“The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened,” Ricks writes in The Gamble, and it is indeed too early to say whether the media’s assessments of the surge and the military’s new counterinsurgency strategy have been prescient or misguided. But it is clear that journalists have been much more optimistic in their assessments of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in
recent months and years, and it is worth trying to figure out how this shift occurred. To what extent did the wars change, and to what extent did Tom Ricks and other journalists themselves change?

Ricks hardly seemed destined for a career as a military reporter. He wrote poetry in high school and studied it at Yale, where he was an English major and from which he graduated in 1977. He grew up outside of New York City and in Kabul, where his father taught at university. After college, he moved to Washington and began to write for The Wilson Quarterly, The New Republic, and other magazines. He was hired by The Wall Street Journal in 1982 and served as its Pentagon correspondent, traveling to Somalia a decade later to write about U.S. troops in Mogadishu, his first assignment to cover the military overseas. In 1997, he wrote Making the Corps, a book with a somewhat romantic view of military service (“as gung-ho yet sensitive a treatment of the Marines as any Devildog could hope for,” wrote a Christian Science Monitor reviewer; CJR was kind to the book in a March/April 2007 Second Read feature). Ricks traced the lives of several dozen new recruits and followed them through an eleven-week boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, and into their first year of service. The book helped convince Nathaniel Fick, who has served in Iraq and who was named CEO of the Center for a New American Security in June, to enlist.

While Ricks was at the Journal, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for a ten-part series about military spending. He moved to The Washington Post that same year, and in 2001 he and a group of reporters wrote a series about the U.S. response to the attacks of September 11 that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

In 2003, Ricks went to Iraq, where he embedded with various military units and saw firsthand how the troops were operating in that country, and he continued to report there over the next several years. In many ways, he was appalled. The soldiers seemed to be going about it all wrong, he thought, and there seemed to be little hope of defeating the insurgency.

Over time, officers he met described incidents of abuse and mistreatment of Iraqis. Soldiers sent him copies of e-mail, investigations, and reports about military actions in Iraq; he ultimately collected 37,000 pages of documents for his research. A significant number of Ricks’s sources were advocates of counterinsurgency, and Petraeus himself, then a major general who had served as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the early part of the war and also helped to develop Iraq’s new military, was among them. Ricks interviewed Petraeus and even his wife, Holly, as the war was unfolding, and he paid close attention to the doctrine of counterinsurgency that Petraeus was developing for the military. Petraeus and many of the other officers who spoke with Ricks had studied the mistakes of Vietnam. They had come to the conclusion that the military had been slow to respond to the insurgency in Southeast Asia, and that top officers had failed to understand that protecting the local population, rather than going after the insurgents, should have been their primary focus.

A voracious reader of military history, Ricks had absorbed such classics of counterinsurgency as T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which recounted the Arab revolt against the Turks. In Iraq, he got a real-life taste of its lessons. After a military convoy he was traveling with in April 2004 was attacked, for example, he recalled Lawrence’s description of how insurgents had gone after the supply lines of an occupying army. While Ricks was working out of the Post’s Baghdad bureau, he watched The Battle of Algiers, the controversial 1966 film about the French counterinsurgency in Algeria. “A few nights later I was out on a 4th Infantry raid in Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood, an area generally hostile to the U.S. presence,” he wrote on Amazon.com in a Q&A about how The Gamble came to be. “The troops hustling down sidewalks, the cordon set up around a suspect’s house, the difficulty in understanding what locals were saying and thinking, the helicopter clattering overhead—all could have been taken from this movie.”

Tara McKelvey is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War and is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. Research assistance was provided by Jed Bickman of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, which also provided financial support for preparation of this article.