The other day, I found myself flipping through old photos from my time in Iraq. One in particular from October 2006 stood out. I see my 23-year-old self, along with my platoon. We’re still at Camp Buerhing in Kuwait, posing in front of our squadron logo splashed across a huge concrete barrier. It was a tradition by then, three and a half years after the invasion of neighboring Iraq, for every Army, Marine, and even Air Force battalion at that camp to proudly paint its unit emblem on one of those large, ubiquitous barricades.
Gazing at that photo, it’s hard for me to believe that it was taken a decade ago. Those were Iraq’s bad old days, just before General David Petraeus’s fabled “surge” campaign that has since become the stuff of legend, a defining event for American military professionals. The term has permanently entered the martial lexicon and now it’s everywhere. We soldiers stay late at work because we need to “surge” on the latest PowerPoint presentation. To inject extra effort into anything (no matter how mundane) is to “surge.” Nor is the term’s use limited to the military vernacular. Within the first few weeks of the Trump administration, The Wall Street Journal, for instance, reported on a deportation “surge.”
For many career soldiers, the surge era (2007–11) provides a kind of vindication for all those years of effort and seeming failure, a brief window into what might have been and a proof certain of the enduring utility of force. When it comes to that long-gone surge, senior leaders still talk the talk on its alleged success as though reciting scripture. Take retired general, surge architect, and former CIA director Petraeus. As recently as 2013, he wrote a Foreign Policy piece entitled “How We Won in Iraq.” Now “win” is a bold word indeed. Yet few in our American world would think to question its accuracy. After all, Petraeus was a general, and in an era when Americans have little or no faith in other public institutions, polls show nearly everyone trusts the military. Of course, no one asks whether this is healthy for the republic. No matter, the surge’s success is, by now, a given among Washington’s policy elite.
Recently, for instance, I listened to a podcast of a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) panel discussion that promoted a common set of myths about the glories of the surge. What I heard should be shocking, but it’s not. The group peddled a common myth about the surge’s inherent wisdom that may soon become far more dangerous in the “go big” military era of Donald Trump.