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Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq Hardcover – Print, July 25, 2006


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Fiasco is a more strongly worded title than you might expect a seasoned military reporter such as Thomas E. Ricks to use, accustomed as he is to the even-handed style of daily newspaper journalism. But Ricks, the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and the author of the acclaimed account of Marine Corps boot camp, Making the Corps, has written a thorough and devastating history of the war in Iraq from the planning stages through the continued insurgency in early 2006, and he does not shy away from naming those he finds responsible. His tragic story is divided in two. The first part--the runup to the war and the invasion in 2003--is familiar from books like Cobra II and Plan of Attack, although Ricks uses his many military sources to portray an officer class that was far more skeptical of the war beforehand than generally reported. But the heart of his book is the second half, beginning in August 2003, when, as he writes, the war really began, with the bombing of the Jordanian embassy and the emergence of the insurgency. His strongest critique is that the U.S. military failed to anticipate--and then failed to recognize--the insurgency, and tried to fight it with conventional methods that only fanned its flames. What makes his portrait particularly damning are the dozens of military sources--most of them on record--who join in his critique, and the thousands of pages of internal documents he uses to make his case for a war poorly planned and bravely but blindly fought. --Tom Nissley

Making a Fiasco

Thomas Ricks spent five tours in Iraq during the war, reporting for the Washington Post and researching and writing Fiasco. Like many of the officers he most admires, when he wanted to understand what was happening as American troops encountered stronger and longer-lived resistance to the occupation than expected, he turned to recent and classic accounts of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, from the U.S. occupation of the Philippines through the lessons of Vietnam, and he reports on his favorites for us in his list of the 10 books for understanding Iraq that aren't about Iraq. You can also get a glimpse into his writing process with a much different list he has prepared for us: the music he listened to while writing and researching the book, from Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell to Ryan Adams and Josh Ritter. And he took the time to answer a few questions about Fiasco:

Amazon.com: As military correspondent for the Post, you have made five trips to Iraq over the last four years. How has it changed over that time?

Thomas E. Ricks: It has been markedly worse each time, in terms of security. On my first trip, in April-May 2003, we would walk out on the streets of Baghdad at night, albeit with caution. Even on my second trip, in the summer of 2003, I would feel comfortable hopping in a car and driving 100 miles north from Baghdad to Tikrit. To do either of those things now would be suicidal. In January and February of this year, Baghdad felt worse to me Mogadishu did when I was there in 1993 or Sarajevo did when I was there a few years later. It appeared to me that there was no security, except what you provided for yourself with armed men and careful planning. One Army major described the city to me as being in "the pure Hobbesian state" in which everybody is fighting everybody.

By the way, contrary to what I see asserted occasionally, most reporters don't live in the Green Zone, the walled-off area in central Baghdad that is the headquarters of the American effort in Iraq. Reporters live out in the city, and I think generally have a better feel for what is going on than do people living in the Zone or on big American military bases. In the area of Baghdad I stayed in, I constantly heard gunfire and explosions. Yet an American colonel told me that my neighborhood was deemed "secure." I think that really meant that U.S. troops could drive through it while heavily armed--say, with a .50 caliber machine gun atop a Humvee--and usually not be attacked.

I worry that what the Americans measure are threats to U.S. troops and the killings of Iraqis. That neglects a huge spectrum of other significant activities--rapes, robberies, kidnappings, acts of extortion, and, most importantly, acts of violent intimidation.

Amazon.com: You cite many strategic errors in the planning and execution of the war, but perhaps the central one is that the U.S. military leadership failed to recognize that they were fighting an insurgency, and their methods of fighting in fact helped to create that insurgency. Can you explain those methods, and their effects?

Ricks: The U.S. military that went into Iraq in 2003 was the best military in the world for fighting another military. But it was woefully unprepared for the task at hand. For example, U.S. military culture believes in bringing overwhelming force to bear. Yet classic counterinsurgency doctrine calls for using only the minimal amount of force necessary to get the job done. U.S. soldiers and their commanders, untrained and unschooled in the difficult art of counterinsurgency, tended to improvise. So in the summer of 2003, some soldiers in Baghdad decided that the best way to deter looters was to make them cry--and they sometimes did this by threatening to shoot the children of looters, and even conducting mock executions.

More broadly, the Army in the fall of 2003 fell back on what it knew how to do, which was conduct large-scale "cordon-and-sweep" operations. These missions scarfed up thousands of Iraqis, most of them fence-sitting neutrals, and detained them. U.S. military intelligence officials later concluded that 85% of those detained were of no intelligence value. The detention experience frequently was humiliating for Iraqis, a violation of another key counterinsurgency principle: Treat your prisoners well. (Your readers who want to know more about this should read a terrific little book by David Galula titled Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.)

Not every unit was ineffective or counterproductive. I was struck at how successful the 101st Airborne was in Mosul in 2003-04. And some units showed remarkable improvement--the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had a mediocre first tour of duty in Iraq, but when it went back in 2005 for a second tour, it did extremely well. Col. H.R. McMaster, the regimental commander (and author of a very good book about the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty) told his troops that, "Every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you are working for the enemy." I was especially struck by how his regiment handled its prisoners--it even had a program called "Ask the Customer" that quizzed detainees when they were released about whether they felt treated well. This recognized the lesson of past wars that the best way to end an insurgency is to get its leaders to put down their guns and enter the political system, and to get the rank-and-file to desert or switch sides. But it will be harder to discuss the sewage system with the new mayor next year if your troops beat him in his cell when he was your prisoner last year.

Amazon.com: But today's military leadership was formed in Vietnam, when all of those lessons of counterinsurgency were supposedly learned before. Why didn't that experience translate into a preparation for the current conflict?

Ricks: Military experts, such at Andrew Krepinevich (The Army and Vietnam) and Lt. Col. John Nagl (Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife) say that after that war ended, the Army washed its hands of the entire experience and essentially concluded that it was never going to do anything like that again. It was almost as if the very word "counterinsurgency" was banned from official Army discourse.

In Iraq, there was a tiny minority of American soldiers early on who understood how to win the occupation. These generally were civil affairs officers and other Special Forces types. But their wisdom often was disregarded. "What you are seeing here is an unconventional war being fought conventionally," one Special Forces lieutenant colonel glumly commented one day in Baghdad.

Amazon.com: You've been writing about the military for the Post and the Wall Street Journal for years now, and Fiasco is built from the testimony of a remarkable array of sources up and down the chain of command, some off the record but many more on the record. Can you talk about your sources? Is this level of public criticism of a war from within the military precedented??

Ricks: Yeah, reporting the book was a pretty emotional experience. Even having covered this war as it unfolded, I was taken aback by the rage that some officers felt toward the Bush Administration, and especially toward Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. And also toward Paul Wolfowitz, who was then the no. 2 guy at the Pentagon. I think the rage is probably like what the military felt about Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War. What is unprecedented, I think, is that many officers had doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq, especially in the way we did it.

The emotions also hit me pretty hard at times, especially when I was writing my chapter 13, about how widespread abuse was by American soldiers in 2003-04, often because they hadn't been trained for the mission they faced. I have spent more than 15 years covering the military. I tend to like and admire these people. So when I learned about a 4th Infantry Division soldier shooting an unarmed, handcuffed Iraqi detainee in the stomach, and the investigating MPs saying the soldier should be charged with homicide, and instead the commander simply discharged the soldier from the Army--well, that bothered me.

Another thing that struck me with sources was the mountain of information that was available. I read over 30,000 pages of documents for this book. At the end of one interview a guy gave me a CD-ROM with every e-mail he had sent to Ambassador Bremer, who ran the civilian end of the first year of the occupation. Other people showed me diaries, unit logs, official briefings, and such. Also the ACLU did a great job of obtaining and releasing piles of official U.S. military documents related to abuse--so I could see the time stamp on an e-mail in which an intelligence officer stated that "the gloves are coming off" in interrogations, and one soldier recommended blows to the chest while another wrote back recommending low-level electrocution.

Unfortunately the Army wouldn't release the details of citations for valorous acts by soldiers, which means that the Pentagon made it easier for me to learn about the sins of soldiers than about their acts of bravery. The Marine Corps did give me those "narratives" that support the bestowing of medals, which I really appreciated. Those documents really brought home to me the fierceness of the two Battles of Fallujah, in April and November 2004--probably the toughest fighting American troops have seen since Hue and Khe Sanh in the Vietnam War.

Amazon.com: In the last section of the book, you project a variety of possible scenarios for the next 10 years in the Middle East, mostly grim ones, and just in the past two weeks the sudden violence between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon is leading to talk of a wider regional conflict. Where do you think those events are leading us?

Ricks: We are really in unexplored territory. We are carrying out the first-ever U.S. occupation of an Arab nation. This is also almost the first time we have engaged in sustained combat ground war with an all-volunteer force. (I think the suppression of the Philippines insurrection might count as a small precedent.)

Even more significantly, I think the Bush Administration doesn't really like "stability" in the Middle East. In its view, "stability" has been the goal of previous administrations, but pursuing it led to 9/11. It is not the goal, it is the target. So they are for rolling the dice, both in Iraq and in Lebanon. I think the big worry is those wars spilling over borders. Fasten your seat belts.

From Publishers Weekly

The main points of this hard-hitting indictment of the Iraq war have been made before, but seldom with such compelling specificity. In dovetailing critiques of the civilian and military leadership, Washington Post Pentagon correspondent Ricks (Making the Corps) contends that, under Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith, the Pentagon concocted "the worst war plan in American history," with insufficient troops and no thought for the invasion's aftermath. Thus, an under-manned, unprepared U.S. military stood by as chaos and insurgency took root, then responded with heavy-handed tactics that brutalized and alienated Iraqis. Based on extensive interviews with American soldiers and officers as well as first-hand reportage, Ricks's detailed, unsparing account of the occupation paints a woeful panorama of reckless firepower, mass arrests, humiliating home invasions, hostage-taking and abuse of detainees. It holds individual commanders to account, from top generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez on down. The author's conviction that a proper hearts-and-minds counter-insurgency strategy might have salvaged the debacle is perhaps naive, and pays too little heed to the intractable ethnic conflicts underlying what is by now a full-blown civil war. Still, Ricks's solid reporting, deep knowledge of the American military and willingness to name names make this perhaps the most complete, incisive analysis yet of the Iraq quagmire. Photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; First Edition edition (July 25, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 159420103X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201035
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (401 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #103,471 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Congratulations to Mr. Ricks for writing such a non-partisan book.
Old Hickory
Ricks does an outstanding job of comparing different approaches and tactics by various US military units throughout Iraq.
AcornMan
It was a pretty good book, really well written, very well researched, and easy to read.
Kiran Hill

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

595 of 650 people found the following review helpful By amicus veritas on July 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I've spent the better part of the past 36 hours inhaling Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco" and I have to say it is easily the best book so far produced on the Iraq War. I say this as someone who supported the original rationale for going into Iraq and who still supports the war effort. But support should never be blind and I think there's much that opponents and supporters of the war can gain from reading Mr. Ricks' "near-term history" of the conflict. He has produced a remarkable book that synthesizes a broad range of information and yet does so in an immensely readable fashion. The author is to be genuinely congratulated. For me, the book was particularly insightful in offering a cogent narrative of how the insurgency came to be. It presented a detailed inventory of the political and military mistakes of the period stretching from immediately after Baghdad's fall in the late spring of 2003, through the rise of the insurgency later that year and into the middle of 2004.

Is the book perfect? No and doubtless as more time passes and as more information becomes available some of the conclusions and narratives presented here may change. But for the time being, the book is the best contemporary record of the events of the past three years in Iraq and I can't imagine it being surpassed anytime soon. I found it far more useful than the somewhat tepid "Cobra II" and the better-but-not-as-good "Assassin's Gate."

What most impressed me was the way Ricks dealt honestly with the shortcoming of the US military and particularly the US Army.
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5 of 0 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Kelley on December 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Briefly - If you're considering this book then you're interested in this topic ... and if you're interested in this topic - then you MUST read this book. No more needs to be said. One suggestion I have, though, is read "Hubris" and then read "Fiasco." I read them back to back ("Hubris" first) and they are GREAT companion pieces.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Douglas S. Wood on September 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Thomas Ricks has been the senior Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal and later the Washington Post. He is no enemy of the US military (in fact, he does not advocate US withdrawal). This book really should be read by every American not just for what it tells us about the Bush Administration and the Iraq war, but as a cautionary tale about the limits of military power.

Let me be clear: I opposed this war before President Bush chose to start it mainly because it was a distraction from fighting terrorism. `Fiasco' details the choices made by the Administration, the willful ignorance of facts that didn't fit their chosen path.

Fiasco is strongest in describing the false premises upon which the Administration built its case for war, the lack of planning for Phase IV (post-war plans), and Bremer's enormous false steps. And Ricks' admiration for the US military shines through as he relates its failures, successes, and `lessons learned'. There is indeed much to be admired in the US military - such as the Army's Center for Army Lessons Learned where the whole point is to review what the Army did, what it did right, what it did wrong, and how to apply those lessons in the future. Sounds like something the White House should try.

Fiasco is such an important book that I would like to give it a `5' star rating and it really should be read, but the book lacks structure, other than simple chronology and after a while begins to read like a string of newspaper articles. The concluding Afterword was especially weak with brief descriptions of what might lie ahead. Ricks is best at description, okay at prescription, and poor at prediction. Fortunately, most of the book is descriptive and very little is predictive.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the story of the Iraq War.
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355 of 408 people found the following review helpful By DRoberts on July 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have just finished the first part of the book and believe that the content needs to be addressed. The book has the right title because it is a fiasco in Iraq. I will not go so far as to say it will never workout because only time will tell; however, I do respect Thomas Rick's viewpoint that ill preparation doomed the Iraq war so far. The soldiers on the ground are doing the best that they can, but the type of battle will have to be shifted to defeat the insurgency.

Ricks discusses alot about the containment theory with Saddam Hussein and how it could have worked; one is to never know now that he has been overthrown. I did like how Ricks did the opposite of what all media has done today and simply blame Bush for all the trouble. Ricks starts off with Paul Wolfowitz and explains his views were the beginning of Iraq for a war target. Ricks does not character assassinate Wolfowitz or anyone else for that matter. Ricks simply looks at the people that brought us to war and compares their strengths and weaknesses. I love how he did this. Ricks lets the reader form their own opinion on the subject.

Ricks points to Tommy Franks, Dick Cheney, and George Tenet at fault for the run-up to war. Tommy Franks is blamed for rejecting ideas from subordinates, "meddling in tactical issues and did not address key strategic questions". Cheney started the run-up to war when he gave a speech on August 26th 2002 to the VFW. Cheney stated at the time that there was no doubt Iraq had WMDs. Bush did not have much choice but to go along with his VP on the issue. Ricks says this really started the ball rolling to war on Iraq. Then Ricks points toward George Tenet for the intelligence failures. Ricks states that after Desert Fox, Iraqi intel went downhill because the sources were afraid to speak out.
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