The Surge

It is hard for Americans to keep talking about Iraq. Who was right and wrong about the war before it started, whether it could have been handled better once under way—these are arguments from a long time ago, and ultimately pointless. Presidential candidates must offer plans about what comes next, but the reality is that no one knows. Meanwhile, the ethnic politics and shifting alignments and steps forward and back in Iraqi governmental structure make it hard for anyone except the experts to follow the action. The experts—and the minority of American families directly touched by service and sacrifice in the drawn-out war.

What Americans can talk about is “the surge.” This is a concept connected to an impressive man, Army General David Petraeus, who is also controversial enough to be interesting. The surge is connected to an important intellectual trend: the revival of counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy for the U.S. military, with its emphasis on patient, person-to-person skills rather than on super-precise weaponry. And it has offered supporters of the war something that seemed lost since 2003: the chance for a new start, with things done right this time.

But a year after the surge began, more U.S. troops were in Iraq than when it started, and the argument for keeping them there had descended into circular reasoning. Either the new strategy was working so well that it shouldn’t be interrupted, or else things were still so precarious that the U.S. couldn’t afford to withdraw now. We were back to the impossibility of talking about Iraq.

Back to The 11 1/2 Biggest Ideas of the Year

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In