The Nation's Pulse

General Odierno Returns Home

A study in adaptation to reality in Iraq.

By 3.6.08

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"American success or failure in Iraq may well depend on whether the Iraqis (as the people are called) like American soldiers or not. It may not be quite that simple. But then again it could." -- from a "pocket guide" prepared by the Special Service Division of the Army Service Forces, U.S. Army, 1943

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, Commanding General, III Corps, has come home after another tour of Iraq. By some estimates his time in theatre exceeds that of any World War II general which, in and of itself, is indicative of the challenges over there.

This homecoming brings with it much praise for his leadership in implementing the counterinsurgency doctrines developed by General David H. Petraeus and set out in the new Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The implementation of these ideas, along with the surge of additional boots on the ground, proved to be more successful in reducing violence and casualties than many of us had imagined given the carnage and chaos then extant.

"It is not unfair to say that in 2003 most Army officers knew more about the U.S.Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency," claims Lieutenant Colonel John A. Nagl, a veteran of both Iraq wars and author of the highly praised Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (2005). Nagl was a member of the writing team of the new Manual for which he wrote the Forward for the University of Chicago Press edition.

Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, along with the inimitable Col. H.R. McMaster, author of the Vietnam classic Dereliction of Duty, have worked hard to overcome the loss of institutional memory of irregular or counterinsurgency warfare which may have been misplaced during the great Cold War stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union.

General Odierno's accomplishments have even caused at least two analysts to christen him "The Patton of Counterinsurgency," an explicit reference to the late, "hard-charging" General's relationship to the "diplomatic" Eisenhower.

What is interesting, even compelling, about General Odierno's triumphant return is that it may signify a very real turnaround from his prior reputation as a commander who acted contrary to the tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine. The Washington Post's headline for a recent story on Odierno reads, "Evolution Of a U.S. General In Iraq. No. 2 Commander Transformed Tactics."

That tall man in the flowing robe you are going to see soon, with the whiskers and the long hair, is a first-class fighting man, highly skilled in guerilla warfare. Few fighters in any country, in fact, excel him in that kind of war. If he is your friend, he can be a staunch and valuable ally. If he should happen to be your enemy -- look out!

In Thomas E. Ricks's in-depth, disturbing book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (2006), he chronicles the runup to the Iraq war in 2003 and the rise of the horrendous insurgency with which we are still contending.

Ricks, who has covered military affairs for the Wall Street Journal and, most recently, the Washington Post, recounts the military's failure to anticipate and, then, its failure to recognize the very fact of an insurgency itself. Throughout these early days of blood and chaos, Ricks portrays Marine Corps commanders, Petraeus, and McMaster as the very few military leaders who understood the challenge and the necessity of utilizing sound counterinsurgency tactics to secure the population and win them over to the new dispensation.

Ricks casts Odierno and the 4th Infantry Division, which he commanded at that time, as the villains of the piece notwithstanding their successful capture of Saddam Hussein. He cites many authorities, both named and anonymous, who argue that the 4th ID's strong-arm tactics, including mass arrests, intimidation of civilians, and the like, alienated the local population and thereby intensified the insurgency.

"The American offensive was undone by a combination of overwhelmed soldiers and indiscriminate generals -- especially the 4th ID's Odierno, who sent too many detainees south, and his immediate superior, [Lt. Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez, who should have seen this and stopped it," argues Ricks.

Discuss something else -- NEVER religion, politics or women -- with Moslems. Avoid offering opinions on internal politics.

Whether or not Ricks's account is accurate, General Odierno, now in sync with General Petraeus, appears to have achieved tactical success in overcoming a multi-faceted counterinsurgency in Iraq at least for now. I say "multi-faceted" because this week, in an address to the Heritage Foundation in Washington, he characterized the American effort in Mesopotamia as being "counterinsurgency plus" given the unusual political, social and sectarian complexity that confronts Coalition forces.

In his speech Odierno described the "change in mindset" that began, even before the implementation of the surge, and allowed the military to "break the cycle of violence" and focus on "protecting the population," which he views as the "key principle." He noted how the additional troops have allowed for multiple operations and continual disruption of the insurgents. He described the Awakening or "Sons of Iraq" movement as "an unqualified success" that results in a ten-fold increase in market activity in any given locale where it as been implemented.

Clearly, he views the establishment of Joint Security Stations and outposts in Baghdad and elsewhere as critical in giving the local population a sense of security and generating trust of the American forces.

Above all, use common sense on all occasions. And remember that every American soldier is an unofficial ambassador of good will/

Nevertheless, the General believes that the "window of opportunity" for political progress will not remain open forever. He is hopeful that recent efforts on de-Baathification and amnesty will aid reconciliation. He believes that, over time, Americans will be doing less fighting and more economic development and job creation (worrying more about the "environment" than the "enemy").

He recognizes that substantial numbers of Americans will be over there for 9-10 years absent a change in political direction. Yet, he acknowledged that the long-run sustainability of the Army is a big concern of his.

General Odierno, a huge, bald bear of a man, was asked about a possible Democratic president who might want to draw down American forces in Iraq. The General responded that he would hope that a complete military and policy assessment would be completed before any final decisions were made. He was not asked and did not raise the issue of the trade-offs with the war in Afghanistan.

General Odierno is living proof that the U.S. Army is an institution that is capable of effective adaptation to reality, no matter how painful that process may be. At a tactical level at least, that institution has proven itself to be the exemplar of resilience. It remains to be seen if its tactical success will yield strategic success amidst the trying circumstances of Iraq.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.