Customer Reviews: Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq
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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.
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on October 2, 2008
In his acclaimed study of counterinsurgency, LEARNING TO EAT SOUP WITH A KNIFE, John Nagl includes this note from Vicount Montgomery of El Alamein, to the Colonial Secretary,
" Dear Lyttelton, Malaya
We must have a plan.
Secondly we must have a man.
When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed: not otherwise.
Yours Sincerely,
Montgomery (F.M.)"

Linda Robinson, in her brilliantly conceived and executed, TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS: GENERAL DAVID PETRAEUS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WAY OUT OF IRAQ. addresses the Iraq war in terms of both the plan - how it was developed, adapted, and executed - and the man: Petraeus. In so doing, she has written a classic analysis that ranges from U.S. national policy through the levels of strategy and operations down to the tactical and back again. In telling the story of General Petraeus and his plan she also tells the tales of the other actors, American and Iraqi, Ambassadors and Generals, Lt. Colonels, Captains, Sergeants, soldiers and Marines. And she shows how the smoke and sounds of battle (and the silences) flow from policies, plans, and military doctrine.

Robinson's story focuses on David Petraeus and takes the reader through a series of key mentorships and experiences. The most important mentor was General John R. Galvin who encouraged Petraeus to seek his doctorate and brought him into contact with counteinsurgency in 1986 when Galvin was the commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama. Robinson notes, in this context, that Petraeus co-authored Galvin's important article, "Uncomfortable Wars" dealing with counterinsurgency in Latin America published in the Army War College journal, PARAMETERS, and later in Max Manwaring's edited volume by the same title. From this background and later experiences in Iraq, Petraeus led the effort to redefine Army and Marine Corps counteinsurgency doctrine while commanding the Army's Combined Arms Center.

For this, Petraeus assembled a team under the leadership of his West Point classmate, Con Crane, and including LTC John Nagl. Robinson points out the debt the authors acknowledge to Manwaring's work on small wars issues. From the doctrine that his efforts produced, the newly promoted four star General Petraeus developed the strategy that came to be known as "the surge" (of which the troop surge was only a small, if important, part).

Robinson uses this story to show how an effective military commander works to achieve unity of effort up to the political level, laterally with the American ambassador in Iraq, and down to the troops under his command. In the process, she demosntrates the difficulties inherent in coalition counterinsurgent warfare.

The weakest section of the book is her last chapter (which is not very weak at all) where she suggests approaches for the future in Iraq. The only problem is that much of the future is now and some of her suggestions have been overtaken by events.

That said, the only appropriate words for the book are superlatives!
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on October 11, 2008
An overview of American and Iraqi political, military, social and religious histories plus a bio of General Petraeus told in episodic
pivotal moments of choices, impacts and combat. Like the situation, a complicated read. I learnt a ton more than anything aired on tv channel news.
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on November 24, 2008
Great analysis of a great commander. Shows the human side of what it took behind the scenes to accomplish what GEN Petraeus and his people achieved. A book for anyone seriously interested in how to lead people as well as anyone interested in how Iraq has been transformed.
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VINE VOICEon July 17, 2009
A few months ago I received a wonderful gift. In anticipation of the likelihood that I would soon have an opportunity to meet General Petraeus, my friend, retired Major General David Harris, sent me a copy of Linda Robinson's carefully researched book, "Tell Me How This Ends."

Ms. Robinson has done a masterful job of presenting both the disastrous first few years of U.S. involvement in Iraq, beginning with the invasion in 2003, and the far more successful time following "the surge" under the leadership of Petraeus. The picture that Robinson paints in this book is consistent with the themes that I heard Petraeus speak about when he was at Harvard's Kennedy School a few months ago.

Of the many worthwhile passages I could have selected as excerpts to share, I have chosen one that highlights the stress of extended deployments, and one that talks about the more recent successes experienced by our troops and their Iraqi counterparts.

"The end of their fifteen-month tour was finally in sight for the Blue Spaders. They were the first active-duty unit to serve the extended tour, and the extra three months in Baghdad's most violent neighborhood had taken its toll. Nearly every day of their 443-day tour was a combat patrol. Of the battalion's 800 soldiers, 35 had been killed in action and 122 wounded, three times the casualty rate of 1-26's previous deployment to Iraq in 2004-2005. It was the highest casualty rate any battalion had suffered since the Vietnam War. Six soldiers had lost one or both legs, and many more suffered lifelong injuries. Thanks to Doc Welchel and the medics, many wounded men had survived, but there were grievous injuries, including ones that would not surface for months. Many traumatic brain injuries caused by bomb blasts were not diagnosed until later.

Chaplain Choi believed the extra three months had caused an exponential increase in stress and fatigue. `I've only got twelve months of Iraqi patience,' Padgett joked. The battalion had lived in dangerous Spartan outposts with none of the amenities most. U.S. soldiers in Iraq took for granted. To help the men cope with their grief and prepare for the transition from war to home, Choi and the new battalion commander launched Operation Healing Heart, a program to treat the whole person with physical, spiritual and mental activities. He organized weight-lifting and other contests and card- and-video-game tournaments. In between patrols the soldiers played soccer and basketball in the walled city streets outside their ministry buildings-cum-barracks. Choi conducted Protestant services and found a Catholic priest to celebrate mass." (Pages 210-211)

It is clear throughout the book - and Robinson's conclusions are echoed in other accounts I have been reading - that part of the reason for the turn-around in Iraq was the broader, more holistic view of counter-insurgency that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker together brought to the table.

"No single silver bullet accounted for the marked decline in violence in the last half of 2007, which reversed the upward trend for the first time since the war began. It was the result of many important innovations in both strategy and tactics that would likely be incorporated into future doctrine - if the army continued to embrace counterinsurgency and stability operations. The measures included the increase in troops, their dispersion, various population control measures, more precise counterterrorism measured enabled by better intelligence, and, most of all, the outreach to the armed antagonists and their constituents. . . . Most important, each battalion and company made it a priority to develop relationships and reach out to the `reconcilable' antagonists, their supporters, and the fence-sitters. These were inherently political activities that produced political effects that Petraeus massed rapidly to pressure the Iraqi government to in turn take political action that would affect the war's strategic level. . . .Petraeus waded into politics as no general before him had done and directed his troops to do the same." (Page 324)

The work that Robinson has done in collecting data, stories and insights makes a very positive and valuable contribution to our appreciation of what has been happening in Iraq. Her writing makes clear the arc that our involvement in Iraqi has followed from 2003 until the present time. The book has broadened my understanding. I recommend it strongly.

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on July 10, 2012
The Iraqi was was an interesting story. Things were very bad in 04/05. Many in the nation called for withdraw. The war was the subject of intense debate. Then all of a sudden over a few months things changed. The why was called the surge. If you want to know what the surge during the Iraqi war this is your book.

The book is an easy read. It is full of interesting stories about events and personalities. This provides great depth to the story. You also gain new understanding of the event few other books offer. You also learn some interesting news about the inside story of events. Those stories here in the book did not make the general news media.

This book isn't a comprehensive reference. However it gives a good broad understanding of what went on. The book tells the story from both a macro level and from the ground grunt level. You will see how things unfolded. The book will give you a good basic understanding of the surge. Any reader will walk away from the book with a new admiration for General Petraeus. The book will make you want to vote for General Petraeus for President.
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on December 23, 2008
This book is comprehensive while retaining the currency of a bi-weekly magazine. All of it is worth reading and the sacrifices of its heroes should be known to all. Especially, Chapters 8 and 9 come alive with the horror that soldiers met in turning the war around. The book, like the best of its players, strives to find the positive way forward in a dangerous world. It makes me want to do more in support of the American military, as well as the Iraqis who want a peaceful and just world.
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on February 15, 2009
This book was fantastic:

It gave a clear and concise history of "The Surge" from numerous points of view - from the lowliest soldiers involved, to General Petraeus, to his subordinates, to his superiers, to Presdient Bush, and finally to "The Surge's" opponets - both political AND military.

The writing style was engaging and Ms. Robinson's time spent with American troops at all levels was apparent.

Linda Robinson did a phenominal job of displaying all points of view of "The Surge" and in detailing how the American military "snached victory from the jaws of defeat" in Iraq.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in "The Surge". Both opponets and proponets of "The Surge" will find this book to be both informative and evenhanded.
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on October 12, 2013
The book documents Petraeus' Surge strategy in Iraq, published shortly after its "successful" completion. Written as timely reporting in 2008, the book is not a researched analytic piece. This means that a lot of the fawning and effusive praise Robinson heaps on Petraeus and his "COINdinistas" can be forgiven as pop journalism bias. Like many embedded reporters, the immediacy and gravity of the experiences and the top-tier access manifested in a less critical tone and slanted perspective. The lack of sources outside of the Army and the COIN camp is troubling. Many other US military and civilian elements (and circumstantial factors) helped Petraeus' Surge but were barely noted. The bigger problem is that this book is now one of many publications of record on Iraq, COIN and Petraeus. And it doesn't stand up over time either as good reporting or good historical analysis.

By many metrics, Iraq today is as contentious as it was before the Surge. Much of the Surge's success hinged solely on the free flow of CERP/CA/PRT/USAID money, not lasting changes. Few within DoD, the Army and among the many former practitioners still proclaim COIN's inherent value. Some of the most vocal COIN proponents have fled government service altogether! All of this puts a dent in Petraeus' bold proclamations in the book. His effort in Afghanistan was even more ghastly. Even if the book was intended as an early-phase advocacy for Petraeus, COIN and the Surge, it could have been researched and written with a more critical eye, tempering what a previous reviewer called "the Christmas letter" approach.
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on October 15, 2008
Must reading if you want to understand what is and has been going on in Iraq. You have to like a story about a General if you are going to like this book.
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