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Book review: 'A Soldier's Dream' by William Doyle

The account of how Capt. Patriquin and a Sunni sheik helped thwart the insurgency in Iraq's Anbar province provides gripping insight into how, even amid modern warfare, strong wills can affect the course of history.

August 20, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
(NAL Hardcover )

Neither man was senior in his realm: a U.S. Army captain with a civil affairs group and a Sunni sheik of a middling tribe.

Both had elders of greater authority above them. To their critics and rivals, the two men were opportunists with outsized egos.

And yet, it is now clear that Capt. Travis Patriquin and Sheik Sattar abu Risha were major figures in the amazingly quick evolution of Iraq's Anbar province from a "lost cause" Al Qaeda stronghold in 2006 to a shining example by mid-2007 of the U.S. military and Sunni tribes teaming up to thwart the insurgency.

That's the compelling story of "A Soldier's Dream: Captain Travis Patriquin and the Awakening of Iraq" by veteran journalist William Doyle, a carefully reported and briskly written account that is strong in its thesis but even-handed in dealing with discordant notes.

Doyle's book is a tale of how even in modern warfare, with all its cultural intricacies and geopolitical considerations, two men can play a decisive role through dint of personality, adept maneuvering and, yes, a fair amount of individual ambition.

Patriquin, with service in Afghanistan and, with the Special Forces in South America, was a rarity among officers: an Arab linguist with a genuine interest and respect for Arab culture. He was willing to do combat with his enemy on the battlefield and with opponents inside the military bureaucracy.

Sattar was a businessman, cunning and ruthless — Tony Soprano in Arab garb. His grandfather had fought the British. Sattar had a lean, wolfish look; he knew how to handle an AK-47 and an Internet search engine. He boldly told reporters he wanted to meet withPresident George W. Bush.

Over enormous amounts of sweet tea and far too many cigarettes, Patriquin and Sattar formed an alliance of convenience. The sheik came to an ideology-free calculation: Al Qaeda was bad for business and the best way to rid Anbar of the insurgency was a partnership with the Americans.

Doyle does not oversell his main characters. Patriquin was not the first American officer to reach out to the Sunni sheiks in Anbar. Sattar was not the first sheik in the province to stand up to Al Qaeda.

But the two men and their moment coalesced.

One of the fascinating stories embedded in "A Soldier's Dream," is an account of a battle in late November 2006 outside the provincial capital of Ramadi. U.S. forces, with Patriquin on the phone to Sattar and other tribal leaders promising support, reinforced tribal fighters who were battling with a massed Al Qaeda force.

The fight at Shark Fin Peninsula on the Euphrates River proved to the tribes that the Americans were worthy partners who would not abandon them. Sattar's stature rose considerably with the other sheiks.

Patriquin and Sattar are the focus of "A Soldier's Dream" but there are other officers and sheiks of note: then-Col. Sean MacFarland and Lt. Col. Jim Lechner, both of whom took a chance on the upstart Patriquin; Col. Chuck Ferry, who led the American assault when the sheiks' troops were attacked by Al Qaeda; and Sheik Jassim, the tribal commander during the battle.

On Nov. 6, 2006, Patriquin was killed by a roadside bomb that exploded beneath his Humvee. And on Sept. 18, 2007, 10 days after he met with Bush in Iraq, Sattar was assassinated at his compound.

But the Anbar Awakening was firmly established and outlived both the tribal sheik and the ever-cheerful American officer. The long-term future of Anbar, indeed all of Iraq, is still in doubt, Doyle writes, but this unique partnership provided breathing space for the Iraqis to establish a post-Saddam future.

"Through an accident of history," Doyle writes, "Patriquin was placed unusually close to the absolute center of the action, wound up as a key cog in the machine, and by most accounts played his role brilliantly."

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