I just finished reading “The Strongest Tribe – War, Politics and the Endgame in Iraq” by Bing West. Once the author’s own ideas about the relationship between the nation, the media and the armed forces are set aside, what remains is an account of reference on the civil war in Iraq from 2003 to 2008.
Bing West’s military experience gave the author an excellent relationship with the troops, and that granted him access to a variety of sources in theater throughout the whole period. He provides a comprehensive view from the bottom to top about what the US forces experienced in Iraq and how they adapted to overcome the challenges of counter-insurgency in a very muddy political environment.
Communicating the complexity of this conflict is incompatible with the mass-media formats. This book offers the volume necessary to describe how the invaders went through the messy process of stumbling upon new problems, trying solutions, gaining understanding and then building doctrine from the ground up. Bing West’s work is the first one to my knowledge that exposes the whole process and articulates it into a coherent narrative.
We follow the troops as they are dealing with duplicitous Iraqi politicians, struggling to build trust in a lawless society, sustaining morale while working with thankless partners, sticking to western due process standards in a country with no reliable judiciary, overcoming the impulse to stick to search and destroy, living among the locals to stop commuting to work from large bases, learning how to seize and hold sectors in a sustainable way, turning a population terrorized by campaigns of murder and intimidation, and finally getting it all together to find how to get the local potentates to stand for themselves. With the authors eyes, these problems are seen through the prism of the Vietnam war, and we discover what connects to the historical lessons learned in Vietnam and elsewhere, and how the Iraqi mix created original challenges.
The Strongest Tribe stops almost entirely short of the political territory of why the United States went to war in Iraq – and that is a good thing. Bing West does an outstanding job of explaining how the military in Iraq and its chain of command dealt with the fighting, and I extend my praise to him for sticking within that perimeter, apart from a handful of gratuitous mentions of Senator John McCain.
All in all, a recommended read for making sense of Iraq from the local point of view – provided you understand the bias of an author strongly connected to the culture of the US armed forces. Hats off to Bing West for his in-depth work, and hats off to the ingenuity, flexibility and sheer dedication of the troops who navigate in the dangerous unknown.