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Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq Hardcover – July 25, 2006
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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
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
- Item Weight : 1.46 pounds
- Hardcover : 496 pages
- ISBN-10 : 159420103X
- ISBN-13 : 978-1594201035
- Product Dimensions : 6.46 x 1.59 x 9.5 inches
- Reading level : 18 and up
- Publisher : Penguin Press HC, The (July 25, 2006)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #384,504 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Ricks wrote there were two original fiascos of the Iraq war, first that all the arguments for it were false, and second that the U.S. had no plans on how to achieve its goals. Ricks called the first the “fruit of the poison tree” when the claims against Iraq about WMD and ties to Al Qaeda not only proved to be untrue, but then no one was held responsible because the government never really admitted it was wrong. Even after no WMD was found President Bush and others continued to claim that Saddam Hussein was a danger to the world, and then simply moved on. America lost a huge amount of credibility as a result. Even more important the White House said its end goal was a democracy in Iraq, but never came up with how that was to be accomplished. The main fault lay in the fact that both the White House and the military simply thought in terms of removing Saddam and not about what was to come afterwards. Instead, the administration constantly argued that the postwar situation would be easier than the invasion and that the U.S. would be welcomed as liberators, while neglecting planning for after the war. Ricks holds President Bush ultimately responsible, but also the military and Congress for what the author believes was one of the biggest failures in recent American history. This was a basic lack of strategy. Ricks makes a very convincing argument. The main drawback was that he never provided a reason why President Bush wanted war. The book only has one sentence that claims Bush was eventually convinced that Iraq had WMD in 2002, which was not very satisfactory. This was a major problem for almost all of the U.S. books written during the occupation, that they failed to give an explanation for the cause of the war other than the administration’s own case of WMD and Iraq-Al Qaeda ties.
The next section of the book dealt with the failed occupation of Iraq. The day Saddam Hussein was removed was basically the end of the U.S. plans for the country. Everything quickly went wrong and the U.S. was left flatfooted. The Americans had nothing for the looting and then the emergence of the insurgency. This was made worse by a lack of coordination between the civil administrations and the military. The Coalition Provisional Authority took major measures like disbanding the Iraqi military and implementing deBaathification that were opposed by the military. On the other hand, each division in Iraq was basically left to its own devices and committed many acts that also made the situation worse. Ricks singled out the 4th Infantry Division then commanded by General Ray Odierno who later became the overall commander in Iraq for carrying out mass arrests of Iraqi men, abusing prisoners, relying far too much on indiscriminate use of firepower upon the population, and sending thousands of men to Abu Ghraib where they were mistreated. All these acts helped turned the Iraqis against the U.S. Finally, the White House refused to admit that anything was going wrong, and instead argued everything was getting better. Ricks compared what the U.S. was doing during this period from 2003-04 with counterinsurgency strategy that focuses upon securing the population from militants. The Americans were doing the exact opposite because they initially refused to even acknowledge the insurgency, and had no plan. Again, Ricks shows off his knowledge of the military by going through different writers on counterinsurgency such as French officers from its war in Algeria to modern U.S. thinkers that tried to advise the American forces in Iraq on what the occupation should have been like. He also did extensive interviews with civilians, soldiers and Marines in Iraq to give their personal perspective on what was going wrong at that time. Because the U.S. entered Iraq with no plan, it basically improvised its way through the first couple years to devastating effect.
The book finishes with the 2004-05 period when the problems in Iraq only grew. In 2004 there were the two battles for Fallujah and two Sadr uprisings. On the other side, the new U.S. commander in Iraq General George Casey drew up the first battleplan for Iraq one year into the occupation. While it included an attempt at counterinsurgency the Americans didn’t have enough troops, the Iraqi forces were in their infancy and neither was capable of holding onto any area that was cleared of insurgents or militias. Back in Washington Bush continued to resist any reports he received that things in Iraq were going badly. By 2006, the Americans were in the third year of occupation and still had no strategy and their opponents were only growing stronger. The result would be civil war. This was the continued fiasco. The problems that were there at the start of the Iraq war still had not been resolved. Again, the president must be blamed for his refusal to listen to what was going on and demanding that things change. Instead, he would pronounce again and again that he would stay the course. Ricks’ focus is again upon the U.S. forces in Iraq, which was his expertise. If he’d delved into the White House more he might have found the overall problem was that Bush was not hands on with the Iraq war. He delegated it to the Pentagon and the military. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had fought tooth and nail for the Defense Department to control postwar Iraq, but after the invasion, he lost almost all interest leading to the general drift in policy. The military was taking baby steps towards a counterinsurgency strategy, but didn’t have the resources or backing to make it work yet. Again, Bush was mostly oblivious and did not provide the necessary leadership.
Fiasco is still one of the best books to understand how everything went so wrong for the U.S. military in Iraq in the early years of the occupation. Ricks focuses upon how the American leadership starting with President Bush to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to invasion commander General Tommy Franks down to the division commanders first deceived themselves about Iraq thinking it was only about regime change, and then only made the situation worse when the U.S. became the occupying power. Congress also never provided any oversight and partisan politics meant many didn’t want to question what was going on. Ricks also does a great job pointing out all the things the Americans should have done like come up with strategy on how to transform post-Saddam Iraq, and how counterinsurgency policies could have lessoned the resistance to the occupation. What Ricks wrote about was what the U.S. eventually did with the Surge, but that wasn’t until 2007, four years after the invasion when Bush finally figured out that Iraq was failing and made a change. That again highlights that blame starts at the top and it was Bush’s lack of inquisitiveness and stubbornness that were at the root of the problem.
Musings On Iraq
- Ricks starts the account from the Gulf War; he gives us an insight of the measures that were taken at the end of it and how there measures influenced the policy towards Iraq in the years that followed.
- We get to know the guys that had been pro-war since after 91 (like Wolfowitz, Perle ecc) and why they thought the war would be "good".
- Gen.Anthony Zinni is a key figure during the first chapters of the book and his missions (Desert Fox and the containment policy) are given a detailed account. Also during the whole war in Iraq he is given a judgemental say on how the war is going and how it can get better.
- The "mistakes" made in the pre-war period and the source of the "bad intelligence" are also treated in detail. You get to learn where the chain got broken ecc.
- The way the war starts and its the first months and the inside of those days at the Bush administration take the greatest part of the book. Practically until page 300 (out of 450) you find yourself still in midsummer 2003. Then with the deterioration of the ground situation the reporting changes too. Because the journalists couldn't get out of the safe zones, the reporting details of those months diminish too.
- Ricks has this fashion of portraying all the US citizens who take part in the war effort (be it the soldiers, their commanders, the generals or the Bush adm. officials) as good men inside and quite skilled. They are all very hard working, believe in what they say (officially at least) and have PhDs form the Ivy League, but they all find themselves missing the main point of the day. Everyone seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
- A detailed account is also given on the abuse cases; who did what and how it was "punished". You get to read how the US soldiers viewed the iraqi civilians and why they got so hated.
- "The insurgents" as they are referred during all the book never get a proper name. I mean everybody knew back then that al-Qaeda and the sunni tribes were the main players for the sunni side and that Jaish al-Mahdi (who had infiltrated the police and the army; point which is not touched in the book) was for the shias but they are referred as one during the whole reading. Also nothing is mentioned about the leaders of the insurgency, except for Muqtada Sadr.
- A point that I personally found very interesting is when Ricks lays out the possible outcomes of the war in Iraq as "best outcome", "middle" "bad" and "nightmare". At the "nightmare" section he draws a possible scenario in which Iraq is used as a base to form a Caliphate. And he also says that he fears the coming of a "young, energetic, moral, modest, austere..." leader, like Saladin he even adds, and that the muslims will rally after him to fight the westerners. Considering the events that have occurred these last months in Iraq and the region, it seems like the nightmare is coming to life.
- Ricks end the book with the coming of Gen.Petraeus as the general commander of the Iraqi mission. Clearly he loves him, because there is a section filled only with the praising of him and the intellectuals that surrounded him. It gives you a taste of what his second book (The gamble) would be like.
To sum up, the book is a must read for those who want to have a general view of the beginning and development of the first years of the infamous war in Iraq. The book is well researched and according to my opinion, quite truthful.
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Greetinbgs from David Johnson in Copenhagen