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The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq

The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks, The Penguin Press, 2009, 370 pp.

The Gamble is Thomas Ricks’ follow-on to his widely popular book Fiasco, written in 2006, about the war in Iraq. Ricks has taken a “no-holds-barred” approach to dissecting the political and controversial nature of the American military’s shift in strategy in the Iraq war years of 2006–2008. Through critical interviews and exclusive insight, he exposes the frank conversations and risks undertaken at the highest levels of national decision making in attempts to change the strategic downward spiral of the Iraq war. Ricks conveys the angst of many senior officers in efforts to revive the military strategy by adopting a controversial approach known as the “surge.” Through the lens of a few key actors, and at the cost of several senior leaders’ careers, Ricks explains how the new approach is adopted with uncertain success. The book is a must read for anyone involved in military or government affairs and is especially critical given the current state of affairs in Iraq and the Middle East.

Thomas Ricks has a long career of reporting on military affairs and defense matters. After graduation from Yale in 1977, he reported for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years, where he was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. He transitioned to The Washington Post as a Pentagon correspondent and has authored several highly acclaimed books, notably in the context of this review is Fiasco, a New York Times Best Seller, where he covers the early postinvasion years of the Iraq war. He continues to write on military matters and policy and is highly influential in political circles as a senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The Gamble describes the state of the Iraq war in late 2005 as on the brink of disaster, with the military adrift and seemingly without strategy. Several years after the invasion of Iraq, it becomes clear that sectarian violence is on the rise, and the American campaign is entrenched in a counterinsurgency. Summing up the approach taken in the period from 2003–2006, Ricks describes the military strategy as “protect yourself at all costs, focus on attacking the enemy, and treat the Iraqi civilians as the playing field on which the contest occurs” (p. 5). Sparked by an incident in which a group of Marines ruthlessly killed civilians, it was evident that there are more problems in the war than understood by most policy makers. With the war becoming ever unpopular, and understanding that defeat was imminent unless radical changes were made, several key players would work outside the chain of command to forge a new strategy and revive the US effort. Applying classic counterinsurgency doctrine, the new strategy is focused on protecting the population and routing out support for the insurgents while building security for political processes. Ricks not only describes the shift in strategy that would ultimately give the United States a chance to salvage the war but also how the efforts were forged—via dissenting officers utilizing backdoor channels that would result in the removal of much of the chain of command.

Ricks meticulously illustrates the interactions of the Bush administration with the incumbent military leaders as well as the dissenters. Beginning with retired general Jack Keane, several Washington insiders and academics began urging the president to adopt the new approach. Acting against the will of the current military leadership, Keane also recommends replacing the current American leaders in Iraq with two experienced and cavalier officers to lead the new campaign, Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno. He builds the character of these leaders by describing their previous experiences in Iraq and their association with the new strategy. Petraeus was already initiating changes in Army doctrine to address the insurgency in Iraq through an unorthodox approach by inviting many academic outsiders to the revision. Odierno is described as having a “heavy hand” during his previous command in Iraq, but Ricks highlights the commander’s ability to adapt to the new strategy as an example of positive change. Ricks is rather harsh in his criticism of early leaders by highlighting the dysfunctional continuation of a failed strategy—a mistake that would result in the removal of much of the chain of command as the administration adopts the dissenting view. While Ricks primarily illustrates the surge as a successful yet turbulent adaptation, he also presents a cautiously optimistic outlook for the future of Iraq in the long term.

Readers will find Ricks’ book fundamentally critical of the Bush administrations’ early leaders in Iraq and portray many previously successful leaders as incompetent. Interestingly, the depiction of General Petraeus as an iconic leader has been somewhat tarnished after an extramarital affair abruptly ended his career. While The Gamble illustrates the surge as a successful transformation, it more importantly highlights the need for leaders to adapt; in this case, only through near failure and by subverting the chain of command was the United States able to avoid complete failure. Given the current state of Iraq, the benefits of the surge may be irrelevant, but its valuable lessons should not be lost.

Maj Colby B. Edwards, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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