Thursday, July 16, 2009

“Tell Me How This Ends” by Linda Robinson – General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way out of Iraq

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.


1 comment:

Diane said...

This makes you really appreciate what those who fought in WWII went through during their deployments that lasted for years. Our own father was gone for a few years in N.Africa, Burma and India. The physical toll on him directly led to his death at the early age of
65. What a price they pay!