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The Gods of War

Today’s Washington Post introduces the first in a two part series [1] laboriously headlined, “The Generals’ Insurgency/Odierno’s Surge: The Dissenter Who Changed the War.” Subhead: “As the No. 2 Commander in Iraq, Raymond Odierno Challenged the Military Establishment, Pressing for More Troops and a Long-term Strategy to Guide Them.”

Written by Thomas Ricks, who has followed up his seminal Fiasco (2006) with The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, the WaPo piece today is no doubt part of the ongoing deification of individuals (what happened to the “Petraeus Surge”? the “Bush Surge”? Even “the McCain Surge”?) over a real examination of the trillion-dollar mess we created over there. Aided and abetted by the Washington Post and certain Washington national security journalists who have spent the last year tagging along with the right people in the COIN (Counterinsurgency) set, a narrative is being artfully developed, that — surprise —  distills the entire Iraq debacle into one meta theme: how Iraq was tamed by a few exceptional men and women (the number is expanding and contracting all of the time) who were brave enough to pursue the Surge against the rigidity of the Washington establishment. Such hagiography makes for lusty, bold headlines and a useful diversion from hard lessons and emerging truths, one of which is that no one yet has been able to say with any confidence or credibility that the the Surge led to “winning” the war.

What they will say is the Surge put an end — mostly — to American casualties and stabilized the region. Except this is not accepted by anyone as the full story. Even Ricks’ piece today acknowledges this 45 paragraphs and 2,541 words in (just after he describes “Odierno, at 6 feet 5 inches and 245 pounds, is eight inches taller and 90 pounds heavier than Petraeus. Odierno’s most noticeable physical trait is his bulk topped by his bald, bulletlike head. Petraeus is small and slightly buck-toothed. The nimble Petraeus is as much a diplomat as a soldier, while the hulking Odierno always seemed inclined to use firepower.”):

“The change in tactics and the increase in troops were not the only reasons that the security situation in Iraq would improve in the following months. By the time the surge began, the ethnic cleansing by Shiite militias had largely been completed. In addition, Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, declared a cease-fire later in 2007. Most important, Petraeus that year decided to put large parts of the Sunni insurgency on the U.S. payroll, essentially paying them to stop fighting.”

But that is all Ricks’ allows, at least in this installment. He follows this nugget with more palatable post-war tension and drama, which seems to be, “Who Gets the Credit?”

“In a recent interview, Odierno expressed surprise that a book by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, published just as Odierno took command in Iraq, credited White House aides and others in Washington with developing the surge. From Odierno’s perspective — and that of many other senior officers in Iraq — the new strategy had been more or less conceived and executed by himself in Baghdad, with some crucial coaching from (Ret. Gen. Jack) Keane in Washington.

Tomorrow’s installment will explore, according to WaPo, “the battles Petraeus waged in Washington that determined the fate of the surge.

At least Iraq is back on the front pages.

UPDATE: Tom Ricks on Meet the Press this morning. [2]

While today’s WaPo piece expends a whole lot of energy insinuating that Gen. Odierno can take credit for a successful Surge strategy, the author is on t.v arguing to a vacuously unarmed David Gregory that not only did the Surge “fail” in so many ways, but Iraq remains a very dangerous and fragile place, and that “the generals” may be headed towards “a confrontation” with President Obama over troop withdrawals (seems your gut reax, Dennis, may have been right on track, considering the timeliness of this article [3] on Petraeus’ and Odierno’s preference for an extended 23-month troop withdrawal).

We still have 155,000 troops in Iraq and Ricks’ is already bemoaning their departure — because the situation is much bleaker than the “people back here” know. In fact, the few excerpts from Ricks’ book provided by Politico today [4] indicate the real news is on the ground, not in reliving with tedium two-year old Pentagon skirmishes and engaging in premature hero-worship. Perhaps we might be more informed, Mr. Ricks, if your newspaper stopped providing the leverage Odierno and Petraeus need for their “confrontation” with Obama long enough to deliver the news.

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#1 Comment By Dennis Dale On February 8, 2009 @ 10:02 am

At least Iraq is back on the front pages
Why, and why now, I wonder. Is Ricks being manipulated by an effort to resurrect the “surge is working” and “fragile gains” memes to pressure Obama, who’s shown admirable independence (handing Petraus his hat at their recent meeting and sending him on his way without a commitment to back off his withdrawal plans)?
With the recent elections a nationwide expression of defiance toward us, solidifying an increasingly independent Maliki, resurrecting Sadr somewhat, and diminishing our favorite al Hakim to a near non-entity, the prospects for an enduring military presence are dimming all the time. I’m still convinced that the point of the occupation has always been the occupation itself.

#2 Comment By Dennis Dale On February 8, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

Ricks buried the lede (and the seed):

Obama is likely to find Odierno and other generals arguing passionately that to come close to meeting his commitment to keeping U.S. troops safe, keeping Iraq edging toward stability and maintaining the pressure on extremists, he will need a relatively large force to remain in Iraq for may years.

When asked what sort of U.S. military presence he expected in Iraq around 2014 or 2015 — well after Obama’s first term — Odierno said, “I would like to see a . . . force probably around 30,000 or so, 35,000,” with many troops training Iraqi forces and others conducting combat operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq and its allies.

Things go bad in Iraq, we require more troops; things go “well” in Iraq, we require more troops.

#3 Comment By ikram ghouri On February 10, 2009 @ 6:17 am

There is no doubt if the miitary has everything in their hands is bad day for the country and for the mankind. America is destroyed by these rubbish generals. You can see what President Eisenhower told in 1952 if the army and defence industry is together will catastrophe for America. I am sure America can,t solve thgeir problemy. We are victims of American hayganomie but it will in the interest of every Muslim to hate American policy makers who are biaest against Muslims and Islam but public is innocent. How Americans can solve their problems is their business

#4 Comment By knowbuddhau On February 10, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

Bravo! As John Cleese’s classic portrayal of an indignant French knight in Monty Python & the Holy Grail might say, this time quite dignantly, I bow in your virtual direction, Sister Kelly Vlahos.

I must confess, I wasn’t nearly as impressed with your appearance on Democracy Now! last year.

######KELLEY BEAUCAR VLAHOS: Well, it was becoming clear to me and to others here in Washington in certain circles that the advisers that were emerging for the campaigns, whether it be Democratic or Republican, were part of some seriously pro-establishment cliques. And I say “cliques,” because there is really no other way to describe it. But these cliques generally can be categorized as not only pro-establishment, but more pro-interventionist, whether it be the so-called liberal interventionists on the Democratic side or your war hawks on the Republican side.

But what became clear is that the candidates weren’t reaching outside of these establishment cliques and that they were getting no fresh ideas, no vision outside of these pretty standard parameters. And we thought—me and the editors thought it might be a good idea to explore a little bit under the surface about where these of advisers were coming from, in hopes of maybe deciphering where foreign policy might be going in the future. [5] #######

I’m elated to see that you’ve expanded your frame of reference to–literally–mythic proportions.

Just hours ago, I commented similarly on Gleen Greenwald’s blog, Unclaimed Territory, to wit:

######### “I would like the author to be more expansive in his thought, to use mythology as an heuristic. But his logic? I don’t understand your criticism.

As a devoted student of comparative mythology, my general frustration is with the absolute mechanization, the over zealous secularization, of popular discourse in the West. We talk as if Newton’s physics were the be-all and end-all of conceptions of being in the world.

Natural science is noetic (look it up). Her sister art is poetic. We all talk in terms noetic, never looking up into the poetic.

I am not a machine. Are you? Then why do we talk about our selves and our Source as such? That’s my beef.#########

My revered sister, did you know that Joseph Campbell lectured at the Foreign Service Institute, beginning in 1956? That should send a shudder up the spine of anyone who’s seen the famous interviews with Bill Moyers.


Here’s the scary part: a warped “power of myth” is being used to power weapons-grade domestic propaganda.

And that’s why I’m so elated to see your superlative myth-busting. That’s the urgent task of we wordsmiths today, in my not-always-all-that-humble opinion.

#5 Comment By The Fed is Destroying Our Economy On February 10, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

Severely corrupt governments + corporations are why so many people are suffering!!! There are abundant resources on this planet for EVERYONE to have clean water, food, shelter, decent jobs, medical care, etc.!!!

Corporations have merged with government, which was basically Mussolini’s definition of fascism:
“Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” – Benito Mussolini.