I purchased this book with some apprehension, because I was somewhat disappointed with the author's earlier book, "No True Glory." It rather annoyed me to read a whole slew of gunfights between the Marines and insurgents in Anbar Province but have no maps to give me some sense of how the engagements were unfolding.
Fortunately, Bing West's account of the war up to the present time in Iraq doesn't get down into the weeds like "No True Glory" so the handful of maps he provides are basically adequate for the narrative.
Reading "the Strongest Tribe," I find myself thinking two different things. One is "Finally! we're getting it right in Iraq!" The other is "Why did it take this long to get it right?"
I think West's book is invaluable for anyone who wants (as I so badly did) a good idea of the ebb and flow of the conflict and the various strategies that we employed before finally hitting (or should I say rediscovering) the methods that appear to be working so well over there now: using American soldiers to provide security for the Iraqi population and winning their trust and using that trust to get intelligence on the insurgents and terrorists.
I don't really have any major criticisms of the book. West might give the Marines more attention in his account than their actual share of the fight would justify. But if that is a bias, it's understandable since the Marines were at the forefront of the bloody fights in Fallujah and played the lead role in pacifying Anbar. Moreover, West is a former Marine himself and it is logical he would gravitate toward them and have his best contacts with there as well. In any case, if there's a bit of bias, it's only very slight.
Another thing I really wish would have been a more in-depth discussion of the so-called "Haditha Massacre." West spends about a chapter on the episode, but it's just a quick tour of that event. Those seeking to have better insight into it would do well to watch the Frontline documentary that was on PBS about incident. I do think that West is exactly on point in excoriating the press and politicians like Jack Murtha for rushing to judgment against the accused Marines. I look forward to the first serious book about what happened in that small Iraqi town, because something as complex as what took place there deserves a book.
A final nitpick is an error at the beginning of the book where West lauds General Eisenhower for making the hard call of resisting a British demand for a cross-channel invasion of Europe in 1943. West gets it totally wrong there. It was the United States that wanted this attack, not the British. But that's just a minor failing.
So I would strongly recommend "the Strongest Tribe" both to people in the military and the national security community as well as to Americans who want to have a good solid grasp of what's been going on in Iraq, the mistakes we've made, and the fact that we've turned the corner there.
One thing I can absolutely assure you of is that you won't get that sort of honest perspective reading "reviews" like the one star review someone gave to this book. That "review" has political agenda and close-mindedness written all over it.
on August 12, 2008
Bing West is one of the foremost military authors about the War in Iraq.
His new book, The Strongest Tribe, is about the history of the Iraq war. It begins and ends, very appropriately with Major Doug Zembiec, whom, if you don't know, you should.
The path of The Strongest Tribe takes us through the invasion to the point in 2006 where we essentially were losing the war, then figured out how to win and implemented the Surge strategy. Bing West was there dozens of times and he chronicles the good, the bad, and the ugly - straight up, neat, no ice.
The best part about this book is that it is the book that Cobra II wanted to be (and many others). Bing West is not afraid of offending and his sources speak for themselves (and he is highly critical of LTG Sanchez and L. Paul Bremmer). The only part that I disagreed with was West's assertion that we could have somehow kept the Iraqi Army together after the invasion. Certainly, some units would have remained but, for the most part, I didn't see many Shia conscripts returning to serve Sunni Officers in most situations. I had spoken with a lot of soldiers about this - COL (ret) Greg Gardner, in particular, who was the Army's representative at the CPA's Ministry of National Security.
From a tactician's point of view (and an expert in COIN), Bing West gives you the perspective to see what went wrong and what went right. [Edit Note: This is the first book that I've read that also correctly describes John McCain's fight against Secretary Rumsfeld, Congress and the administration to see a Surge strategy put into place.]
There is much talk of tribes in the book. You can't discuss Iraq and not talk about the tribal system. In the end, the strongest tribe wins. The strongest tribe is the one that is the most flexible and willing to do whatever it takes to win and gather the other tribes to it's fold.
It turns out that the American military is the strongest tribe.
Interspersed amongst the stories of the CPA, the State Department, the CIA and the Bush Administration, Bing West shows that our military men and women were making amazing sacrifices and valiant efforts that made success possible. That's the first half of the book.
And, the second half, from our lessons learned, our generals AND our corporals and sergeants developed an effective strategy and are winning the day - despite a uninformed and uninvolved public. West ends the book where we are now - on the edge of victory, and he includes a series of myths or OIF urban legends that are a must read.
If you read one book about the good and the bad of our five years in Iraq, you should pick up The Strongest Tribe - it has my highest recommendation.
on August 20, 2008
Books worth reading once are worth reading twice - John Morley.
My own 800 days of service in Al Anbar Iraq as the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Bn, 7th Marines and as the G-3 of the 1st Marine Division have undoubtedly shaped my perspective of The Strongest Tribe, but until now I have felt ill-equipped when asked by intelligent and well meaning friends to explain the broader war in Iraq. Mr. West latest book is a tour de force that provides a vibrant, honest and hard hitting look into the realities of close brutal combat as well as a sophisticated and nuanced exposé of the complex strategic, political and social narratives that must be understood if one is to fully understand the war in Iraq. The author's deep understanding of war born of his considerable personal combat experiences and service in the Defense Department's highest offices, uniquely position him to give a thorough yet accessible treatment to this most complex and misunderstood conflict. Mr. West's love and genuine respect for the young men and women who so selflessly serve our nation in harms way is felt in the stories of their courage and sacrifice as well as in his often biting criticisms of leaders and policy makers who he feels could and should have served them better. My own understanding of the war has been stretched beyond the boundaries of Al Anbar to places like Mosul, Basra, Sadr City and the Green Zone. I highly recommend this book to Marines like me who desire a fuller, broader understanding of their war. More importantly, this will be the book I will give friends to read because it treats our young warriors with the reverence and respect they deserve and delivers the scholarship and insights the War in Iraq requires. I will certainly read it more than once.
Joseph A. L'Etoile
LtCol, USMC (Ret.)
on September 7, 2008
No one does combat journalism better than Bing West, who has made something like 15 trips to Iraq since the 2003 invasion. He learned about combat in Vietnam, where he served as an adviser to Vietnamese forces, writing the counterinsurgency classic "The Village" about his experiences there. He has matured into one of the most astute combat observers we have, with a talent for getting inside units to tell the real stories about the men and women serving in harm's way.
The Strongest Tribe does a terrific job of telling three main stories: Iraq's descent into chaos in 2005-06, which I witnessed firsthand as an Army officer; the decision in Washington DC to deploy additional troops to Iraq as part of the "surge;" and the combat operations of 2007-08 where those additional troops fought to pacify Iraq. These three stories have never been told together with such force, insight and color.
Still, there is more to tell. West writes mostly about American forces, less about the Iraqi intrigues which played a major role in the Anbar Awakening and subsequent stabilizing of Iraq. And there is the larger story of how the success in Iraq fits into the larger American war on terrorism, and how the Army and Marines will learn from this war to reshape themselves for the wars of the future.
on August 13, 2008
Bing West's latest literary work, The Strongest Tide, follows in the footsteps of his other excellent books on the Iraq War, The March Up, and No True Glory. Besides allowing the reader to sense combat through the eyes of our brave warriors, the author's observations and comments unravel this complicated conflict from top to bottom across the entire military, political, and economic spectrum. The Strongest Tide serves as a educational masterpiece on America's involvement in Iraq. The author has impeccable military/political credentials. He writes from the front lines instead of the comfort and safety of the green zone. This book should be required reading at this nation's war colleges and every governmental component involved in the Iraq war I highly recommend it to anyone else interested in the truth of what's going on there.
on August 23, 2008
Having read Bing West's books, No True Glory and The march to Baghdad I find this book to give the most detailed account of the war. It tells how at a time when the situation appeared to spin out of control, our soldiers and marines paved the way to victory and did not wait for the braintrust of generals and political leaders to formulate a plan.Field commanders making critical decisions to meet the needs of their men and their area of responsibilty.
The war is covered with no area uncovered.. Mistakes made both on a military and political level are exposed. Mr. West favors no General or political leader and sticks to the crust of the matter, winning and how we achevied it.
I both enjoyed the book and at times was frustrated by the lack of many leaders who did not and will not get the outstanding effort made by our armed forces. The reader will swell with pride and also feel like he/she was punched in the gut reading about the loss of life.
I highly recommend this book to everyone and wish this book would be used as a study guide in schools to teach and understand the complex world that Iraq is.
Every one has a opinion on Iraq but few know anything about life there. This book explains the inner world of Iraqi politics, corruption, and basic survival for it's people.
The book is a great tribute to the can do sprit of the our troops and men like Major Doug Zembiec and so many more.
on November 8, 2008
The Strongest Tribe is likely the best military and political history so far available on the Iraq war, and Bing West is also likely the most qualified person to write this history. Mr. West is a former infantry officer with the Marine Corps in Vietnam, where he learned first hand the lessons of counterinsurgency serving in combined action platoons in the second half of that war, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and as someone who has been to Iraq at least 14 times since the start of the war. Each trip has been weeks to months long and has taken him to all corners of the country, where he has been given unprecedented access to US and Iraqi forces. His connections range from corporals on the ground, fighting IEDs and snipers in arid desert, urban jungle and dense palm thickets, through battalion and brigade commanders in the provinces, to the generals in the Green Zone, and all the way to senior policy advisers in Washington D.C. As such he brings unmatched experience, breadth, and depth of access to write what I believe will be the watermark history of the Iraq war, and the first major history written after the success of the "surge." It is also written in an extremely straightforward, just the facts manner, which bequeaths it with an unbiased (although not uncritical) and honest tone. This history corrects so many of the faults of the rash of books rushed to the printing presses shortly after the invasion ended and the insurgency began.
Mr. West's account of the war is long and detailed, without being bogged down in unnecessary tangents, and flows seamlessly from the terror, heat, and gore of room to room fighting in Fallujah to the oak paneled offices of the Capital. Like the war itself it is broken into roughly two parts, the first half being the struggles America dealt with in failing to protect the population and fight the insurgency before late 2006, and the second half chronicling the turnaround brought on by Petraesus' strategy shift, coincident with and augmented by a "surge" of five brigades whose largest impact was to signal to Al Qaeda, the Iraqis, and indeed the World, that America wasn't quiting the fight. Many figures come in for deserved and thoroughly explained criticism. Bremer and General Sanchez completely mismanaged the early days of the occupation, turning chaos into disaster and squandering opportunity at every turn. General Casey comes off as a decent general but one pursuing a disjoint and unworkable strategy of trying to get America out as quickly as possible, protecting the force by keeping it isolated from the population vice risking the force to protect the population, and defeating the insurgency with raids that didn't stem the source of the takfiris swarming over the country. Bush is a man of principle and faith trying to do the right thing, and who has generally made the right calls, eventually, but whose intellectual lack of curiosity, slowness in enacting policy changes, and ineffectual leadership style have cost the strategy pursued, and the men and women charged with carrying out on the ground, dearly. The constant themes throughout the book are the bravery and honor of our fighting forces, and the extreme complexity of the situation on the ground.
Mr. West explains the tortured tribal, ethnic and religious makeup of Iraq, and the festering cauldron of sectarian hate and violence that was unleashed when the oppressive lid of Saddam's regime was removed and then stoked by the incompetent early rule of the American occupation. He also drives home the complex lessons and sometimes uncomfortable necessities of fighting insurgencies throughout the text, and summarizes his expertise with a useful appendix outlining his rules for counterinsurgency.
America has turned the corner in Iraq with a new counterinsurgency strategy, and because our men and women on the ground are the "Strongest Tribe." But Mr. West also sees a disturbing disconnect in American society, with one half of the political spectrum placing opposition to the war for political gain above the national interest, and an uninformed and uninvolved society (which Bush tragically and shamefully made no effective attempt to explain the war to and call to action / share the burden of the war amongst, in other words, lead) losing the martial virtues which have allowed us to win our wars in the past. He rejects completely and convincingly the notion that the country can support the soldiers but not the mission, and delivers a poignant cautionary warning about how American society has reacted to and inexorably influenced the war in Iraq.
Highly recommended. Not quick or comfortable reading, but necessary if you want to know what has actually happened in Iraq, why, and what to do carrying forward from here.
on August 22, 2008
Bing West is a recognized authority on counter insurgency, and he learned it the hard way, beginning in the rice paddies of Vietnam, with a rifle in his hands. Every word he writes was earned the hard way. It never seems to fail in this country over the last 45 years or so. No matter what the circumstance, two broader groups end up disgracing themselves time and again. Those two groups are the elected politicians and the elite media. It should be no surprise in comparison that the US Military is held in such a high regard. They've earned their praise, adapting faster and learning more quickly than the elected leaders can adjust.
In an election year, I can think of no better book to inform oneself. As we transition from one administration to another, it is important to note the historical records of the candidates. Now that the surge has taken effect and the end game in Iraq is on the horizon many politicians will crawl out from under the rock they've been hiding under and try to spin the situation to their advantage. As we go forward, only John McCain can look the American People in the eye and stand by his record. But he will be the first to tell us that it was on the backs on the american soldiers and marines that victory was made possible. After all, he knows what it is to sacrifice for your country.
on August 27, 2008
Mr West once again captures the history of this often incorrectly reported and generally misunderstood war. After reading the March Up, I gained an insight of the big picture I missed as a Battery Commander in the 1st Marine Division at the time of OIF 1. This book similarly captures the zeitgeist of those of who were on the ground in Iraq during the time covered, even going for far as stating what many of us felt when we heard the words of numerous American politicians playing into the enemies' hands. He is very accurate and expressed better than I every could some of the problems and frustrations of being an adviser to the Iraqi Army.
on August 12, 2008
With this third installment on the war in Iraq, Bing West does his best job yet of articulating the complex relationships between the local Iraqi tribes, the fledgling national government, the American political melee -- and how incredibly our fighting men and women have performed amid the chaos. He weaves together the many tales cogently and brings to life the situation on the ground in Iraq as well as in Washington -- pulling no punches and telling it as he sees it. A refreshingly honest and insightful read.