Eagerly anticipated in the wake of their national best seller Cobra II ("The superb, must-read military history of the invasion of Iraq" - Thomas L. Friedman), The Endgame is Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor's most ambitious and news-breaking book to date. A peerless work of investigative journalism and historical recreation ranging from 2003 to 2012, it gives us the first comprehensive, inside account of arguably the most widely reported yet least understood war in American history - from the occupation of Iraq to the withdrawal of American troops. Prodigiously researched, The Endgame is not only based on an abundance of highly classified, still-secret government documents but is also brilliantly informed by access to key figures in the White House, the military, the State and Defense departments, and the intelligence community. Most strikingly, it is also informed by extensive interviews with both Sunni and Shiite leaders, key Kurdish politicians, tribal sheikhs, former insurgents, Sadrists, and senior Iraqi military officers, whose insights about critical turning points and previously unknown decisions made during the war have heretofore been conspicuously missing from the media's coverage of it. The Endgame is riveting as a blow-by-blow chronicle of the fighting. It is also relentlessly revealing, as it deftly pieces together the puzzle of the prosecution of American, Iraqi, and Iranian objectives, and the diplomatic intrigue and political struggle within Iraq since the American invasion.
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First let me say that this is a necessary book if you are looking to get informed about the Iraq War, but it is not enough on its own because the breadth and depth of the topic cannot be contained in one book. The battalion and brigade viewpoint of this book are certainly enough to make it a worthwhile read. It serves as an excellent play-by-play and the inclusion of the individual service member stories make it a perspective that often goes uncovered.
Additionally, the inside baseball of Iraqi politics is an essential piece of this story and is expertly woven into the exposition of the US military moves. While the coverage of all the players is burdensome in audiobook format, it is necessary, and if you can remember who did what, very enlightening.
Gordon and Trainor’s access to classified materials is mostly a good thing, but can lead them astray. Their access to the JSOC operations and the intelligence efforts against the Quds Force and the interdiction of Explosively Formed Projectiles built in Iran answers a lot of questions. You would not get this view just from reading the news. On the down side, they tend cite classified materials whenever possible even when it doesn’t add much to the book -- seemingly to trumpet their unprecedented access.
Though insightful, this book is not the definitive work on the Iraq War. Because of some biases and perspective limitations you will need to reach outside to get a better picture. The two shortcomings are political views and holding too closely to the insider’s perspective.
First the political: There is little criticism of President Bush’s handling of the war. Enough is said about Franks’s leaving Sanchez understaffed and unprepared and Bremer’s failures, but is not connected with the Bush administration’s world view of how this war would unfold and how long we would be involved. Bush’s administration posited that it would be over quickly, it would be cheap, and we’d all be home by Christmas. This drove the initial strategy, and it was a train wreck. But who gets the blame in the book? Bremer, Sanchez and Casey. Granted, all three men had their share of blame, but Bush is painted very heroically. At one point Bush is described as “steadfastly maintain[ing] a position of ambiguity,” where others might have been unclear, obfuscating, or vacillating. Democrats are generally described as uninformed and driven by selfish political interests. This political cant is neither devastating to the book, nor does it detract from the muddy-boots-level view this book provides, but it is there, nonetheless.
The book also holds too closely to an insider’s perspective. This is an advantage when you describe what was happening on the ground, but it is a hindrance when considering the larger questions of the war. The insiders consistently wanted to stay with the mission until something was accomplished, lest the opportunities for a democratic Iraq and the sacrifices of the troops be wasted. This perspective made it seem that when people talked about drawing down or ending the war, the listener was being led to ask, “Don’t those outsiders get it? We’re winning. We can’t stop now.” I personally met with that perspective on the ground with old Iraq hands I worked with. It was certainly a real thing, but it ignores half the story. The book doesn’t cover the cost of the war, the fact that WMDs were a fiction, over stretched forces, Iraqi foot-dragging and dependence, war-weariness at home or, importantly, that Obama was elected to the presidency running hard against the war in an election that was largely seen as a referendum on Bush’s Iraq War policy. It’s as if the people who wanted us out of Iraq were a small, eccentric, and not particularly bright minority when the opposite is true. There were plenty of reasons to leave, but you wouldn't know it from this book.
The reader, Shapiro, did a very good job with a tough piece of material; most of his pronunciations were pretty accurate. This book was full of Arabic words and names and he nailed all but a few, which is a tall order. He even managed US military acronyms (extra points for “MNSTC-I”). Points off for blowing the pronunciation of Huế (Vietnam). Good pacing and a pleasant voice.
Overall, this book is a good addition to the Iraq War canon. It is one perspective to add to the bookshelf, but not the only one.
I'm surprised at some of the low ratings of this book, particularly of the narration. I thought Rob Shapiro did an excellent job with difficult material.
I thought the book was very well-researched, detailed and fair. The vast number of names and places -- not to mention the length -- may be daunting, but if you stick with it, you'll learn A LOT. At least I did. Together with Contra II (the authors' previous book on Iraq), you get a full accounting of 2002-2011.
If you're interested in Iraq, I'd recommend many sources, but would definitely include this book as essential.