By Peter R. Mansoor
New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2013. Pp. xxxii, 341. ISBN 978–0–300–17235–5.
In January 2008, I was in Baghdad as a correspondent for Time magazine. My editors sent word from New York that Time would be publishing a feature article, possibly announced on the cover, about President George W. Bush's gambit of surging troops into Iraq in 2007. Violence had fallen appreciably in the war-torn country since the height of the bloodshed in 2006, when I first arrived there. The editors felt the moment had come to examine the "surge" and consider what might happen next for Iraq. Within days, I had arranged interviews with Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander of US forces in Iraq, and ground commander Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno.
Since the magazine's bureau sat outside the Green Zone, I had to drive through Baghdad to get to Odierno. Rather, a security detail had to drive me, as was done for all western journalists in Iraq. But when the day of my appointment arrived, the Shi'ite militia who controlled our neighborhood banned all vehicle traffic because of concerns about car bombs. I rescheduled the interview for the next day, but this time an insurgent attack again closed the road to Odierno's base. I informed his staff, who were audibly exasperated. In the end, the general simply sent two Blackhawk helicopters to shuttle me to and from the meeting. This episode was emblematic of the surge as it looked then and still looks today: it was a success certainly, but only by comparison to the charred and bloody wreckage of Iraq under US occupation in 2003–6. Moreover, its success held only as long as American forces gripped the situation with both fists.
Historian and retired Army colonel Peter Mansoor (Ohio State Univ.) has now written a welcome and important history of the surge, which remains a subject of serious debate among American military and counterinsurgency thinkers. Mansoor himself helped craft the strategy later adopted by the White House and served as executive officer under General Petraeus during its execution. His book is an indispensable, insider's account of the American military experience in Iraq. He describes the evolution of the surge from a rough idea formulated by a small coterie of Army strategists to its fruition in the deployment of some thirty thousand troops in a maelstrom of hatred and bloodletting in the heart of the Middle East.
Mansoor argues that a sequence of events set in motion by the surge in 2007–8 changed Iraq from a potential failed state to a viable democracy. He identifies specific factors critical to the relative stabilization of a country where, in 2006, scores of bombings and shootings occurred every day. An unexpected tribal rebellion in Iraq's northwest Anbar Province pitted a confederation of local sheiks and their followers against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgent organization most fervently opposed to the US presence. The Mahdi Army, a Shi'ite militia led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, declared a unilateral ceasefire. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fell out with his onetime ally al-Sadr and launched a crackdown against him and his cadre. At the same time, reinforced American troops, working with Iraqi units, adopted new, more effective counterinsurgency tactics (266–67).
The author makes his case thoroughly and convincingly in the book's ten chapters. He wisely chooses to write a history rather than a memoir. He mines the burgeoning literature on the Iraq war, but also makes a valuable original contribution by drawing on declassified materials collected during his research. For example, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously denied that the US military kept body counts of enemies killed, and, throughout the conflict, military officials on the ground refused to reveal any such numbers. But Mansoor proves that secret tallies were in fact compiled. Although they killed more than six thousand insurgents and detained twelve thousand others, occupation forces watched with dismay as conditions in Iraq steadily worsened (31).
The narrative is enriched by vivid and revealing anecdotal stories of Mansoor's time in the inner circle of the war command, headquartered in a gaudy lakeside villa left over from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The house remained untouched by the looting that had gripped Baghdad in the spring of 2003. The great room and dining areas were furnished in original, horribly kitschy, faux French baroque style, dominated by large chandeliers and a color scheme infused with pink, turquoise and gold. In the corner sat an unused 1960s-era console television, which made for a great conversation piece when compared with the ubiquitous LCD screens brought into Iraq by American forces. To the rear of the house was a large cement patio which we furnished with picnic tables and lawn furniture. General Petraeus would entertain VIP parties and visiting dignitaries in the dining room and would host occasional gatherings on the patio for larger groups. Some of my fondest memories from Iraq were of the get-togethers on the patio with the commanding general's personal staff and members of his security detail. We would eat barbequed meat, drink near beer and sodas and share cigars while hitting golf balls into the lake or throwing bread to the fish, which grew to enormous size and swarmed like piranhas whenever fed. (95)
Despite the advantages of his insider's perspective, Mansoor sometimes betrays a lack of insight or, perhaps, candor. At one point, he describes his disgust and burning desire for revenge over the killing of five American soldiers in Karbala by the Iranian Qods Force (84). In a savage and startlingly sophisticated attack, the Iranian operatives, dressed as US soldiers, tried to abduct the troops they eventually killed. Many senior officers like Mansoor who were privy to intelligence reports on the raid blamed Iran, which was clearly behind several other provocations as well. But Mansoor omits another reason why US commanders were so enraged by the Karbala killings—the collusion of senior Iraqi officials in the attack. Mansoor does, at various points, give his reader a sense of the political tensions between American forces and the Iraqi government. But he largely leaves out the widespread, bitter resentment soldiers and marines felt toward their Iraqi counterparts over the Karbala affair and other incidents. Indeed, they often wondered—with good reason—whether Iraqi leaders were friends or foes.
Mansoor's evaluation of the surge is too rosy. The influx of additional troops undoubtedly helped reduce the violence in Iraq. However, whether this was the sole decisive factor, as Mansoor insists, is highly debatable. It is too simplistic to assume that the amplified American presence drove all significant changes in Iraq. As in any large, incredibly complex society, politics in Iraq are extremely intricate and move according to machinations difficult for outsiders to fathom. The Mahdi Army ceasefire, for instance, took nearly everyone by surprise. Mansoor takes his default position that the surge created the political conditions that made the ceasefire possible. Perhaps. But all indications are that al-Sadr's decision stemmed from a desire to de-escalate rising tensions with a rival Shi'ite militia. That is to say, like many another military strategy, the surge benefited from a stroke of luck.
This book is, thus, best seen as an authorized version of the surge. Indeed, David Petraeus's foreword lends a kind of imprimatur to this uncritical presentation of the strategy and its proponents. More, much more, will be said about the subject, as Mansoor readily acknowledges. But, for the present, Surge should be in any serious reader's short stack of books on the war in Iraq.