The Strongest Tribe: War, Politics, and the Endgame in Iraq by Bing West

Wars fought like World War II may be in the past for the United States. Our country’s wars of the future will be more counterinsurgency focused where our enemies will be in civilian clothes and hide within the civilian population. These assertions and many more are made by Bing West in his book The Strongest Tribe.

West’s book is a refreshing and insightful look at the Iraq War from 2003 to 2008. West examines the strategy and tactics used during the war – those that worked and those that failed miserably. He details why we were losing the Iraq War in the early years and how the corner was turned more recently.

Unlike many of the books written about the United States’ counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, West brings personal experience and a vast array of knowledge into his examination of the war. West was a Marine captain in charge of a combined action platoon during the Vietnam War – these units lived in Vietnamese villages to become closer to the population in order to fight the Viet Cong. Based on his experiences, he wrote The Village – which is taught at war colleges as the primer in counterinsurgency.

Along with his battlefield experience, West knows how the higher levels of government work from his stint as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs under the Reagan Administration. In addition, in researching the book, West spent fifteen extended tours in six years in Iraq talking to those at the lowest level (squads of Marines and soldiers) and those at the highest level (division, corps, and army commanders).

As you can see, West has the experience and knowledge to discuss the good and bad about the Iraq War. He begins the book with the bad. The American military and political leadership bordered on complete incompetence at the beginning of the war. For example, West asserts that Iraq fell apart because President Bush and the Pentagon leadership pursued opposing strategies after the invasion of Iraq – the Pentagon wanted to give the war effort to the Iraqis to win or lose and the President wanted the U.S. military to win the war, not hand it off. West contends that these conflicting goals led to confusion and a lack of cohesion in command.

As the war continued, it began to turn in favor of the Americans and their Iraqi allies. Many believe that the change was because of General Petraeus and his surge strategy that he instituted. However, West aptly points out that the war began to change prior to the appointment of Petraeus (although West points out that Petraeus did an excellent job in managing the surge). He contends that the war changed from the bottom up through the cooperation of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and the American commanders in that province. The emergence of the Sunni tribes in Anbar in support of the Americans – called the Awakening – occurred because they were tired of being poorly treated by al Qaeda in Iraq. Additionally, as a result of the Marines’ constant patrolling in Anbar, the Sunnis grew to trust and respect the Marines. The close relationship between the local leaders and Marine battalion commanders allowed the Americans to find the insurgents and either eliminate them or arrest them.

In addition to dispelling the myth that Petraeus single-handedly turned the war around, West also counters the claim that if more troops were present earlier in the war, the war would have ended much faster. There were more than 140,000 troops with 100,000 contractors in a support role after the invasion. West contends that these numbers were sufficient to suppress the enemy, but more men would not have countered the incompetence of Paul Bremer – head American administrator in post-invasion Iraq – and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez – Corps commander of U.S. troops. These men “lacked a plan, a counterinsurgency doctrine, and proper training” to win the war. In addition, West states that more troops “operating alone under a doctrine of attack and destroy would have exacerbated the rebellion.”

Although many of the weaknesses of the fight in the early part of the war were remedied, West argues that many remained unresolved. One of the biggest, according to West, is the misuse of American forces. After the initial invasion, the Iraq War became more of a police war than a fighting war. In a police war, one has to understand police techniques. The American military did not (and still does not) understand how to fight a police war. West asserts that in order to fight an effective police war the male population of a country must be counted. The male population must be counted in order to identify who the enemy is through fingerprinting and other identification methods. If the American military was trained to understand police techniques and the population was fingerprinted, West contends that the insurgents in civilian clothes could have been identified and the war shortened.

As for the book’s style and organization, I think it is well organized along an historical timeline of the events of the war. The writing is smooth and the book reads well. At 376 pages, West’s arguments are clear and precise. In addition, there are three appendixes that cover such topics as America’s experience of counterinsurgency during the Vietnam War and West’s counterinsurgency lessons.

The Strongest Tribe is a fair and balanced analysis of the occupation of Iraq.

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