The Magazine

Battle for Baghdad

Lessons learned from the war in Iraq.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By MAX BOOT
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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.