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Tell Me How This Ends: A First Draft of History
on August 25, 2008
Linda Robinson's "Tell Me How This Ends: General Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq" is a superb addition to the next wave of Iraq War literature: the Surge Assessments. Hitting the ground before new books by Gordon, Ricks, Woodward, et al., Robinson of the "US News and World Report" tells more than the tale of how a General and his wizards turned around a failed military effort. "Tell Me How This Ends" is a holistic picture of the Surge. It takes the reader from fractious discussions in the White House --- where a beleaguered President pushed aside all of his senior military advisors to go the extra mile for success --- down to the burning fighting vehicles of the troops who bought battlefield progress with their blood. Robinson's battle stories of the 5th Cavalry, 26th Infantry, 23d Infantry, 10th Mountain Division, and the Marines in Anbar will quiet those who think we can't take a punch or fight this kind of war.
At the same time, Robinson knows her counterinsurgency theory. She portrays the struggle for Iraq as essentially a political contest and spends many pages discussing how Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his team prodded the Maliki government to act in the whole nation's interest. Among the more interesting pages are those on the Awakening, the process whereby Sunni tribesmen were turned against the vicious, foreign influences of Al Qaeda. Equally interesting were the chapters on how the central (Shiite-dominated) Iraqi government is dealing with those armed Sunnis, who are, at least for now, nominally on their side. Another highlight --- at least for this old soldier-bureaucrat --- was the inner workings of Team Petraeus and how this remarkable General adapted a standard military bureaucracy to the task of politico-military innovation. The cooperation documented here between the Embassy and the Command was also exemplary.
All of these issues are covered with great insight, fueled by experienced, on-the-ground reporting. There is a minimum of anonymous, third-hand sources in this book. Most of the participants speak clearly here in their own words, or through first hand observations, or by their subsequent actions. If good journalism is the first draft of history, we can be well satisfied with Robinson's contribution. The title passage --- tell me how this ends --- was actually a rhetorical question from then-Major General Petraeus at the start of the Iraq war. In a twist of historical irony, the questioner became responsible for crafting the political-military answer to his own question. Much progress has been made, but as Petraeus himself has recently noted, we are not yet ready for dancing in the end zone. This is the critical set of issues covered holistically by Linda Robinson in this well-reported and highly readable book. She has set the bar high for those who come after her.
This review represents my personal views and does not represent the policy or opinion of any U.S. government entity.
Joseph J. Collins, National War College, August 25, 2008.