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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and Endgame in Iraq

The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in IraqThe Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq by Francis J. West Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book about the Coalition occupation of Iraq was written by Bing West, a Vietnam veteran and former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He examines the changing strategy and tactics of the occupation from its troubled beginnings through the height of the insurgency and up until 2009.

Despite West's background, he is not kind to the Bush administration. He accuses Bush of being out of touch with the reality on the ground and unwilling to listen to those who were better informed. He places the blame for much of America's troubles in Iraq at the feet of its then Commander-in-Chief

The armed forces did learn from its mistakes, however, and the bulk of this book is devoted to Coalition's attempts to devise strategy and tactics to defeat the insurgency. West embedded with numerous frontline units to get a better idea of how the changing tactics worked on the ground. His detailed military analysis is fascinating for any student of the subject and West keeps it from being a dry Defense Department briefing by giving vivid descriptions of the individuals involved and some of their firefights.

One thing I especially appreciated is that the author gives full credit to the bravery and commitment of the many Iraqis who fought alongside the Coalition to make their country a better place. Having been to Iraq myself, I have met many such Iraqis and it's too bad their story isn't told more often. The Americans got to go home at the end of their tour of duty. The Iraqis, however, didn't have that option and ran the risk of assassination at the hands of terrorists. Many fell victim to such a fate.

There are holes in his coverage, however. Coalition partners are given short shrift, and the whole Blackwater scandal (overcharging the government, pointlessly killing civilians, etc.) is shrugged off in a single page with the statement that new rules were put in place to keep the "mistakes" from happening again. That's a shockingly naive statement coming from such an experienced observer and I wonder if West actually believes it.

The Abu Ghraib scandal is treated in a similarly flippant manner. West never considers the possibility that the blame went higher than those immediately involved. I'm not saying it did; I'm just saying that it's a question worth asking.

Despite these quibbles, I still found The Strongest Tribe the single best general coverage I've read on the war. Anyone who wants to understand the occupation of Iraq or the changing tactics of modern warfare should read this exciting and informative book.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this, Sean. As someone who is paid to think about military law and ethics, I would be very suspicious of anyone who could shrug off Blackwater and Abu Ghraib as being inconsequential. They were systemic abuses, symptomatic of a war fought with cavalier disregard for the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC), conducted by neocons who thought it was cool to outsource as much of the fighting as possible. There aren't that many shining stars on the US military side, either. Tom Ricks two books on Iraq would be a helpful counterpoint to West, I suspect.


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