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The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 Hardcover – Bargain Price, February 10, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best of the Month, February 2009: Anyone who read Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks's superb, bestselling account of the Iraq War through 2005, and has followed the war since has likely noticed that many of the heroes of that devastating book, the officers and analysts who seemed to understand what was going wrong in the war when the rest of the political and military leadership didn't, have since been put in charge, starting with General David Petraeus, the cerebral officer who took command in Iraq and led what became known as "the surge." Ricks, the senior Pentagon correspondent at the Washington Post, has stayed on the story, and he returns with his second book on the war, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. As good (and influential) as Fiasco was, The Gamble may be even better, telling the remarkable story of how a few people inside and outside the Pentagon pushed the new strategy through against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military top brass, and then, even more remarkably, how soldiers put the difficult plan into action on the ground and managed to sharply reduce the chaotic violence in Iraq. But the story doesn't end there, and Ricks's bracing conclusion--that the American military, like it or not, will still have a necessary role in Iraq for years to come--makes it likely that this may not be the last book we have from him on the subject. --Tom Nissley

Questions for Thomas E. Ricks

We exchanged emails with Tom Ricks for a few weeks before the publication of The Gamble, a time which saw, among other things, the inauguration of Barack Obama and regional elections in Iraq. You can read the full exchange on the Amazon books blog, Omnivoracious.com. Here are some highlights:

Amazon.com: The Gamble is the history of what has become known as "the surge." What do you think the public understands about the surge, and how does that compare with what you've seen from up close?

Thomas E. Ricks: I think there are two big misunderstandings about the surge. The first is that the surge "worked." Yes, it did, in that it improved security. But it was meant to do more than that. It was supposed to create a breathing space in which Iraqi political leaders could move forward. In fact, as General Odierno says in the book, some used the elbow room to move backward. The bottom line is that none of the basic problems facing Iraq have been addressed--the relationship between Shia, Sunni and Kurds, or who leads the Shias, or the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, or the sharing of oil revenue.

The second misunderstanding is just how difficult the surge was. People back here seem to think that 30,000 troops were added and everything calmed down. In fact, the first six months of the surge, from January through early July 2007, were the toughest months of the war. When troops moved out of their big bases and into little outposts across Baghdad, they got hammered by bombs and rockets. It took some time before being among the people began to lead to improved security, and during that time, a lot of top American officials in Iraq weren't sure the new approach was working. General Petraeus says in the book that he looks back on that time as a "horrific nightmare."

Amazon.com: Let's start with that second point. Because The Gamble is in many ways the story of a remarkable success: a minority of officers and analysts who pushed through a new plan for the war against opposition across the political spectrum and throughout the military leadership, and then, even more impressively, soldiers who put the plan into action on the ground and managed to stem a great deal of the violence in Iraq within a matter of months.

The new counterinsurgency approach to the war was one you had argued for in Fiasco, but in the most violent days of early 2007, how did you think it was going to turn out?

Ricks: I was very skeptical back in early 2007 about the surge. I think there were two reasons for this.

First, there was little evidence that the U.S. military was going to be able to operate differently, and more effectively. After all, they had been fighting there for longer than we fought in World War II, and the only thing we had to show for it was that in 2006, Iraq was going straight to hell.

Also, I didn't get out to Iraq in 2007 until May, on the first trip I did for this book. It was only then, five months into the surge, when I got on the ground there, that I sensed how different the American leadership was from earlier on. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the U.S. military, was talking about counterinsurgency, and making protecting the Iraqi population their top priority. That was a huge change from earlier on in the war, when different units seemed pretty much to do their own thing--one outfit would be drinking tea with the sheikhs, another was banging heads.

The new candor and understanding in the Americans was striking. One that May 2007 trip, I went into Green Zone and got from David Kilcullen a really thorough and insightful briefing into the state of play in the streets of Baghdad. That was a big change from earlier on, when officials inside the Zone had no idea what was happening out there. I remember also one general, David Fastabend, an advisor to Petraeus, beginning a conversation then by saying, "We have done some stupid shit" in Iraq. There clearly was a new gang in town.

Amazon.com: And many of the people who had been put in charge, Gen. Petraeus first among them, were well known to readers of Fiasco as advocates for counterinsurgency. But one who wasn't turns out to be one of the crucial figures in your story: Gen. Ray Odierno, who early in the war was one of the ones banging heads. By the time 2007 rolls around, he's Petraeus's top commander in Iraq and he's a changed leader. What happened to him?

Ricks: The change in General Odierno is one I wrestled with throughout the reporting of this book. He seemed so different, so in sync with Petraeus on the counterinsurgency plan. And he was of almost no help in figuring it out. "General Odierno, you strike me as so changed from the guy I wrote about in Fiasco. I can't figure out how that happened." "Hey Tom: Your problem, not mine."

I think two major things happened to him between 2004, the end of his first tour in Iraq, and the end of 2006, when he came back for his second tour. First, his son was badly wounded in Baghdad, losing an arm to an RPG. Second, when he came back to Baghdad, he saw that the place was falling apart, and that the war could be lost on his watch. That has a way of concentrating the mind.

What he did then was kind of astonishing: He went around his bosses and basically cooked up the surge. He was the only officer in the chain of command who was for it. (Petraeus also was for it, but he hadn't yet arrived in Iraq.) I think he showed genuine moral courage in what he did. It was a huge risk, going against all his bosses. As I say in the book, he was the natural father of the surge, and Petraeus was the adoptive father. I have no problem saying that General Odierno is one of the heroes of this book.

Amazon.com: While we're talking about the surge, there's one basic thing to clarify: despite the name, as you say, "the surge was more about how to use troops than it was about the number of them." What did the new counterinsurgency tactics translate into on the ground, and why do you think they worked to the extent they did?

Ricks: This is a hugely important question, so I want to take some time on it.

There were two key aspect to the different use of troops. First, they had a new top priority: protect Iraqis. (Until February 2007, the top priority of U.S. forces in Iraq was to transition to Iraqi control.) Second, to do that, they had to move out into the population. Before this point, they were doing a lot of patrols from big bases, usually in Humvees. They would be in a neighborhood maybe one hour a day, and the other 23 hours of the day belonged to the insurgents. Now, they were living in the neighborhoods, and constantly going out on short foot patrols. They got a lot more familiar with the people, often visiting every single family, and conducting a census. In military terms, they were mapping the sea in which the insurgent swam. Familiarity made them far more effective, and also constrained the movements of insurgents.

For all that, there are other important factors in why Iraq changed, and they shouldn't be forgotten. First, by the time the U.S. military moved into the streets of Baghdad, the city was largely ethnically cleansed. Second, in the spring of 2007, in a huge policy shift, General Petraeus began putting the Sunni insurgency on the payroll--essentially paying them not to attack us. This split them off from al Qaeda in Iraq, and isolated the terrorist extremists.

Once the Sunni insurgency was seen to be on our side, even temporarily, the Shiite fighters under Moqtadr al Sadr went to ground. Otherwise, Uncle Sam would have been training all his firepower on them.

The problem is that all these arrangements are temporary, and could easily unravel. For example, the Sunni insurgents made a separate peace with the United States. They never have given up their objection to Shiite control of Iraq and of the Iraqi army. So what we may have done is simply delay that fight--and armed both sides in the meantime.

From Bookmarks Magazine

By and large, critics were less eager to assess Ricks's work as an author and more interested in his opinions about the success of the "surge" and the future of Iraq. But this is perhaps the book's greatest endorsement; whether they were liberal or conservative, American or British, critics viewed Ricks's facts as unassailable and his analysis as strong. They were impressed not just with his unparalleled access to the main actors in Iraq but also with his ability to integrate two commonly held but seemingly irreconcilable views -- that the war was a mistake and a catastrophe (as expressed in Fiasco) and that Petraeus and the surge represented an amazing turnaround. Thus, many critics found that although Ricks seems to express a consensus view, The Gamble is counterintuitive and challenging, refreshing yet sobering.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201978
  • ASIN: B004E3XD9E
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,405,987 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Loyd Eskildson HALL OF FAME on February 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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