In February 2006 the late William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote, “One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed” and counseled “the acknowledgement of defeat.” At the time my old friend and mentor was right. The indices, as he would say, were all bad. Al Qaeda in Iraq was probably never more powerful, and we were never more feckless, strategically disorganized and unfocused — the heroism of our individual troops notwithstanding. The Haditha scandal would grab world headlines soon. President Bush with his “What, me worry?” optimism was headed downward toward a 30% approval rating in his conduct of the war. We were at the edge of the precipice. The blood and treasure we poured into the sand seemed to have been as wasted as that which we consumed in the jungles of Vietnam.
Yet just last week Bing West wrote the following in The Wall Street Journal:
“The war I witnessed for over five years in Iraq is over. In July, there were five American fatalities in Iraq, the lowest since the war began in March 2003. In Mosul recently, I chatted with shopkeepers on the same corner where last January a Humvee was blown apart in front of me. In the Baghdad district of Ghazila — where last January snipers controlled streets awash in human waste — I saw clean streets and soccer games. In Basra, the local British colonel was dining at a restaurant in the center of the bustling city . . . . For the first time in 15 trips across the country, I didn’t hear one shot or a single blast from a roadside bomb.”
West’s The Strongest Tribe is a compelling history, sweeping, comprehensive, detailed, and unassailable on its facts. It is the story of how we got from there to here, from then to now.
What started as a sally into Iraq to topple Saddam and seek out his nonexistent WMDs (though we didn’t know, he’d already exhausted his stockpile on his own people and the Iranian Army) became a nightmare of civil violence. Like the dog that chases the car and finally catches it, we had no idea what to do with our easy but superficial victory. Our decision to disband the Iraqi Army was the best recruiting tool al Qaeda in Iraq could have wished for, and the Army reorganized itself into an insurgent force aligned with and controlled by them.
Public utilities and sanitation were nonexistent. Violence on a scale unimaginable to many of us ruled the day. A 14-year-old boy had his throat cut because he was seen talking to and laughing with American troops. Kidnappings, mutilations, beheadings, and shootings were commonplace and no one, regardless of age or gender, was spared. As usual, our enemies got a free pass while the media lingered salaciously over the deviant but minor abuses perpetrated at Abu Ghraib by a small group of misfit morons — three privates, four corporals, and a sergeant.
For a critical time Henry Kissinger’s warning in The Washington Post fell on deaf ears: “Victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy.”
President Bush, apparently just back from a sojourn on a distant planet, dusted off Woodrow Wilson’s bombastic utopian handbook and announced during a speech at the Army War College that “I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free.” Impressed by his own lofty rhetoric he went on to say: “Mankind has an innate thirst for freedom and self-rule.” Sweeping declarations such as these are cold comfort to those who do not know where their next meal or glass of safe drinking water is coming from, whose sewers are the streets in front of their shattered hovels; people who are afraid to leave for work (assuming they have jobs) because they might not return alive and, if they manage that, could find their wives and children sadistically slaughtered.
West writes: “In the fall of 2006 Ramadi looked like Berlin in 1945. It required an American armored convoy to get the governor to work in the morning, where he sat in a usually empty office while on the roof a .50 caliber machine gun took a daily toll of insurgents. The week before I arrived in September, the insurgents had assaulted the dingy, sandbagged Government Center. The Marines killed twenty-nine attackers, then stopped firing to allow unarmed youths to emerge from the rubble and carry off their dead.”
The president finally focused his attention on the fact that the situation was not improving. He asked Gen. George Casey a long overdue question: “George, do you have enough troops? I’m concerned about the ramifications of sending more troops. But I am more concerned about winning.” Bush at last screwed his courage to the sticking point and authorized The Surge in the face of thunderous ululations from the left and right, the media, and most of a war-weary citizenry — Sen. John McCain being a notable exception.
The increase in our troop commitment enabled us to devote thousands of them to being “partnered with Iraqi forces and tribal auxiliaries to protect the population. Feeling safe, the population informed on the militias and terrorists living among them . . . . Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attacked the Mahdi militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that controlled Basra and half of Baghdad. The militia crumbled under pressure from Iraqi soldiers backed by coalition intelligence and air assets.”
Since then Iraq has been a continuing success story, much to the consternation of Barack Obama and the likes of John Murtha, who still seem determined to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory and are totally bewildered by our success. Obama’s befuddlement would be a joy to behold but for the fact that he has a good chance of being our heroic military’s next commander in chief.
McCain’s views are presented throughout this book. It is worth noting that at every stage of the war he has been right — from his quiet statement to an aide on September 11, 2001, that “This is war,” to his support for the surge, and he has been right before almost anyone else. Of course, when you’re right and you’re a Republican, you can still get a bad press out of it. His statement that we might have troops in Iraq “for 100 years” was poorly phrased, but when he took heat for it he should have responded: “U.S. troops have been in Europe since the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. Has that been a bad investment in our freedom and security and the preservation of the Western democracies?”
Bing West served as a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam and was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. Since 2003 he has made 15 extended trips to Iraq and embedded with 60 front-line units. He counts among his friends hundreds of hard-bitten grunts and many of our top-ranking generals, but his friendships never prevent him from criticizing the latter when candor and sound judgment require that he do so.
His title comes from a conversation with an Iraqi colonel. West asked him why the blood-soaked terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had avoided capture by fleeing disguised in women’s clothes. The colonel replied: “You Americans are the strongest tribe.”