The Endgame:
The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq,
from George W. Bush to Barack Obama
By Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor
Pantheon, 800 pages

It is difficult for a veteran of the Iraq War to read Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor’s new and meticulous one-volume history of that conflict. Other veterans are likely to do as I did and skip ahead to the section of the book that deals directly with his small portion of the fight—and read that section with a critical eye born of the most granular knowledge. Then, as he or she reads, the very accuracy of the account will bring to mind the immense pain and frustration of the war, where progress in one arena was followed by disaster in a second and abject confusion in a third; where battlefield courage was often trumped by PowerPoint foolishness; and where soldiers and politicians carried on parallel and often contradictory campaigns.

In short, Gordon and Trainor get the story just right.

The Endgame isn’t a political book. In fact, the reader will leave the book more humbled and confused than when he began. Could we have avoided years of war and thousands of casualties by maintaining the Iraqi army in place and limiting de-Ba’athification in 2003? Perhaps. Did America miss opportunities to jumpstart the Anbar Awakening that made the Surge of 2007 possible two or three years earlier, before Iraq almost dissolved into all-out civil war in 2005 and 2006? Perhaps. Did Barack Obama focus on the wrong war when he abandoned Iraq to focus on a fight in Afghanistan that was harder to win? Perhaps.

But this much we do know: America launched a war hoping for the best case, fought for years to successfully avoid the worst case, and now is a mere bystander as a shaky Iraq is led by a strongman far more benign than Saddam Hussein and far less virtuous than George Washington.

Based on interviews of American leaders and key Iraqis and on thousands upon thousands of unclassified and also classified source documents, Endgame traces the Iraq conflict from the fall of Baghdad to the withdrawal of the last American troops. They tell a tale that weaves together events on the battlefield with arguments in Washington and political intrigue in Baghdad.

While the authors keep the commentary to a minimum, certain heroes do emerge. There’s little revisionist history here: Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker come across every bit as decisive and competent as they did at the time. The Surge was in fact a near-decisive military success. Al-Qaeda’s hopes were shattered in the intense street battles of 2007, and the Petraeus/Odierno version of counterinsurgency warfare did work.

And what of the others? Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority that took charge of Iraq after the Hussein regime was toppled, comes across as idealistic and hard-charging, but ultimately overmatched. His decisions were often breathtaking in scope (disbanding the Iraqi army and gutting the Iraqi civil service), but he made them without the kind of knowledge of Iraqi society and politics that such ambitious decisions would seem to require. General George Casey, allied commander before General Petraeus, is aggressive and well-meaning but simply wrong.

There are surprises. Gordon and Trainor provide so much documentation on the extent of direct Iranian involvement in the conflict that it becomes quite clear Iran has been waging its own low-intensity attack against the United States almost since the inception of the Iraqi insurgency. It supplied Iraqi insurgents. Its Quds Force placed personnel, trained insurgents, and probably even participated in direct engagements against American personnel in Iraq. While these actions were known in isolation, by placing them within the context of the overall war narrative, Gordon and Trainor demonstrate the importance of Iran to the insurgency’s war effort.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting revelation is that Barack Obama may have focused on the wrong war. Petraeus had this to say about Obama’s 2008 assertion that “Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror,” as Gordon and Trainor explain:

Petraeus challenged the argument. “Actually, Senator, Iraq is what al-Qaeda says is the central front.” Al-Qaeda may not have been in Iraq when the war started, but Petraeus had long argued in his letters to Gates that now that the fight was on, al-Qaeda’s leadership viewed Iraq as a prize and was determined to rout the Americans and expand its influence in Mesopotamia.

Obama thought the general was missing the point. “The al-Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,” he said, pointing on a map to Pakistan.

There was the difference in strategic thinking between the future president of the United States and the nation’s key military commander. For Obama (in a preview of his drone-heavy strategy in office), the war was a fight to kill leaders—an approach that had been tried and had failed in Iraq as high-value-target after high-value-target died, while the insurgency raged on. For Petraeus, the fight was more about control of strategically important territory and the subsequent security of the people within that area.

In conservative circles, it is now common to hear concern that Obama “lost” Iraq when he failed to complete a Status of Forces Agreement that would have retained a U.S. military presence in the country—leading to a complete pullout. And it’s true the signs are not encouraging. Iran is allegedly using Iraqi airspace to resupply an embattled Syrian regime, al-Qaeda seems at least modestly resurgent with repeated car bombings and firefights against Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is hardly a stalwart American ally.

But even in surveying that grim scene, one must always ask, “Compared with what?” A Maliki regime is infinitely preferable to Saddam’s despotic and genocidal rule, and Iraq has thus far avoided the nightmare of bloody partition or, worse, al-Qaeda domination. Iraq has also thus far evaded the chaos of the Arab Spring—chaos that the Muslim Brotherhood has exploited to gain ever-increasing power. 

Iraq is a “tough” place (to borrow Paul Bremer’s description). But so is the rest of the Middle East. And it would be much tougher still if not for the bitter, agonizing American victory so ably chronicled by Gordon and Trainor.

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