Like most news junkies who had followed the war in Iraq on a daily basis for six years, I thought I was pretty well informed. However when I read Bing West’s The Strongest Tribe I was stunned at how much I had missed- not just unreported or misreported events but also how to think about those events in balanced perspective. Soon after the lightning overthrow of Saddam the mainstream media began to turn against a war they had never much liked in the first place. As the war ground on their reporting disproportionately revolved around suicide bombers in Iraq and grieving families in America. Most books that promised “deeper analysis”- even well written ones like Bob Woodward ‘s trilogy- revealed a clear liberal bias and left us yearning for some Paul Harvey to tell us “the rest of the story”.
We find such a person in Bing West whose book is long on “on the ground” reporting and short on political opinion. It radiates an evenhandedness that gives a reader great confidence in its veracity.
West was a career military officer who distinguished himself as an authority on counterinsurgency warfare in Viet Nam. That war produced relatively few good books, but West’s classic The Village is one of them. Later he would serve as an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan.
Published in 2008 the book covers the war from the beginning through the success of the “Surge” which snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. West employs a strictly chronological approach and avoids those annoying back and forth digressions that confuse readers.
West comes down hard on both civilian and higher military leadership who through most of the war utterly failed to define a unified and coherent American mission in Iraq. Whether it was Defense (Rumsfeld) vs. State (Powell) in Washington or their counter-parts (General Abizaid vs “Proconsul” Bremer) in Iraq their conflict and confusion over strategy profoundly undermined mission effectiveness on the ground. Underlying this confusion was an American naiveté and general cluelessness concerning cultural/historical and political realities in Iraq.
The State Dept. seemed to think that giving Iraqis a few PowerPoint presentations on tolerance/diversity, constitution writing, and Roberts Rules of Order could swiftly transform their country into an up and running self-defending democracy.
Having achieved their quick battlefield victory a la Afghanistan, the Pentagon wanted to get out of Iraq as soon as possible, and while waiting to do so corralled its soldiers in large isolated bases from which the troops “commuted to work”.
Having no coherent plans for “post-victory” operations both Defense and State bought into the bizarre “Light Footprint” doctrine which suggested that the very sight of American soldiers so inflamed young Iraqi males that they immediately ran to the nearest Al-Qaeda recruiting office to become instant jihadists.
All this confusion went on for three years (2003-2006) during which Iraq spiraled downward into chaos and the American people soured on the war.
The great strength of West’s book rests on his frequent and lengthy stays in Iraq mostly spent embedded with American troops. He persuasively demonstrates that local American commanders and local Iraqi leaders (notably the Sheiks of Anbar Province) figured out what was wrong and what was needed long before the politicans and military brass in either Washington or Baghdad.
Finally a senior military leader emerged who grasped the validity of these local viewpoints. General David Petraeus saw clearly that victory was impossible without local Iraqi support, and that support was absolutely dependent on Americans providing the people with the security and stability that would allow them to inform on and fight back against the detested foreign fighters of Al-Qaeda who were terrorizing them by systematically murdering their men and raping their women.
Petraeus took a strategy that had worked for a number of local American commanders and applied it country-wide. He took his troops out of their isolated bases and had them “move in” with the people and stay. Beginning in the deadly “Sunni Triangle” he also authorized local American commanders to recruit, arm, and pay local Iraqi males (“Sons of Iraq”) as fighting auxiliaries to the American forces. Thus empowered local leaders (mostly tribal sheiks) courageously faced murderous Al-Qaeda reprisals and blessed joint combat operations against a suddenly exposed and then decimated enemy whose power rapidly melted away in the face of this new turn of events.
Petraeus success in selling this new strategy which was the critical element in the success of the “Surge” was absolutely dependent on his views becoming known to key National Security Council staffers who orchestrated an “end run” around the Pentagon and the State Dept- both highly resistant to any notion of increased troop levels.
While West praises the gutsy decision of a politically battered President Bush to authorize the “Surge” despite the rampant and poisonous “defeatism” pervading Washington, he severely faults him for his passivity and unwillingness to challenge senior Cabinet and military leaders during the long period (over two years) when the situation in Iraq was clearly deteriorating. Citing Lincoln, FDR, and Truman as examples, West correctly insists that Presidents must be willing to aggressively intervene and even fire people when a war is obviously going badly. For too long George W. Bush failed that test.
Even more severely does West condemn the rank hypocrisy of Democratic leaders like Reid, Pelosi and Murtha who endlessly chanted their “support for our troops” while doing everything in their power to undermine the mission of those troops and also giving aid and comfort to the enemy by publicly announcing that “the war was lost” when in fact it was about to be won.
The real heroes of West’s book are American soldiers. Their valor uncelebrated by their country’s media, their mission undercut by politicians, and often poorly served by their own higher leadership, they fought against a savage and fanatical enemy in deadly battle spaces like Fallujah street by street, house to house, often room to room with incredible skill and bravery. West sternly reminds us that “They are not victims; they are Warriors”. Their individual stories- the best part of the book- will fill your heart with pain and pride.
The title of the book comes from the remark of a Sunni Sheik when West asked him why the top Al-Qaeda leader in Fallujah had fled the city in a woman’s dress. The Sheik pointed to a passing Marine patrol and in respectful tones replied “Because they are the Strongest Tribe”.
West closes his book expressing concerns about the future of the “Strongest Tribe” in a country whose martial virtues are being drained by the poisonous atmosphere of political division and cultural warfare.
We all should worry about a day when- like contemporary Europe- there will be nothing worth fighting for and no more volunteering young warriors even if there was.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post.