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Remembering Gen. Ray Odierno, a Key Leader of the Iraq Surge

His was a quiet but compelling voice in the highest wartime deliberations.
October 12, 2021
Remembering Gen. Ray Odierno, a Key Leader of the Iraq Surge
U.S. Army Chief Of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno speaking to the media during last briefing at the Pentagon before he retired, August 12, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Raymond Odierno, former chief of staff of the United States Army and commanding general in Iraq, died of cancer on Friday, October 8. Several obituarists have commented on his striking physical presence. His height—he was 6 foot 5—and shaved head as well as his military bearing gave him a distinctive aura of authority that could be quite intimidating. I was surprised, therefore, in my first dealings with him to note how soft-spoken he was in policy deliberations.

I first encountered Gen. Odierno in 2003. He was commander of the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, which was by reputation the most technologically advanced division in the Army. The 4th ID was meant to deploy to Iraq through Turkey to provide the hammer to the anvil created by elements of the Marine Corps and the Army coming up to Iraq from the south in Kuwait. But the Turkish parliament balked at permitting U.S. forces access and the 4th ID arrived late to Iraq, where it ended up having responsibilities for, among other things, Saddam Hussein’s home turf among disgruntled Sunni Arabs and a budding insurgency. The challenges Ray faced and the mistakes he came to realize he may have made have both been amply documented by journalists—but Ray was determined to learn from whatever errors may have occurred, not brood about them or double down in defense of earlier miscalculations.

When he commanded the 4th ID, headquartered in Tikrit, I tried to get him to come to Turkey, where I was the U.S. ambassador, to meet with Turkish military officers and senior officials to try and mend some of the fences damaged by the Turkish parliament’s failure to allow the division’s passage to Iraq. Events on the ground forced the cancelation of the trip, but Ray and I would get to work together subsequently anyway when I became under secretary of defense for policy while he served as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (an extremely important position since the occupant routinely travels with the secretary of state on trips where there are significant U.S. military equities involved). Across the years and in a variety of positions, Ray would never forget to let me know that he held a grudge against the Turks but it never affected our ability to work together collegially.

In November 2006, Ray was the commander of III Corps at Fort Hood and preparing to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq (the second most senior military position in the country). Before he went to Baghdad, he came to see me in the Pentagon. “I am getting ready to go out to Baghdad,” he told me, “and I have been doing some studies. I think I am going to need three additional brigades in Iraq to deal with the insurgency.” I told Ray I was very sympathetic and we were in the midst of an large, inter-agency review of Iraq policy, but I was somewhat handcuffed because I had a departing secretary of defense (Donald Rumsfeld had resigned two weeks earlier) who was very skeptical about additional U.S. forces being committed in Iraq and an incoming secretary, Robert Gates, who was not yet in place and had not yet taken a position on the issue.

One month later, I arrived in Baghdad, accompanying Secretary Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. When we arrived, the outgoing commanding general, George Casey, and the Central Command commander, John Abizaid, asked Ray to brief us on his request for additional forces. Ray carefully laid out the case for two additional brigades in Baghdad, one on each side of the Tigris, to reinforce existing forces and allow for greater population security. He explained how he intended to partner them with Iraqi security forces to throttle the insurgency. He also asked for a third brigade equivalent made up of two Marine regimental combat teams to reinforce the Iraqis coming forward as part of the “Sahwa” movement—the “Sunni Awakening” against Al Qaeda in Iraq. George Casey was skeptical about the third brigade and asked me to “put Odierno through his paces” at a dinner he was hosting for all of us that evening. As I sat at the end of the long dinner table with Ray and Marine Gen. Rick Zilmer, they described in compelling detail how they intended to use the additional forces. I was totally persuaded by their passionate but low-key argument in favor.

In the end, Ray got more than he bargained for. Secretary Gates, after long, hard negotiating sessions with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, decided to recommend two additional brigades for Iraq since he believed that was all the traffic would bear with the Iraqi leadership. President Bush and Vice President Cheney, when briefed on the plan, decided to throw everything the U.S. military could on the table. Ray got a new commander, David Petraeus, and five additional brigades plus some enabling support forces. He proceeded to deploy those forces brilliantly to execute “the Surge” that stabilized Iraq and routed the insurgency. I visited him in the fall of 2008 and we reminisced about where things stood in 2006 and how much progress had been made.

As Fred and Kim Kagan noted in an important article in the Weekly Standard in March 2008:

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno took command of Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) on December 14, 2006. Iraq was in flames. Insurgents and death squads were killing 3,000 civilians a month. Coalition forces were sustaining more than 1,200 attacks per week. Operation Together Forward II, the 2006 campaign to clear Baghdad’s most violent neighborhoods and hold them with Iraqi Security Forces, had been suspended because violence elsewhere in the capital was rising steeply. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) owned safe havens within and around Baghdad, throughout Anbar, and in Diyala, Salah-ad-Din, and Ninewa provinces. The Iraqi government was completely paralyzed.

When General Odierno relinquished command of MNC-I on February 14, 2008, the civil war was over. Civilian casualties were down 60 percent, as were weekly attacks. AQI had been driven from its safe havens in and around Baghdad and throughout Anbar and Diyala and was attempting to reconstitute for a “last stand” in Mosul—with Coalition and Iraqi forces in pursuit. The Council of Representatives passed laws addressing de-Baathification, amnesty, provincial powers, and setting a date for provincial elections. The situation in Iraq had been utterly transformed.

As is well known, General Petraeus oversaw the writing of a new counterinsurgency doctrine before being sent to Iraq. But the doctrine did not provide a great deal of detail about how to plan and conduct such operations across a theater as large as Iraq. It was Odierno who creatively adapted sophisticated concepts from conventional fighting to the problems in Iraq, filling gaps in the counterinsurgency doctrine and making the overall effort successful.

Ray never commanded as much media attention as Petraeus. But the two, working in harness, saved the mission in Iraq from disaster and rendered an enormous service to Iraq and Iraqis, and to the U.S. effort there.

My final encounter with Ray was when he had ascended to become chief of staff of the U.S. Army. In 2014 I was a member of a congressionally appointed commission reviewing the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review. John Abizaid, the commission’s co-chair, and I, went to meet Ray to talk about plans in the Pentagon to cut the size of the U.S. Army perhaps to as low as 385,000 troops. Ray gave an impassioned defense of the Army and, once again, quietly but compellingly spelled out how difficult it would be for the Army to defeat a near-peer adversary at its current size, much less in a smaller configuration. He was perceptive and persuasive, and at the end of the day our report called for holding the line where Ray had set it for Army end strength.

I was never a confidant or friend of Ray Odierno’s but I admired him greatly as a leader, a colleague at the Department of Defense, and an outstanding example of the kind of exceptional military officers that the United States produces. I mourn his loss at an all too early age. And I hope that the kind of quiet but compelling voice for national security that he represented—capable of conveying deep understanding and powerfully, understatedly persuasive—will not be absent from our high-level deliberations and our public dialogue on matters of national defense.

Eric S. Edelman

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the co-host of The Bulwark’s Shield of the Republic podcast.  He was U.S. ambassador to Finland from 1998 to 2001 and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.