Ending the Neverending War

Reviewed by John Nagl

The Forever War: Dispatches from the War on Terror
by Dexter Filkins
Knopf, 2008, 368 pages

Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq
by Linda Robinson
Public Affairs, 2008, 416 pages

The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008
by Bob Woodward
Simon & Schuster, 2008, 512 pages

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When the insurgency began in Iraq in the late summer of 2003, the United States Army was caught unprepared. Until then, it had been designed, trained, and equipped to win conventional wars, and was without doubt peerless in that arena. But it was not ready for an enemy who understood that it had no hope of defeating the United States on a conventional battlefield, and therefore chose to wage war against it from the shadows.
Yet over the five years that followed, in one of history’s most remarkable examples of adaptation under fire, the United States Army learned to conduct a surprisingly successful counterinsurgency campaign. Three new books, each by a prominent journalist, tell the story of that dramatic change, two from on the ground in Iraq and one from the corridors of Washington. Viewing the conflict from their different perspectives provides important insights into a war that America was losing badly only two years ago, and now looks to have turned around. It also suggests something about how America is likely to fight the war in Afghanistan under President Obama, and offers broader lessons about the nature of warfare in the twenty-first century.

John Nagl is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A retired U.S. Army officer, he fought in Iraq in 1991 and 2003-2004. Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (University of Chicago, 2005) and co-authored The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (University of Chicago, 2008).

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