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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Endgame’

- - Friday, October 12, 2012

THE ENDGAME: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ, FROM GEORGE W. BUSH TO BARACK OBAMA
By Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor
Pantheon, $35, 800 pages

Bernard E. Trainor and Michael R. Gordon wrote what remains the seminal study of the Persian Gulf War, "The Generals' War." With the publication of "The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama," which follows their 2006 "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq," they have written a two-volume history of the second war with Iraq that is likely to be considered definitive for some time to come.

Although "The Endgame" tells the story of the wrap-up of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the war was known formally, it also retraces some of the events covered in "Cobra II," their account of the first phase of the war. This enables "The Endgame" to stand alone. However, readers would be advised at least to peruse the earlier volume for added context.

The task the authors undertook was prodigious because the Iraq conflict was such a complex situation. At times, it was at least 10 separate conflicts occurring in the same country, with coalition forces fighting a combination of foreign jihadists, Baathist holdouts, disaffected Sunni sheiks, anti-American Shiite elements and Iranian agents. Added to this witch's brew were the aspirations of the Kurds in the north who controlled an autonomous region. Even those of us who served in Iraq multiple times could not say that we understood the war; we only knew the small slice of it that we fought. Despite this, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Trainor are able to explain this complex jumble in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages.

The authors are particularly adept at debunking the claims of revisionists who view the Iraq surge and the Sunni Awakening as unrelated events with no cause-and-effect relationship. They build a strong case that the two events were closely related and mutually supporting.

Published as it has been on the eve of the presidential election, the book will not enhance President Obama's claims to be an effective war leader. The Obama administration's handling of the war receives some very sharp scrutiny from the authors. Particularly damning is their portrayal of Mr. Obama's ambassador, Christopher Hill, who appears pigheaded and inept in his dealings with the U. S. military, coddling an Iraqi government badly in need of adult supervision. The authors paint the picture of a president so anxious to get out of Iraq that he was willing to ignore the strategic consequences of the failure to arrange a long-term strategic partnership that would have kept us close to this vital oil-producing country.

While extolling the virtues of our fighting forces and working civilians in the field, Mr. Trainor and Mr. Gordon have mixed reviews of the senior military leadership, particularly that of Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who also is portrayed as overly eager to get our troops out of Iraq. He appeared to ignore the signs that the country was descending into the chaos of sectarian civil war. Gen. David H. Petraeus gets far better marks for his handling of the surge and its synchronization with the Sunni Awakening.

The authors also are hard on President Bush's blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group, which provided some shaky advice on how to end the war. I had the opportunity to run a war game for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the feasibility of those recommendations shortly after they were published. The results were dismal. It appeared to us that the study group's members were suffering from groupthink. The book notes that only former Sen. Charles S. Robb had the moral courage to dissent from the group's findings, and the authors think he was correct.

Mr. Trainor and Mr. Gordon make a good writing team. As a retired general, Mr. Trainor can sort through the minutia of reports and military correspondence to determine what is militarily important, and Mr. Gordon, a veteran reporter, is able to do the same on the political side. One hopes they will be better treated by reviews of this volume than by reviews of their first book, "The Generals' War." The New York Times allowed an author with a competing book on the market to slam theirs; it was one of the most unprofessional literary incidents of the past decade.

To sum up the book for the reader: A Republican administration blundered into the Iraq War, and a Democratic administration stumbled out of it. Through it all, rank-and-file soldiers and civilian professionals saved our bacon by making chicken salad out of chicken droppings. The devil of the story is in the details, and the authors do a superb job of providing them.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who served in Iraq as an adviser for the Defense and State departments.