Ricks sets up The Gamble as a drama. He explains how the war was going disastrously for years, reaching a nadir in 2005, but at the last minute a small group of smart military men, “dissidents” like Petraeus, were able to show people at the highest levels of the U.S. government what the problems in Iraq were and how they could be fixed. Soldiers, for example, must get out of their heavily fortified bases and engage with the Iraqi people. The dissidents wanted more troops, to tamp down the violence. Petraeus emerges as a courageous, determined leader who was able to impose his vision of how to fight the war on the tradition-bound Army. Thus, the book ultimately celebrated the military effort in Iraq.

And from Fiasco to The Gamble, Ricks’s portrayal of the military underwent a striking change in tone. In the first book, several of the military officers, and especially Odierno, were described as tyrannical, or at least overly aggressive, in their approach to Iraqi civilians; in The Gamble, however, Odierno is depicted as an enlightened leader with a keen sense of what needed to be done and the importance of watching out for the local population.

Meanwhile, another officer, Colonel Gian P. Gentile, now a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, underwent a transformation in the opposite direction. In Fiasco, Gentile comes across as a thoughtful, conscientious officer who is aware of the importance of cooperating with the Iraqi people and ensuring that the soldiers in his unit are respectful of them. He told his convoy drivers to travel slowly, at fifteen miles per hour, for example, because that was “less disruptive to Iraqis and sends a message of calm control,” Ricks wrote. In The Gamble, however, Gentile appears to be an ineffective leader oblivious to the concerns of Iraqis, surrounded by soldiers who do not seem to care about the principles of counterinsurgency.

Yet Ricks’s portrayal of Gentile in both books was based on Ricks’s observations during the same three- to four-day period in February 2006, when he was embedded with Gentile’s unit at Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad.

In The Gamble, Ricks described hearing gunfire “between Iraqi forces and someone else” one night while staying at Falcon, and the following morning he tried to speak with some of the Americans who worked on the base about the “small firefight.” But nobody seemed to care. Their boss, Gian Gentile, was “FOB-centric,” a commanding officer explained, using the acronym for Forward Operating Base, and making it clear that Gentile seemed oblivious to the Iraqi people who lived outside of the compound. Gentile says that Ricks’s portrayal of him and the soldiers at the base was a “caricature”: “hunkered down
on FOBs, happy and content to be stuffing their faces with ice cream.” Moreover, says Gentile, the gunfire that Ricks heard happened all the time—“that was fricking Route Jackson,” he says, referring to a main highway where Iraqis manning a checkpoint often fired warning shots.

As it happened, after the publication of Fiasco, Gentile had published a series of articles that were critical of counterinsurgency. In one of Gentile’s articles, an August 2007 Washington Post op-ed titled in the middle of a civil war, he described how Iraq was being divided along sectarian lines and argued that the divisions had made it difficult, if not impossible, for the American forces to provide enough stability to allow the Iraqis to rebuild their country. The following month, Gentile argued in Armed Forces Journal that the theoretical framework of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, which was outlined in the military’s new Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, was simplistic and even dangerous. “The essence of war, even counterinsurgency war, is fighting,” Gentile wrote, explaining that the new field manual struck him as naïve. It placed too much emphasis on protecting the population, in his view, and not enough on shooting the insurgents. He also claimed that the surge was not providing sufficient troops to fight in Iraq. In this and other articles, Gentile was deeply pessimistic about the chances for U.S. success in Iraq.

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.