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The Boots-Eye View

Matt Gallagher “went to war to observe instead of kill.” The son of two lawyers, he grew up gunless in West Coast suburbia, worked at a Barnes and Noble, and read books about armed combat. After graduating from Wake Forest, he joined the Army and became an armored cavalry platoon leader in Iraq. By the beginning of 2009, when his deployment was over, he had not killed anybody, but he had filled forty-eight blog posts with his observations. As word spread of its unfiltered, grunt’s-eye view of the war in Iraq, Gallagher’s blog, which began as a newsletter for friends and family, quickly gained other readers, General David Petraeus among them.

In posts that read like short stories, Gallagher recounted the activities and antics of his pseudonymous soldiers and their droll Iraqi interpreter. But when he failed to let his superiors vet a rant that criticized their decision to transfer him, they shut the site down. Afterwards, as some of his soldiers were fooling around on a donkey cart, his platoon sergeant told him that the spectacle would have made a good blog post. “I’ll save it for that book everyone thinks I’m writing,” Gallagher responded.

That book is Kaboom, a vivid and introspective chronicle of Gallagher’s fifteen months in Iraq, from late 2007 to early 2009. Its aim is simple: to explain what it is like to wage an unconventional war. Gallagher and his men provide security for a meeting of a council of sheiks. They search an alleged bomb-making factory that turns out to be a defunct concrete plant. They convince a boy to turn over his easily mistakable plastic grenade launcher. And they spend time hunting for improvised explosive devices—a lot of time. War, as Gallagher tells it, consists of many quiet periods between spurts of actual fighting.

Unlike a journalist, whose Heisenberg-like presence inevitably distorts, Gallagher is able to candidly depict the lighter moments of war: the soldiers’ crass banter as they wait for explosive specialists, their comedic over-dubbing of a civic meeting conducted in Arabic, their impromptu Spice Girls rendition that breaks the tension after a near-death friendly-fire incident, their infrared glowstick swordfight in the middle of a counter-IED mission. And Gallagher gives the book’s characters—there is a Smitty, a Bulldog, and a Doc (but no Tex)much more than the name-rank-hometown exposition that too often flattens soldiers in print.

Gallagher’s platoon, “the Gravediggers,” came to Iraq to hunt terrorists but ended up “solving a nonconventional, nation-building, political problem with a conventional military used to nation destroying that sometimes forgot it was trying to be nonconventional.” It was not the kind of war they were trained for, but by 2007 it was the war they were fighting, and finally winning. The Iraq of Kaboom is much calmer than the one Americans had come to know in the months before Gallagher’s platoon arrived. Back then, in late 2006 and early 2007, when the sectarian violence had reached its peak, an average of more than twenty American soldiers were dying each week. Gallagher’s book, in spite of its title, depicts few explosions. Its body count is low. When tragedy does strike, it is an on-base accident, the product of an errant spark and a fuel tank. The bloodiest scene, the death of an Iraqi army sergeant, is the result of a rifle-cleaning mishap.

The book is often irreverent. Gallagher’s ambitions come off as literary, not careerist; it’s hard to imagine this veteran running for public office. At times, though, he over-reaches, with clumsy metaphors or slam-poetic stream-of-consciousness interludes. (“Streaming consciousness consciously streaming,”goes one Dylanesque digression.) But readers will forgive such sins as they come to appreciate his evocative prose, convincing dialogue, and, especially, telling vignettes of life as an American soldier in Iraq—“the suck,” as he calls the experience. Gallagher holds forth on a range of topics: private security contractors (he detests their “nine-to-five work mentality”), modern Dear John letters (they arrive via MySpace), portable-toilet graffiti (“Wash your hands before returning to war!”), and cards from schoolchildren back home (“Do you have to write in cursive for war?”). 

The dramatic reduction in violence that Gallagher records was the direct result of what has become known as “the surge”—the addition of twenty thousand new troops, plus a new strategy for how to use them. The strategy before the surge, premised on the belief that American troops were an irritant, had been to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis as soon as possible. The new one, based on a refreshed counterinsurgency doctrine, called for protecting the population and establishing the rule of law rather than eliminating the insurgents. Out was capture and kill; in was clear, hold, and build. Over the course of 2007, the American military emerged as the prime guarantor of security in Iraq, which lessened the need for Sunnis to side with the Islamic extremists and for Shiites to rely on rogue militias for protection.              

Owing to their decentralized nature, counterinsurgency campaigns, more so than traditional wars, rely on resourceful young officers. In these conflicts, warns the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, “a few good Soldiers and Marines under a smart junior noncommissioned officer doing the right things can succeed, while a large force doing the wrong things will fail.” (Or, as John Nagl, who helped write the manual, told the audience of The Daily Show, “It’s a thinking person’s war.”) If the surge’s creed was counterinsurgency, the army field manual was scripture and Petraeus, its lead author, was the apostle. Gallagher, then, was something of a young disciple. He has trained under a pupil of Petraeus, he carries T. E. Lawrence, he teaches Iraqi history to his platoon, and he quotes the counterinsurgency manual in the field. 

Officers such as these—sensitive, learned, and adaptive—are the ones best equipped to engage the local population. Often this means making deals with the very people who had just been killing Americans, bargains that are far from comfortable for most troops. At a ceremony marking the release of former insurgents from jail, Gallagher quips, “Ahh, the joys of counterinsurgency. Throwing a record-release party for the guys who want to kill us.” Relationship-building also often means bribery: one of the Iraq war’s success stories is the Sons of Iraq program, which paid former Sunni insurgents to form armed neighborhood-watch gangs. But much of the trust is earned in less transactional ways. Gallagher dispenses Beanie Babies to children, plays dominoes at a Sons of Iraq checkpoint, and sips chai with sheiks. Defending his frequent chai meetings, he says to his platoon sergeant, “It’s somewhere in the counterinsurgency manual.” 

So is the principle of precision targeting. Civilian casualties help the enemy; restraint keeps the locals happy. As Gallagher observed, however, not everyone followed the policy. At one point, he joins a raid on a mosque conducted by a special-operations task force with a reputation for heavy-handedness. Stun grenades explode, and religious texts are strewn about. “Shouldn’t we call the imam?” Gallagher asks, just before he finds four soldiers smashing car windshields for fun. A Sunni protest erupts the next day.

Frustrations figure heavily in Kaboom. The Iraqi Police, the Iraqi Army, and the Sons of Iraq appear, for the most part, in need of constant babysitting. Their operational culture seems to have no room for the concept of actually aiming their AK-47s. But Gallagher saves plenty of criticism for the U.S. Army. Its PowerPoint-obsessed bureaucracy, he believes, is out of touch with on-the-ground realities—concerned more with enforcing rules against fleece caps and moustaches than with prosecuting the counterinsurgency. Field-grade officers—that is, majors and lieutenant colonels, the chain of command’s middle management—receive particular scorn. “I believed that many of the men at the top of the totem pole truly wanted the army to become a learning institution,” he writes, “but in my experience, the giant clog in the middle wouldn’t allow for it.” In 2009, Gallagher left the army instead of joining the clog.

By doing so, he fulfilled a prediction made by the counterinsurgency expert Peter Mansoor in his memoir of his time as a commander in Iraq. Since America’s future wars are likely to be unconventional, he says, the Army must begin to support and promote the most creative and flexible officers—the ones that counterinsurgencies count on. Otherwise, Mansoor warns, “many of the junior leaders who have fought in counterinsurgencies since 9/11, alienated from senior leaders whom they view as intellectually rigid and doctrinaire, will leave the service—and take with them the knowledge and experience necessary to lead the force in the future.” Kaboom suggests that if the American military is to keep soldiers such as Gallagher in the ranks, it will have to learn, as he did, to embrace the suck of counterinsurgency.

Stuart A. Reid is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.