Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Gamble and Stones Into Schools

My two most recent reads have been The Gamble, by Thomas Ricks (the atuhor of Fiasco, which I read several years ago), and Stones into Schools, Greg Mortenson's follow-up to Three Cups of Tea. They were both impulse purchases from Porter Square Books; I should know better than to wander in there with my wallet.

The Gamble continues Ricks' description and analysis of the war in Iraq. It's a good follow-up to The Fourth Star, as it deals with many of the same people and issues. Ricks does a great job explaining how "the surge" became U.S. policy, why it succeeded - and why the war so far has been only a prelude to what promises to be a long saga. The successful revolution in U.S. military thinking brought about by General David Petraeus and his like-minded colleagues is extraordinary, but it can't make up for the preceding years of mismanagement and woefully misguided civilian leadership. Ultimately, the surge succeeded in its goal of providing "breathing space" for Iraqi politicians, but the politicians failed to use it. General Ray Odierno, who succeeded Petraeus as the top military commander in Iraq, said, "As Iraq has become more secure, they've [Iraqi politicians] moved backwards, in some cases, to their hardline positions..." Ricks believes that,like it or not, the U.S. is going to be in Iraq for a long time, and closes the book with the words, "...the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened."

Stones into Schools is similarly a good foil to Sarah Chayes'The Punishment of Virtue. Chayes' experience in in southwestern Afghanistan, while Mortenson has focused on the northeastern areas (as well as Pakistan), so their perspectives are very different. Where they agree is on the increasing competence of the U.S. military in Afghanistan over the past decade of war. They disagree somewhat on their outlook for the future. Mortenson is relentlessly optimistic; Chayes is much more guarded. For the sake of the people of Afghanistan, I hope Mortenson is right.

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