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125 of 137 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Impressive, Well-Told Story!
My 1960s experience within the Army and its conduct in Vietnam convinced me the entire organization was incompetent. Iraq II (until recently), "drive around until you were either shot or blown up," did not change that opinion. Fortunately, we now have Thomas Ricks' story ("The Gamble") of Generals Petraeus, Keane, Odiorne and others - their intelligence, initiative, and...
Published on February 10, 2009 by Loyd E. Eskildson

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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Tell me how this ends? The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA)
After reading Fiasco, was looking forward to this book, but don't think it was as good, Ricks covers the back door decision process that results in the "Surge" and all the major players in the process. The book also covers the short coming of the, "Iraqi in the lead" and "As they stand up, we stand down strategy." and why it wasn't working and the people responsible...
Published on April 21, 2009 by Michael


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125 of 137 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Impressive, Well-Told Story!, February 10, 2009
My 1960s experience within the Army and its conduct in Vietnam convinced me the entire organization was incompetent. Iraq II (until recently), "drive around until you were either shot or blown up," did not change that opinion. Fortunately, we now have Thomas Ricks' story ("The Gamble") of Generals Petraeus, Keane, Odiorne and others - their intelligence, initiative, and courage to speak out when things didn't go well.

Ricks documents the inside story of the Iraq war since late 2005. Despite all the happy talk, the ground situation was bad and getting worse. It was unclear what we were trying to do. The Bush administration continued to substitute loyalty for analysis, and so the war continued on a strategic foundation of sand.

General Casey tried to change the troops' poisonous attitude toward civilians when he arrived earlier in the year, establishing a special training center for his immediate officers. Yet, too often the military was needlessly humiliating Iraqi families, and destroying their property - hardly the way to win friends and undermine al Qaeda. Worse yet, Casey also withdrew the troops into big, isolated bases that reduced casualties but left the population defenseless. (Vietnam, all over again!)

Sensing General Petraeus might bring new solutions, Army leaders sent him to lead Ft. Leavenworth and its Command and General Staff College. There he initiated efforts to rewrite the Army manual on counterinsurgency, drawing not only upon respected thinkers within the ranks, but also civilian academics, a few reporters, and some with foreign insurgency experience.

The manual was finished in 11 months, largely written and heavily edited by Petraeus himself. Its focus moved from Powell's doctrine of "overwhelming force" to recognizing that the best insurgent is not a dead one, likely to leave behind a relative seeking revenge, but one who is ignored by the population and perhaps contemplating changing sides and bringing in valuable information.

Meanwhile, as 2007 neared, five forces for change converged upon the White House. 1)Retired General Keane first pressed Secretary Rumsfeld and Chairman Pace for change - lacking success, he was referred to V.P. Cheney by former Speaker Gingrich. This led to a meeting with Bush. 2)American Enterprise Institute's Fred Kagan, similarly concerned, set up a 12/08/06 meeting with analysts, military planners, General Keane, and Col. H.R. McMaster (author of "Dereliction of Duty" and leader of a successful effort in Iraq's Tal Afar province. 3)The "thumping" the Bush administration took in the Nov. 2006 elections. 4)General Pace convened a group of respected colonels to obtain new thinking - Col. McMaster was one. 5)Gen. Odiorne, Iraq's second in command, went around his superior to the White House to push for more troops.

The first major change was removing the major impediment to change - Secretary Rumsfeld. Then General Petraeus' assignment to Iraq, "the surge," and implementation of the new manual. (The surge was opposed by almost all Army leaders, and Petraeus' new boss - Admiral Fallon.)

Now it's Obama's War, and Ricks sees the U.S. possibly continuing in a combat role until 2011 - others are more pessimistic. Why? Baghdad has been turned around, but problems remain in other large cities (eg. Kirkuk), Sadr is still jockeying for leadership, Iran would like to see the U.S. leave - slowly (sees U.S. troops as "hostages" to any attack U.S. attack on Iran), and Iraq's police and army are still largely suspect as Shiia sectarian "death squads."

New perspectives include no longer seeing civilians as the playing field, living with the populace - not just taking occasional trips to tour through, not taking relatives of suspected insurgents hostage, not abusing prisoners, being alert for signs of divisions within the insurgency and then encouraging them to change sides, no more "kiss of death" operations where Americans move into an area, find cooperative locals, then pull out and they're killed.

Final Note: General Petraeus and many of his advisers are PhDs from respected institutions. This has become a "thinking man's Army," no longer a refuge for those who couldn't succeed as civilians. Unfortunately, we are still left wondering why the White House had to be forced to "lead" these changes, and why "Blackwater," with its well-established record for blatant disregard and unwarranted violence against Iraqi civilians was allowed to continue operations by the State Dept.
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56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rumsfeld vs Petraeus: Shock & Awe vs Military Diplomacy, February 10, 2009
Pulitzer Prize winner Ricks comes to this book with over 20 years of experience in journalistic coverage of US military interventions. His access to key military figures is comparable to Woodward's access to the Bush White House. In this book he provides verbatim statements from key players as to how the war changed from a Rumsfeld war into a Petraeus war, with details about the new approach. What a difference in personnel and strategies! - Most of the brass under Petraeus would never have invaded Iraq in the first place. Instead of being hawks they are intellectuals - and it shows in their carefully considered methodology.

The story Ricks tells is compelling. Bush recognized his dilemma (despite his public optimism about the war) and lucked into the necessary fix through the expertise of Petraeus & company. Unfortunately, Ricks anticipates difficulties in exiting Iraq, predicting "the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered by us and by the world have not yet happened."

This is a comprehensive and definitive read and should be required reading for anyone who wants to know what went on - direct from the horses' mouths. It gives a whole new perspective on how future military entanglements will unfold. Shock and awe may have to share turf with military diplomacy - not such a bad idea.
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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The quest for sustainable security, February 10, 2009
In Fiasco, Thomas Ricks told the story of American military involvement in Iraq through 2005. His new book is based on a series of interviews with General Petraeus and other military staff conducted in Baghdad and Washington concerning events from 2006-2008. Although the "Surge" is often characterized as an unqualified success, Ricks argues that the final grade for this part of the American adventure in Iraq is a "solid incomplete." He also suggests that the details of this military reformation and counterattack are, to date, barely known.

The author describes the transition under General Petraeus from traditional warfare to counterinsurgency which is "founded on the concept that the civilian population isn't the playing field but rather the prize." This change represented both an implicit criticism of past military practice in Iraq and "a major intellectual, cultural, and emotional shift" for American forces. Petraeus' unusual advisors in this effort include an Aussie counterinsurgency specialist, a British expert on the Mid-East who opposes the war and a "pacifistic Arab turned New Yorker."

In a brisk narrative, Ricks describes changes in strategy and tactics that aim at creating security for Iraqi civilians rather than racking up body counts of insurgents. Violence is reduced and confidence is built by the provisional government culminating in the Maliki led attack on Basra in March of 2008.

In the end, Ricks agrees that the most that can be achieved in Iraq is Petraeus' vision of "sustainable security." The best case scenario, he projects, is that "in the long run, Iraq would calm down, be mildly authoritarian, and probably become an ally of Iran, but, with luck, not one that threatened the rest of the Arab world." He argues that McCain's campaign rhetoric describing Iraq as a future beacon of democracy is at odds with the General's more realistic hope as well as with all we have learned in the last 5 years of partially successful nation building. Ricks goes as far as to describe McCain's view as verging on fantasy.

In sum, says the author, "the surge was the right step to take, or more precisely, the least wrong move in a misconceived war." The ultimate result of the Iraq war according to Ambassador Crocker is still very much in doubt and "is going to be a very, very long time in unfolding." Petraeus' efforts as recounted by Ricks were both bold and well-executed but their benign impact was circumscribed by the complex nature of the challenges facing Iraq.

Although a more detailed and nuanced analysis probably awaits us in the future, Ricks delivers a timely and convincing narrative of how an intellectual in the military used a non traditional approach to bring the US and Iraq back from the brink of disaster to the edge of "sustainable security."
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, Timely Book -- a Must Read, March 14, 2009
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A. Courie "Treb" (Freedom's Fortress) - See all my reviews
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Thomas Ricks' "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008" is an excellent, well-researched, and well-told account of how the now-vaunted surge turned around the Iraq War. Ricks had access to General Petraeus, General Odierno, many of their key staff, and used their insights - along with media and journal articles and unclassified after action reports - to tell his story.

Ricks' story is that the surge (adding significant additional combat forces to Iraq) concept wasn't the consensus plan of the military but was instead championed by a small group of officers and some academics in the defense establishment. It took the intervention of a retired Army four-star general to bypass Secretary Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sell the surge to the White House. This contradicts some of the claims in Bob Woodward's "The War Within" that the idea of the surge was originally hatched in the White House.

But Ricks goes on to explain how the true genius of the surge wasn't the addition of additional combat troops, it was a change in tactics and outlook. The soldiers got out of their vehicles, patrolled dismounted, and lived among the Iraqis - they no longer "commuted" to the fight and then returned to their bases at night. (As an aside, I observed in 2004 on the ground in Iraq that the emphasis on force protection and unwillingness to take risks among the Iraqi people was damaging to the mission.) And once the soldiers cleared and occupied an area, they were to hold it. This change in tactics was partly the result of the new counterinsurgency manual produced by General Petraeus in late 2006, and it was enabled by the surge in combat troops. At the higher levels, the military engaged the Iraqi tribes and Sunni militias and co-opted them, often with payments and sometimes behind the back of the Iraqi and US governments, in an effort to eliminate, but not necessarily through firepower, enemies to the peace and security in Iraq.

And while Ricks lauds the success of the surge, he is quick to point out its weaknesses and risks: although it brought relative peace and security to Iraq (after an initial increase in fighting), it did not move the political process forward. The surge also, by appealing to the tribes and militias, made it more likely that they'll remain powerful extra-political forces in Iraq even as the political process moves forward.

Because this book was written so soon after the incidents, and is based heavily on media accounts, it will serve as a good first draft of history. It is also not the definitive history of the surge because it gives the view from the top in Iraq, then tiny slices of the war on the ground, and never gives a full accounting of the brigades and divisions involved or their areas of operation.

But my biggest criticism is that many of the Ricks's conclusions are already out of date: he claims that we are at the mid-point of the Iraq War and expects tens of thousands of troops to remain in Iraq through 2015 or even later. However, his narrative includes events in November 2008, just a month before the Status of Forces Agreement was signed requiring all US forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011 - a provision of the agreement that was being debated openly before November 2008. Ricks also knew about Obama's promises to have all troops out of Iraq within 16 months but never really addressed this possible chain of events (clarified by President Obama's recent announcement to remove all combat troops by August 2010 and the remained out by the end of 2011). While it is certainly difficult to release a book during a time of rapid change in the subject, holding publication of the book a couple of key months would have allowed him to address these issues.

This is an extremely informative and engaging book. Ricks takes up where he left off with "Fiasco," shows that the American military can adapt and overcome, and highlights the personalities who made this happen. He does this in an even-handed manner that highlights the success of the surge but points out its weaknesses. Anyone with any interest in current events, the war in Iraq, or the military should read this book for a much fuller understanding of the Iraq War.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War in the Time of "the Surge", March 19, 2009
Thomas E. Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize winner and it shows in this book. Ricks has written an impressively even handed account that examines the war in Iraq during the time of "the surge." Ricks shows that the military, the U.S. Army in particular, learned from its mistakes, which he documented fully in his previous book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005. In particular, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, one of the generals that emerged in Fiasco as being most responsible for things going wrong in Iraq, is one of the key figures in salvaging the situation. It is a testimony to the professionalism of Ricks as a reporter that he is willing to offer such a different portrait of the man.

Despite what most think, "the surge" was about more than just an increase in troop numbers. It was a time when the military (the Army and the U.S. Marine Corps) adopted a new approach to the conflict. New measures like aggressive patrolling, small unit deployment among the Iraqis, and the development of intelligence networks designed to neutralize rather than kill the insurgent took the place of big units hunkered down on well-fortified and distant bases that responded to incidents with intense and indiscriminate firepower. General David Petraeus played a key role in developing this change when, as the commandant of the Command & General Staff College, he pushed through the development of a new field manual for counter-insurgency warfare. This subject was close to his heart, since he had written a Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton on the lessons of Vietnam. Petraeus, however, was smart enough to realize he needed other smart people to help once he took over in Iraq. Ricks offers portraits of an interesting cast of characters, which if nothing else shows that Petraeus really was willing to think outside of the box. In fact, he goes as far as to say that Odierno was more responsible than Petraeus for developing the new strategy and doctrine the accompanied "the surge."

Ricks spent twenty-five years as a defense correspondent for _The Wall Street Journal_ and _The Washington Post_, and he uses that background to good advantage. The book is well-written and an exceptionally easy read. He examines every level of war, ranging from grunts in firefights at the tactical level, to high-level discussions at the Pentagon. He shows an appreciative understanding for the Sergeants and First Lieutenants that are on the front lines. He also shows a better understanding for events than many of his colleagues. In particular, he puts the famous walk Petraeus took through the Baghdad markets with Senator John McCain into its proper context. While many reporters saw the heavy security apparatus protecting the two men and dismissed it as a publicity stunt, Ricks notes that what was most significant was that the market was in business because it was well-protected, which had not been the case earlier. The only shortcoming in this account is that he includes little discussion of events that transpired at the White House where he appears to have few contacts.

Rick's previous book "Fiasco" is required reading at several military schools where I have taught. I have no doubt that the same will be true for "The Gamble."
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Tell me how this ends? The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), April 21, 2009
By 
Michael "msr tampa" (PEACHTREE CITY, Gabon) - See all my reviews
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After reading Fiasco, was looking forward to this book, but don't think it was as good, Ricks covers the back door decision process that results in the "Surge" and all the major players in the process. The book also covers the short coming of the, "Iraqi in the lead" and "As they stand up, we stand down strategy." and why it wasn't working and the people responsible. Ricks however, never references the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being worked on in 2008 and was signed in 14 DEC 08, and how it outlines our policy and path in Iraq. This agreement states, all US Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than DEC 31, 2011. The SOFA cannot be changed unless the the leadership of US and Iraqi governments agree to it. If the SOFA remains unchanged, it answers the question Gen Petraeus ask when he was the Commander of the 101st, "Tell me how this ends?" The SOFA does just that as far as US military actions in Iraq. The last statement in the book, "In other words, the events for which Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened, starts down this road of looking beyond the 2008, but I wish Ricks would have explored it some more, I know the book had to go to print, but I'm sure he was able to get information on the diplomatic effort and had some indication of how the SOFA wording and the potential impact, too bad he didn't go down that road.
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30 of 39 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Too late and too early, March 9, 2009
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After reading the three previous books by Mr. Thomas Ricks, and being very impressed with Fiasco, I quickly purchased the book and was looking forward to it. I was a tad disappointed. I love "fly on the wall" books especially concerning the White House and the military. Mr. Ricks enjoys a long list of military contacts and I was impressed with the multiple people and multiple ranks of Soldiers he quoted, but there were very few insights that haven't been previously reported.
I feel that Bob Woodward's book "The War Within" covered many of the same information better and although it was heavily focused on the White House he covered many of the issues Thomas Rick's detailed. Since Woodward's book was published months earlier I expected "The Gamble" to have much more detail on General (Retired) Keane, Gen Petraeus, and Gen Odierno. It also fell short detailing the involvement of key players in the Bush Administration.
The last few chapters focused on how the surge was a tactical success but the long term impact is still to be determined. How long the US will stay and what the future of Iraq holds are still pending. I've seen the last sentence of the book quoted multiple times ("In other words the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened") but I was very disappointed that the book did not even address the agreement signed between the Bush Administration and the Iraq Government that removes all US forces by the end of 2011. Details of this agreement were very public before the book was published and the fact that is was not mentioned was glaring and very disappointing. I felt the book should have been delayed a few months and Mr. Ricks should have carefully analyzed this historic, and somewhat surpising agreement.
In essense the book was too late (Woodward was faster) and too early (not mention of the historical agreement removing US troops).
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book has information people should know, October 4, 2009
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Ricks subtitled this superb description of the recent problems of the Iraq War "General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008." Ricks had disclosed the earlier Iraq War troubles in his New York Times Bestseller Fiasco.
Ricks reveals how the United States fought against Iraqi insurgent forces with outdated counter-productive methods designed for large military engagements, such as World war II, resulting in thousands of American and many more Iraqi deaths, as well as an Iraqi civil war, until just a handful of active duty and retired generals were able to persuade President Bush and the military establishment to use instead counter-insurgency methods.
Everyone interested in knowing the inside information about what is only sketched out in newspapers and TV, who want to know what will happen in Iraq in the future, and when the United States can leave Iraq, must read this book.
The United States attacked Iraq in 2003 and President Bush announced that he had achieved a military victory within weeks after American forces began to fight. He, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and virtually the entire Pentagon establishment saw success continuing for the next three years despite several thousand American deaths, constant suicide bombings, deadly explosives left on roads, assassinations, and the apparent need for American soldiers to hide in fortified enclaves. Frustrated and confused American soldiers indiscriminately and brutally murdered twenty-four innocent Iraqis at Haditha in Iraq in 2005, including women and children and a wheelchair-bound old man, and this was not an isolated murder.
It was not until 2006 that President Bush was forced to admit that the actions of the past three years were a dismal fiasco.
Ricks interviewed hundreds of people and relates their assessments. One expressed the view of many: "The truth is that many commands in Iraq (before 2007) are no longer focused on winning and instead are focused on CYA" - that is, covering your ass. Another highlighted the problem: "Part of this loss of focus is lack of clear guidance on exactly what winning means and how to achieve it."
Ricks shows that the answer for what to do in Iraq would come in large part from General David Petraeus. Petraeus changed the war from conventional fighting to counterinsurgency. He taught that rather than focusing on killing insurgents, the primary objective of the American forces should be the Iraqi people "figure out how to win them." The military should concentrate on providing security and opportunity for every Iraqi. The troops needed to get out of their enclaves and move among the Iraqis, live among them, protect them, stay with them, separate them from the insurgents, give them a sense of security, and they will begin to talk with the Americans. This would also bring over many dissatisfied insurgents to the American side.
Petraeus insisted that he could only spread out his forces among the Iraqi people if he had an increase in forces. The American government and most of the general population were against an increase; they were tired in 2006 of seeing the increases in deaths, no reason for staying Iraq and no plan to end the war.
President Bush increased the number of forces in 2007. General Petraeus was given command in Iraq. He led his soldiers in a "surge" that cleaned out many areas and began to place forces among the population. The psychological impact of the surge was huge. As predicted, the number of insurgent attacks decreased and some local Iraqis and some tribal chiefs began to work with the American forces. But the underlying festering problem in Iraq was not solved.
In 2008, President Bush announced that the surge was "doing what it was designed to do," but, he admitted, it had not done what he hoped it would do - it did not lead to political reconciliation among the Iraqi people, among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. These people could not get along with one another and there was a simmering civil war boiling underneath the surface of Iraq. It was only the presence of American forces that held the civil war at bay.
The Iraqi government was and is unable and unwilling to solve this basic problem. The Iraqi Prime Minister "Maliki government is very dysfunctional, and unwilling to reach out to his enemies.... He has a conspiratorial mind-set, and is fearful of a coup."
While many Americans and their representatives in Congress saw the reduction in deaths, they still have "a hard time seeing the big picture and what constitutes success."
What is the current American goal in Iraq?
One observer described it as a very limited hope: "We have given up on having a shinning beacon of democracy in Iraq. We want a nation that is relatively stable, not a threat to its neighbors, and can protect its borders. We have also largely given up on sectarian reconciliation; we now simply hope for some type of sectarian accommodation that will reduce the likelihood of widespread conflict when we leave.... We've planted the seeds and will know the time to leave when the seed blooms. Unfortunately, we cannot tell the American people how long this particular flower takes to bloom" (emphasis added). In the mean time, America needs to spend time, money and lives to try to keep Iraq stable.
How long, realistically speaking, will Americans need to stay in Iraq? Ricks points out that history has shown that states as divided and weak as Iraq rarely become stable; and experts predict that even the current minimal American goals cannot be achieved for over a decade.
But why should America care? Leaving aside the humanitarian answer, that to leave now would result in chaos and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in civil war; there is an important American, indeed world interest. Ricks makes it clear that the internal civil war in Iraq will spill over the Middle East, involve countries such as Iran, which is viciously hostile to the US and US interests, and cause the US to become involved in a much greater war.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, multi-level analysis, March 9, 2009
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"The Gamble", Thomas Ricks's new book about the war in Iraq from 2006-2008, is terrific in its attention to the many aspects of this chapter of the war. The surge and David Petraeus are central to its theme and Ricks manages to tell his story with an unbiased view that few others have. The narrative is smooth but crackling and can be well-understood in layman's terms.

The author spends some time on the failures of the Bush adminstration and its generals to carve a successful first few years after the 2003 invasion. Not surprisingly, President Bush plays a reduced role here as this is a book that is much more about the new wave of generals and their thinking outside the box than it is about the "old guard". Besides General Petraeus, General Raymond Odierno, once thought of as heavy-handed in his approach to the war, is figuratively resuscitated and becomes one of the "good" guys.

The overall curve of "The Gamble" describes the willingness of the American military to get out among the Iraqi people, learn about them more and sometimes make deals with those who killed American soldiers. Why this wasn't done in the early stages of the war remains not so much a mystery but a lost opportunity. Strategies are discussed at length, but Ricks's keen eye lets him take us to the politics of the situation....Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki and his government, the U.S. Congress, public opinion both in America and Iraq and, of course, the politics among the generals, themselves. That comprehensive presentation is the best part of the book.

Ricks underscores the fact that putting the right people in the right positions at the right time is critical to success. But he also points out that he is not optimistic about a total withdrawal from Iraq. We will be in Iraq for years, he suggests, if not decades. "The Gamble" is a sobering look at the past two years of a war that is inconclusive as we begin our seventh year there.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth reading to understand Iraq and America's future there, February 10, 2009
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Another fascinating book from Thomas Ricks-- as well written and illuminating as "Fiasco"-- if you want to understand why the surge was a military success and a political failure, or what America's future may be in this never-ending war, I highly recommend "The Gamble".
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The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq
The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks (Paperback - January 6, 2010)
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