Guard of Honor

Review: ‘The Marines Take Anbar’ by Richard H. Shultz Jr.

A U.S. marine observe children play in Ramadi / AP
May 3, 2014

"A mainstay among the Corps traditions is the premium placed on learning as a core competency."

If there is one lesson to be taken from Richard Shultz’s study of Marine Corps operations in Iraq (2003-2008), it’s that intellectual agility is a necessity of warfare.

In The Marines Take Anbar, we witness a 21st century "war amongst the people," a struggle between insurgents and counter-insurgents. And while Shultz’s topic is counter-insurgency (COIN), the author always reminds us that COIN is war: brutal, bloody, and messy. Shultz reminds of this by a rare feat: the successful merger of military history and political science.

The author starts by bringing us inside Anbar, a vast province in western Iraq. He describes how the world the Marines entered was an alien one. Anbar’s population is the totality of three parts: "Bedouin tribal traditions, [moderate-Sunni] Islam, and Arab culture."

Shultz then moves to the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein.

As Shultz explains, it was to great detriment that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) neglected the cultural power of the tribes. Contemplating other CPA decisions construed by Anbaris as deeply unfair, Shultz references one Marine general’s opinion that the CPA’s strategic neglect made Anbar in 2004 "a perfect storm."

Shultz details how Al Qaeda in Iraq unleashed unrestrained brutality to dominate Anbar. The author gives us a palpable sense of life in Anbar Province circa 2004-2006: a dystopia in which civilians, tribal sheikhs, and former politicians (and their families) were murdered with impunity. To read these accounts is to be struck by the absurdity of those who draw a moral equivalency between America and Al Qaeda.

Shultz notes that hope seemed lost among Marine intelligence officers. Then, in 2006, two things changed.

First, Shultz says the USMC "learned" its strategy wasn’t working. Marine leaders implemented a new plan to retake the urban spaces. In a risky venture (one that preceded Gen. David Petraeus and "the surge"), Marines moved into Anbari neighborhoods, providing a 24/7 security presence and a clear signal of intent to protect their friends among the populace.

Second, after years of atrocities, Anbar’s fear was replaced by anger. This was "awakening." Shultz puts it pointedly: "It is not generally advisable to murder sheikhs, the time-honored chieftains of tribal society."

Shultz clarifies how, after a blip (Al Qaeda temporarily restrained the awakening with horrific terrorism), Anbar tribes and U.S. Marines allied in trust. By September 2006, in an effective "blood oath," many Anbar tribes had agreed to support the Marines.

In turn, Shultz notes, the Marines afforded their new allies due recognition, establishing tribal affairs on an equal footing with formal governance. Anbaris then provided the Marines with critical intelligence on Al Qaeda activities, enabling the U.S. Military to "find and fix" terrorists. Meanwhile, thousands of tribal members joined the Iraqi security forces, providing a local face for a previously deeply mistrusted police force. In this way, the Iraqi government gained a semblance of respect. As 2007 continued, Shultz explains, children began to return to school. This was a sign, the Marines recognized, that Anbar was beginning to feel safe again, that something resembling a stable society was taking shape.

Shultz’s astute consideration of Anbar society sustains his book. He compels us to look beyond ‘‘the metrics’’ of what the Marines achieved (90 percent reductions in violence). Instead, Shultz wants us to realize that by combining bold military strategy with tactical flexibility, the Marines saved western Iraq. Streets roaming with fanatics were transformed into centers of commerce.

Shultz also offers broader lessons for American strategy.

First, he proffers that counter-insurgency is never simple. ‘‘There is no ‘COIN in a box,’ no master plan to take off the shelf and implement.’’ Every war requires a uniquely tailored strategy. Shultz also attacks the common delusion that COIN equals sanitized warfare. Instead, he consistently highlights necessary USMC actions (alongside Special Forces) in violently confronting al Qaeda.

Shultz also examines the impact of Washington’s use of Iraq as a domestic political weapon. He explains how this complicated USMC efforts to earn trust in Anbar. Allies must believe that America supports them over the long term. If not, they will gravitate to the terrorists they know are staying. This is a truth President Obama should have considered before declaring his Afghanistan withdrawal timeline.

Most importantly, however, Shultz encourages our recognition that whatever the U.S. Military might achieve in a counter-insurgency campaign, securing a durable peace rests with the host nation.

Shultz’s history is ultimately a tale of heroism. In Anbar, the Marines turned violent foes into blood brothers and suppressed a horrific enemy. By telling their story, Shultz has given us new tools to analyze the national security challenges of the future. In today’s world, that makes this book a priceless asset.

Published under: Book reviews