The Corner

How Did We Win in Iraq?

Jim Lacey’s piece today, warning against excessive dedication to building a pure counterinsurgency Army when planning for future conflicts, is outstanding from start to finish, but buried within the article is a gem of a paragraph that directly addresses the hidden reality of the Surge:

The corps commander in Iraq during the surge, now the Army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, reportedly said that nothing he was doing before the Army published its new counterinsurgency doctrine changed once it was published. A new doctrine did not break the back of the counterinsurgency in Iraq. That was done by the addition of 50,000 more soldiers and Marines to the fight. Note:These were not aid workers or even forces imbued with a new doctrine (most of them had never read it). Rather, they were 50,000 mostly combat troops, prepared to take the fight to the enemy. And it was a hard and vicious fight — one that often required the full combined-arms panoply (armor, artillery, close air support) to win. Somehow, much of the true narrative of this fight is being lost in favor of one that emphasizes getting along with the locals, building schools, and helping farmers. All of these activities were, of course, important, but they pale in comparison to the benefits of increased security, which was only bought by hard fighting. One brigade commander captured it perfectly when he said, “I know all about counterinsurgency doctrine. It means shake hands in the light and kill at night.”

In the years since my deployment, one of the (many) misconceptions that seems to have captured popular imagination is that we won in Iraq after we essentially adopted a kinder, gentler war-fighting strategy. We actually won after we sent our infantry and our cav scouts into insurgent-infested neighborhoods, had them build tiny outposts, and essentially declared that we now owned that part of town. No more “strike and leave” (what some called “commuting to war”); instead it was “clear, hold, build.” And believe me, “clear and hold” meant very hard fighting.

Our howitzer battery set records for most rounds sent downrange in a month. Our Bradleys and Abrams were sometimes engaged in fights in tiny village streets, and our heavy armor repelled many otherwise-fatal IEDs that would have turned even up-armored Humvees into so much scrap metal.  We used virtually every tool in the arsenal to defeat al-Qaeda. Yes, we shook hands a lot, and I had plenty of chai in the towns and villages in our Area of Operations, but our unit also launched the largest air assault in armored cavalry history. One of my jobs was hand-shaking, but I couldn’t shake a single hand without a trigger-puller right by my side — on ground sometimes red with their own blood as they fought to secure hard-won gains.

I was there when the Surge was turning the tide, and I can testify that the tide was turned by warriors, not community organizers. Jim Lacey understands this fundamental truth, and I hope that his articles are read and studied by the highest-ranking eyes in the land.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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