decided to switch sides and join the United States in fighting the al-Qaeda terrorists who had come into their province and turned it into a hell on earth, is the subject, literally, of a lone footnote. Neither the “surge” nor the massive decline in both American and Iraqi deaths even merits a mention in the book’s epilogue. It is as if Filkins and his publisher were worried that the overall impression created by The Forever War—Iraq as a hopeless and ever-worsening mess—might be undermined by hints of American success.

Something else about The Forever War is both suggestive and objectionable—namely, the undertone of self-congratulation that hums in almost every paragraph. Filkins wants his readers to know that he is a badass, a wild and crazy guy, a dude. He likes to write about “heavy shit” going down. Again and again he reminds us that in his devil-may-care adventurism he took five-mile evening runs. “It was madness,” he preens. “I was courting death or at least a kidnapping.” In one episode, he recounts how he and his friend, the New Yorker correspondent George Packer, mocked some Chilean security contractors guarding the Green Zone by boasting to them: “We live out in the Red Zone.” Later, without a trace of self-awareness, he offhandedly speaks the essential truth: “If I were kidnapped, the whole American army would be dispatched to look for me.”

Standing in stark contrast to Filkins’s periodic smugness and solipsism are the service orientation and self-sacrifice of the fighting forces he has made so little effort to comprehend. In an episode that served as the high point of a recent New York Times Magazine excerpt from this book, Filkins tells the story of a young Marine who was killed helping him and his photographer set up a picture of a dead insurgent. It is a terrible story, the kind of thing that would prompt another reporter to wonder about the validity of his profession and the meaning of his life. The photographer, in Filkins’s telling, is indeed wracked with guilt and self-loathing for having fatally implicated the Marine in a foolhardy venture. Not Filkins. His only emotional response comes later in the book when he meets the dead Marine’s parents, fearing their anger. When they fail to display any, thereby frustrating his expectations, he insultingly concludes that they are living in denial. Poor dumb hicks.

I finished The Forever War wondering how it is that heavily armed “kids” in the midst of a war zone can often seem so much more humane, mature, and compassionate than the highly educated star journalists who have made their reputations reporting from Iraq. Indeed, if the ideal book on this war has yet to be written, it is more likely to emerge from the experience of one of those “kids” than from journalists encrusted with the reflexive notions of the enclaves in which they burrow, as heavily defended from views that might challenge them as were American fighting forces in the “superbases” from which they had to emerge before the war in Iraq could be won.

 

Footnotes

1 The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq. Random House, 448 pp., $28.00.

2 Knopf, 386 pp., $25.00.

 

About the Author

Jonathan Foreman, who was an embedded reporter in Iraq in 2003 and 2005, is deputy editor of Standpoint, a new magazine in Britain.

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