The American Military
Adventure in Iraq
by Thomas E. Ricks
Penguin, 496 pp., $27.95
This is a good book with a bad title. Anyone picking up a volume called Fiasco, with a snarky subtitle referring to "The American Military Adventure in Iraq," might expect another tome from the Michael Moore School of Policy Studies, with its level of analysis restricted to bumper-sticker slogans like "Bush Lied, People Died."
In fact, this is a carefully researched account of the Iraq war by one of America's premier defense correspondents--Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post. His findings of pervasive high-level ineptitude, based on hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of documents, will be much harder for reflexive defenders of the Bush administration to dismiss than the usual farrago of ideologically motivated accusations from political adversaries.
Which is not to say that Ricks avoids all the traps of administration critics. He sometimes indulges in hyperbole, calling the Iraq war "one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy" and suggesting that it "was based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history." Really? When did the conflict in Iraq, where fewer than 3,000 American soldiers have died, become worse than the clashes in Korea and Vietnam, where 95,000 Americans perished?
Ricks also delivers a few cheap shots against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. He rather mysteriously claims that Bush was "at times more in sync with the attitudes of sixties radical Jerry Rubin than with those of Winston Churchill." How so? He explains that Bush was "willing, a bit like Jerry Rubin, to take a chance and then groove on the ensuing rubble." As a bit of character analysis this is no more convincing--and no less insulting--than his suggestion that Dick Cheney went from being an advocate of containing Saddam Hussein in 1991 to overthrowing him in 2002 "perhaps because of his heart ailments, which can alter a person's personality." Or perhaps the reason was that Cheney saw that containment wasn't working.
This is Ricks's big blind spot. He is passionately committed to the view, espoused by retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, that "containment worked" and that Saddam posed no threat to anyone by 2003. He is too quick to accuse the Bush administration of distorting prewar intelligence without noting that the Clinton administration and our European allies reached the same conclusions about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. (Which is why so many Clinton veterans backed the invasion.) Amazingly enough, Ricks never once mentions the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, which had been perverted by Saddam into a mechanism that allowed him to siphon off billions of dollars for his own nefarious purposes while leaving Iraqi babies to starve. Nor does he mention that U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Security Council on January 27, 2003, that "Iraq appears not to have come to a genuine acceptance--not even today--of the disarmament which was demanded of it."
He does mention, but only in passing and near the end of his book, the conclusion of arms inspector Charles Duelfer that, while Saddam had gotten rid of his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, he "had tried to preserve the intellectual and physical ability to restart the weapons programs at some point."
Ricks is right that containment worked better than most observers believed in 2002, but he goes overboard in dismissing altogether the case for war. He is much better in assessing what went wrong, and why, after the decision to invade had been made. To be sure, Fiasco does not add too much to our store of knowledge about what happened in the run-up to the war and during the three-week blitzkrieg to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. That ground has been exhaustively covered, not only in various periodicals (including the Washington Post) but also in such books as Cobra II by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor and The Assassins' Gate by George Packer. Ricks adds value by tilting the balance of his narrative toward the guerrilla war that began in the summer of 2003, picking up where Cobra II left off.
Ricks's view is that "a large and persistent insurgency" wasn't inevitable. (Although he doesn't say so, this makes the case for invasion stronger.) If not created, it was at least inflamed by numerous miscalculations made by the American occupiers. He takes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General Tommy Franks, and various others to the woodshed for not sending enough troops to pacify a country of 25 million people. Plans to dispatch additional troops after the fall of Baghdad--both the 1st Cavalry Division and 1st Armored Division were ready to go--were cancelled by the Pentagon over the objections of commanders on the ground.
The most damning comment on the lack of American manpower comes from Col. Teddy Spain, commander of a military police brigade that was stripped of 17 of 20 companies before being deployed to Baghdad in the spring of 2003.
"I think we could have taken control of the streets much better," he is quoted as saying. "I think Baghdad would have been different. I just didn't have the assets."
As we now know, that problem was exacerbated by the decision made by newly appointed viceroy L. Paul Bremer III to dissolve the Iraqi army and security services, setting loose thousands of armed malcontents. Bremer has justified his decision by arguing that the Iraqi military had, in effect, dissolved itself. But, as Ricks writes, "that's not the way many others remember what happened. 'We were working with the army when we were told to disband them,' recalled Marine Maj. Gen. [James] Mattis."
The most bizarre aspect of the dissolution decree was that it ran counter to decisions ratified by President Bush before the invasion and never reversed in Washington. Ricks writes that "Rumsfeld was surprised by Bremer's move," and he quotes Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on Bremer: "He ignored my suggestions. He ignored Rumsfeld's instructions." (Cobra II offers a slightly different account: "While Rumsfeld had been consulted in advance, other key players were blindsided by the edict.")
Unfortunately, this was all too typical of the confusion and outright chaos that characterized American policymaking for at least a year after the collapse of Saddam's regime. Administration apologists like to claim that many of the problems encountered in Iraq weren't foreseeable, but Ricks shows that most them were, in fact, foreseen by far-sighted analysts such as retired officers Gary Anderson and Conrad Crane, who were, alas, ignored by most decision-makers.
As a veteran observer of the military, Ricks is not willing, like so many other critics, to lay all the blame on Bush, Rumsfeld, Bremer, and assorted civilian "neocons." He lashes them for their errors, but he is also scathing in his portrayal of an American military that, in the years since the Vietnam war, managed to forget everything it had ever learned about how to fight an insurgency.
His indictment begins with General Franks, who came up with a plan to win a battle but had no comprehension of how to win the war. (One of Fiasco's typically blunt subheads: "Franks flunks strategy.") During the critical period after Baghdad's fall, Franks shook up the U.S. command structure, placing in charge of the whole country a junior lieutenant general named Ricardo Sanchez who, Ricks writes, "often appeared overwhelmed by the situation, with little grasp of the strategic problems he faced." Moreover, Sanchez was not given enough staff support, and he was forced to work with a "jerry-rigged command structure, in which there was no one American official, civilian or military, on the ground in Iraq in charge of the overall American effort."
This left U.S. division commanders essentially on their own. Some rose to the challenge. One of the most successful was Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. who, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in 2003-04, worked on winning "hearts and minds" while using force in carefully calibrated increments. The success of the 101st in an area of northern Iraq with lots of ethnic tensions--or the similar success of Col. H.R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in the Sunni city of Tal Afar in 2005-06--contradicts the argument, popular in conservative circles, that more troops could not have helped defeat the insurgency because U.S. forces inevitably create more problems than they solve.
This was certainly true of some U.S. units, but not of others. It was all a matter of leadership. The problem is that, in too many cases, there was a leadership vacuum that extended from Washington to Iraq.
Ricks suggests that the worst offender was the 4th Infantry Division under Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno (now a three-star assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs). "Odierno's brigades and battalions earned a reputation for being overly aggressive," Ricks writes. He quotes one "senior officer": "They are going through neighborhoods, knocking on doors at two in the morning without actionable intelligence. That's how you create new insurgents."
Fiasco argues that one of the worst consequences of the 4th Infantry's misplaced aggression was that it swamped the military justice system with thousands of detainees, "the majority of them bystanders caught up in the sweeps." This created the conditions--with a small number of MPs and interrogators overwhelmed by vast numbers of prisoners--that led to the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Ricks details numerous instances of abuse that extended beyond Abu Ghraib, writing that in some units it became "routine and acceptable to beat prisoners." Fiasco is harsh in its assessment of such misconduct, and rightly so, because excessive brutality undermines the effectiveness of the American counterinsurgency strategy.
On occasion, however, Ricks may hold U.S. troops to an impossibly high standard. He quotes from counterinsurgency texts that counsel cultivating friendly relations with civilians and keeping firepower to a minimum. Many U.S. troops in Iraq did violate these injunctions--but so have most troops engaged in counterinsurgency throughout history, whether British, French, Russian, or Algerian. The lapses committed by American troops, while inexcusable, were relatively mild by the standards of most previous guerrilla wars.
A similar lack of historical perspective more broadly mars what is otherwise an incisive chronicle--and may account for the overly angry tone of some of Ricks's writing. If one steps back and takes the long view, it becomes apparent that it is too soon to write off the entire Iraq war as a "fiasco." Difficult as the situation is today, with Iraq seemingly sliding into civil war, defeat is not foreordained; somehow (although it is admittedly gettingharder and harder to see how), a functioning democracy may still emerge from the current mess.
Granted, there have been individual "fiascos" aplenty, but then there has been no shortage of fiascos in all previous U.S. wars, stretching back to the loss of Charlestown, Philadelphia, and New York in the War of Independence. Even our most successful wars have been marred by numerous mishaps--in World War II, think of Pearl Harbor, the loss of the Philippines, Kasserine Pass, Anzio, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge--most of them far more costly than the Iraq war. That doesn't mean that these conflicts weren't worth fighting, any more than the Iraq war wasn't worth fighting.
Those who know this best are the men and women in uniform. By quoting numerous current and retired officers such as Tony Zinni, who opposed the invasion of Iraq, Ricks sometimes gives the impression that the military as a whole hates the war and the Bush administration. As he knows perfectly well, that's not the case. Opinion surveys indicate that soldiers are considerably more supportive of the war effort and of its architects than the American public as a whole. (The last Military Times poll of service members, published this past January, found 56 percent in support of the invasion of Iraq and only 26 percent opposed. By similar percentages, the respondents approved of Bush's handling of the war.) And soldiers are voting with their feet by reenlisting in large numbers.
Few veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom would write off their service as a "fiasco." But many, perhaps most, would nod along with Ricks when he laments that their "noble sacrifices" were "undercut by the lack of thoughtful leadership at the top."
Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of the forthcoming War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.