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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Surging to Failure

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Every now and then, I think back to the millions of people who turned out in this country and across the globe in early 2003 to protest the coming invasion of Iraq. Until the recent Women's March against Donald Trump, that may have been the largest set of demonstrations in American history or, at the very least, the largest against a war that had yet to be launched. Those who participated will remember that the protests were also a sea of homemade signs, some sardonic ("Remember when presidents were smart and bombs were dumb?"), some blunt ("Contain Saddam -- and Bush"), some pointed indeed ("Pre-emptive war is terrorism"). In one of those demonstrations, I was carrying a sign which read "The Bush administration is a material breach" (a reference to that crew's insistence that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was in "material breach" of a U.N. resolution for not fully disclosing its efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction... you know, those non-existent nukes that were slated to create future mushroom clouds over American cities). There was even one humorous sign I noted then that seems relevant to our Dystrumpian moment and the president's stated wishes to "keep" Iraqi oil: "How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?"

But here's the essential thing: the invasion to come had disaster written all over it and millions of people saw that perfectly clearly. They were, of course, the ones who weren't consulted then and would never be remembered when what they feared actually occurred and played out so catastrophically. Unlike those who got us into the Iraq nightmare, one of the great blunders of modern times, or those who later prosecuted the ongoing war there, they would never be asked for their reflections on it.

They are now largely forgotten, as is the thought that, then as now, it didn't necessarily take an expert to tell you the obvious: that America's never-ending wars in the Middle East would come to no good; that all the promises about "winning," whether then or today, have been or will prove so much hogwash. It didn't take an expert, then or now, to know that Washington's military-first efforts to "win" across the Greater Middle East were fated to end badly, whether we're talking about the famed "surge" of 2007 in Iraq, President Obama's "surge" in Afghanistan in 2009, or, in the age of Trump, the sudden surge of American air strikes in Yemen in the wake of a failed and now-controversial raid in which a Navy SEAL and possibly 10 children died. It seems that those included the most intensive day of drone strikes ever ordered and, more generally, an intensification of the Obama era campaign in that country. (This from a president who was supposed to be a noninterventionist!)

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From 2003 on, it hasn't been all that difficult to see just how poorly all of this would play out even as it happened. Of the surge in Iraq, for example, I wrote in 2008: "If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn't be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis." And I was hardly alone in my "insight."

Nonetheless, no matter what I or others outside the American mainstream media wrote at the time (and since), the surge's cachet remained -- and remains -- strong indeed. That's why it couldn't be more useful to hear from an actual expert on just what went wrong and why. On the 10th anniversary of the original "surge" in Iraq, Major Danny Sjursen, TomDispatchregular, former history instructor at West Point, and the author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge, offers a personal look at the building of a legend, which helped make careers, including those of Trump's top generals, and kept a disastrous war going. Tom

The Surge Delusion
An Iraq War Anniversary to Forget
By Danny Sjursen

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The other day, I found myself flipping through old photos from my time in Iraq. One in particular from October 2006 stood out. I see my 23-year-old self, along with my platoon. We're still at Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, posing in front of our squadron logo splashed across a huge concrete barrier. It was a tradition by then, three and a half years after the invasion of neighboring Iraq, for every Army, Marine, and even Air Force battalion at that camp to proudly paint its unit emblem on one of those large, ubiquitous barricades.

2nd Platoon, B Troop, 3-61 Cavalry, Kuwait, October 2006. The author is standing on the far left.

Gazing at that photo, it's hard for me to believe that it was taken a decade ago. Those were Iraq's bad old days, just before General David Petraeus's fabled "surge" campaign that has since become the stuff of legend, a defining event for American military professionals. The term has permanently entered the martial lexicon and now it's everywhere. We soldiers stay late at work because we need to "surge" on the latest PowerPoint presentation. To inject extra effort into anything (no matter how mundane) is to "surge." Nor is the term's use limited to the military vernacular. Within the first few weeks of the Trump administration, the Wall Street Journal, for instance, reported on a deportation "surge."

For many career soldiers, the surge era (2007-2011) provides a kind of vindication for all those years of effort and seeming failure, a brief window into what might have been and a proof certain of the enduring utility of force. When it comes to that long-gone surge, senior leaders still talk the talk on its alleged success as though reciting scripture. Take retired general, surge architect, and former CIA Director Petraeus. As recently as 2013, he wrote a Foreign Policy piece entitled "How We Won in Iraq." Now "win" is a bold word indeed. Yet few in our American world would think to question its accuracy. After all, Petraeus was a general, and in an era when Americans have little or no faith in other public institutions, polls show nearly everyone trusts the military. Of course, no one asks whether this is healthy for the republic. No matter, the surge's success is, by now, a given among Washington's policy elite.

Recently, for instance, I listened to a podcast of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) panel discussion that promoted a common set of myths about the glories of the surge. What I heard should be shocking, but it's not. The group peddled a common myth about the surge's inherent wisdom that may soon become far more dangerous in the "go big" military era of Donald Trump.

CFR's three guests -- retired General Raymond Odierno, former commander of Multinational Forces in Iraq and now a senior adviser to JPMorgan Chase; Meghan O'Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush; and Christopher Kojm, former senior adviser to the Iraq Study Group -- had remarkably similar views. No dissenting voices were included. All three had been enthusiastic promoters of the surge in 2006-2007 and continue to market the myth of its success. While recognizing the unmistakable failure of the post-surge American effort in Iraq, each still firmly believes in the inherent validity of that "strategy." I listened for more than an hour waiting for a single dissenting thought. The silence was deafening.

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Establishing the Bona Fides of Victory in Washington, If Not Iraq

With the madness of the 24-hour news cycle pin-balling us from one Trump "crisis" to another, who has time for honest reflection about that surge on its 10th anniversary? Few even remember the controversy, turmoil, and drama of those days, but believe me, it's something I'll never forget. I led a scout platoon in Baghdad and my unit was a few months into a nasty deployment when we first heard the term "surge." Iraq was by then falling apart and violence was at an all-time high with insurgents killing scores of Americans each month. The nascent central government, supported by the Bush administration,was in turmoil and, to top it all off, the Sunni and Shia were already fighting a civil war in the streets.

In November 2006, just a month into our deployment, Democrats won control over both houses of Congress in what was interpreted as a negative referendum on that war. A humbler, more reticent or reflective president might have backed off, cut his losses, and begun a withdrawal from that country, but not George W. Bush. He doubled down, announcing in January 2007 an infusion of 30,000 additional troops and a new "strategy" for victory, a temporary surge that would provide time, space, and security for the new Iraqi government to reconcile the country's warring ethnic groups and factions, while incorporating minority groups into the largely Shiite, Baghdad-based power structure.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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