|Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005
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The definitive account of the American military¡¯s tragic experience in Iraq from a Pulitzer Prize¨Cwinning reporter
Thomas E. Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, puts forth in Fiasco a masterful reckoning with the planning and execution of the American military invasion and occupation of Iraq, now with a preface on recent developments. Ricks draws on the exclusive cooperation of an extraordinary number of American personnel¡ªincluding more than one hundred senior officers¡ªand access to more than 30,000 pages of official documents, many of them never before made public. Tragically, it is an undeniable account¡ªexplosive, shocking, and authoritative¡ªof unsurpassed tactical success combined with unsurpassed strategic failure that indicts some of America¡¯s most powerful and honored civilian and military leaders.
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 (released in a 10th anniversary edition to accompany the paperback release of Fiasco), 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.
The paperback edition of Fiasco includes a new postscript in which Ricks looks back on the year since the book's release, a year in which the intensity and frequency of attacks on American soldiers only increased and in which Ricks's challenging account became accepted as conventional wisdom, with many of the dissident officers in his story given the reins of leadership, although Ricks still finds the prospects for the conflict grim. --Tom Nissley
A Fiasco, a Year Later
With the paperback release of Thomas Ricks's Fiasco, a year after the book became a #1 New York Times bestseller and an influential force in transforming the public perception (and the perception within the military and the civilian government as well) of the war in Iraq, we asked Ricks in the questions below to look back on the book and the year of conflict that have followed. On our page for the hardcover edition of Fiasco you can see our earlier Q&A with Ricks, and you can also see two lists he prepared for Amazon customers: his choices for the 10 books for understanding Iraq that aren't about Iraq, a collection of studies of counterinsurgency warfare that became surprisingly popular last year as soldiers and civilians tried to understand the nature of the new conflict, and, as a glimpse into his writing process, a playlist of the music he listened to while writing and researching the book.
Amazon.com: When we spoke with you a year ago, you said that you thought you were done going back to Baghdad. But that dateline is still showing up in your reports. How have things changed in the city over the past year?
Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I had promised my wife that I wouldn¡¯t go back. Iraq was taking a toll on both of us--I think my trips of four to six weeks were harder on her than on me.
But I found I couldn't stay away. The Iraq war is the most important event of our time, I think, and will remain a major news story for years to come. And I felt like everything I had done for the last 15 years--from deployments I'd covered to books and military manuals I¡¯d read (and written)--had prepared me to cover this event better than most reporters. So I made a deal with my wife that I would go back to Iraq but would no longer do the riskiest things, such as go on combat patrols or on convoys. I used to have a rule that I would only take the risks necessary to "get the story." Now I don't take even those risks if I can see them, even if that means missing part of a story. Also, I try to keep my trips much shorter.
How is Baghdad different? It is still a chaotic mess. But it doesn't feel quite as Hobbesian as it did in early 2006. That said, it also feels a bit like a pause--with the so-called "surge," Uncle Sam has put all his chips on the table, and the other players are waiting a bit to see how that plays out.
Amazon.com: One of the remarkable things over the past year for a reader of Fiasco has been how much of what your book recommends has, apparently, been taken to heart by the military and civilian leadership. As you write in your new postscript to the paperback edition, the war has been "turned over to the dissidents." General David Petraeus, who was one of the first to put classic counterinsurgency tactics to use in Iraq, is now the top American commander there, and he has surrounded himself with others with similar views. What was that transformation like on the inside?
Ricks: I was really struck when I was out in Baghdad two months ago at how different the American military felt. I used to hate going into the Green Zone because of all the unreal happy talk I'd hear. It was a relief to leave the place, even if being outside it (and contrary to popular myth, most reporters do live outside it) was more dangerous.
There is a new realism in the U.S. military. In May, I was getting a briefing from one official in the Green Zone and I thought, "Wow, not only does this briefing strike me as accurate, it also is better said than I could do." That feeling was a real change from the old days.
The other thing that struck me was the number of copies I saw of Fiasco as I knocked around Iraq. When I started writing it, the title was controversial. Now generals say things to me like, "Got it, understand it, agree with it." I am told that the Army War College is making the book required reading this fall.
Amazon.com: And what are its prospects at this late date?
Ricks: The question remains, Is it too little too late? It took the U.S. military four years to get the strategy right in Iraq--that is, to understand that their goal should be to protect the people. By that time, the American people and the Iraqi people both had lost of lot of patience. (And by that time, the Iraq war had lasted longer than American participation in World War II.) Also, it isn't clear that we have enough troops to really implement this new strategy of protecting the people. In some parts of Baghdad where U.S. troops now have outposts, the streets are quieter. Yet we're seeing more violence on the outskirts of Baghdad. And the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk make me nervous. I am keeping an eye on them this summer and fall.
The thing to watch in Iraq is whether we see more tribes making common cause with the U.S. and the Iraqi government. How long will it last? And what does it mean in the long term for Iraq? Is it the beginning of a major change, or just a prelude to a big civil war?
Amazon.com: You've been a student of the culture of the military for years. How has the war affected the state of the American military: the redeployments, the state of Guard and Reserves troops and the regular Army and Marines, and the relationship to civilian leadership?
Ricks: I think there is general agreement that there is a huge strain on the military. Essentially, one percent of the nation--soldiers and their families--is carrying the burden. We are now sending soldiers back for their third year-long tours. We've never tried to fight a lengthy ground war overseas with an all-volunteer force. Nor have we ever tried to occupy an Arab country.
What the long-term effect is on the military will depend in part on how the war ends for us, and for Iraq. But I think it isn't going to be good. Today I was talking to a retired officer and asked him what he was hearing from his friends in Iraq about troop morale. "It's broken," he said. Meanwhile, he said, soldiers he knows who are back home from Iraq "wonder why they were there." Not everyone is as morose as this officer, but the trend isn't good.
Amazon.com: You quote Gen. Anthony Zinni in your postscript as saying the U.S. is "drifting toward containment" in Iraq. What does containment of what will likely remain a very hot conflict look like? You've written in your postscript and elsewhere that you think we are only in act III of a Shakespearean tragedy. I wouldn't describe Shakespeare's fifth acts as particularly well contained.
Ricks: I agree with you. Containment would mean some sort of stepping back from the war, probably beginning by halving the American military presence. You'd probably still have U.S. troops inside Iraq, but disengaged from daily fighting. Their goals would be negative ones: prevent genocide, prevent al Qaeda from being able to operate in Iraq, and prevent the war from spreading to outside Iraq. (This was laid out well in a recent study by James Miller and Shawn Brimley, readable at http://www.cnas.org/en/cms/?368.)
Containment probably would be a messy and demoralizing mission. No one signs up in the U.S. military to stand by as innocents are slaughtered in nearby cities. Yet that might be the case if we did indeed move to this stance and a full-blown civil war (or a couple) ensued. And there surely would be refugees from such fighting. Either they would go to neighboring countries, and perhaps destabilize them, or we would set up "refugee catchment" areas, as another study, by the Brookings Institute, proposed. The open-ended task of guarding those new refugee camps likely would fall to U.S. troops.
The more you look at Iraq, the more worrisome it gets. As I noted in the new postscript in the paperback edition, many strategic experts I talk to believe that the consequences of the Iraq war are going to be worse for the United States than was the fallout from the Vietnam War.
Amazon.com: A year and a half is a long time, but let's say that we have a Democratic president in January 2009: President Clinton, or Gore, or Obama. What prospect would a change in administration have for a new strategic opening? Or would the new president likely wind up like Nixon in Vietnam, owning a war he or she didn't begin?
Ricks: Not such a long time. President Bush has made his major decisions on Iraq. Troop levels are going to have to come down next year, because we don't have replacements on the shelf. So the three big questions for the U.S. government are going to be: How many troops will be withdrawn, what will be the mission of those who remain, and how long will they stay? Those questions are going to be answered by the next president, not this one.
My gut feeling is the latter: I think we are going to have troops in Iraq through 2009, and probably for a few years beyond that. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if U.S. troops were there in 15 years. But as I say in Fiasco, that's kind of a best-case scenario.
- Remarkable book for reading despite political persuasion
As far as I can tell, this is the most complete book on the current gulf conflict on the market now. Thus said, in the comng years there will be probably others that will surpass this one, if nothing but for the nature of the beast - this conflict, or at least the current US involvement, is not over, this is current events, not history.
There is a lot to be learned from this book - even if you do not believe in the author's position that containment was appropriate, he really does his homework, interviewing a lot of military personnel and getting some good, even if sometimes conflicting, opinions.
As a few minor points, this book generally has the feel of many, many pages of war notes strewn together, which makes it sometimes a bit uneven to read. It also gets a bit bogged down in the middle - too many names and locations without being more particular on what he is talking about. Although, ALTHOUGH, this book is accessible to someone with a nonmilitary background such as myself.
Complete with a final nightmarish chapter on possible outcomes of the US involvement.
Regardless of one's political perspective, this is worth reading - which is probably the highest compliment one can give a book dealing with such a current and explosive topic....more info
- Journalism not history
This is a good account of the war in Iraq but it is not the definitive history which Ricks thought it would be. He's a good writer and has done a lot of research, but he has interviewed his subjects as if he were writing a feature article. Consequently, the book comes off as a series of essays, lacking cohesion and depth. Like his other books, Ricks could use a good editor to dispense with some of the chaff; he insists on including a quote from seemingly everyone he has interviewed, regardless of its relevance. Consequently, the writing often meanders between disparate ideas, contains too many exhaustive descriptions and ultimately lacks analysis. There's a lot of good stuff, but you're often left wondering "so what?" Ultimately, the only noteworthy aspect to this book is its title and I suspect Ricks knew that.
One thing I take particular exception to as an OIF veteran is a statement Ricks makes in the paperback edition. In the addendum, he states that he has received nothing but praise from Soldiers who have served in Iraq about this book and his criticism of the war. While I'm sure he has his share of fans in the military, I have personally been at two of his book talks where he was roundly harangued by active duty Soldiers and Marines. He doesn't mention any of that. I have also taken an unscientific poll of my friends who have served in Iraq, and the majority take a dim view of his reporting. Basically, Ricks likes to sell himself as a military insider and the unofficial spokesman for the troops when he is neither. He has made a lot of money by wrapping a mundane piece of journalism in an inflammatory title, at the expense of the young men and women who have actually sacrificed for their country rather than just criticized it from the bleachers....more info
- Excellent Book!
"Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq" is an excellent, clear-sighted, and well-named review of the numerous mistakes which hindered success in the Iraq conflict. As military correspondent for "The Washington Post" and the author of "Making the Corps" Mr. Ricks writes with considerable and deserved authority and this is one of the best of many recent books on this subject.
The most important lesson in this book is that the Army and Marine Corps did not recognize (for some time) that their enemy was an insurgency and required a set of solutions other than the application of sheer combat power. That failure of recognition is not surprising. The Army and the Marine Corps were doctrinally organized, trained, and equipped to fight and destroy a conventional enemy. The Army had not updated its counterinsurgency doctrine for 20 years and, even then, it had not integrated the counterinsurgency lessons from the war in Vietnam. The foremost discussion on that failure was John A. Nagl's book " Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam." Nagl compared the practice of counterinsurgency by the British Army in the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960, and the American military in the Vietnam War, to the pronounced detriment of the Americans. Ricks demonstrates that the lessons remained unlearned.
Much has changed. The Army and Marine Corps developed and published new counterinsurgency doctrine in 2006 and, together with "the surge" of additional troops, have applied that doctrine to good effect in Iraq. Those beneficial changes, however, demonstrate the accuracy of Ricks' assessments and ascriptions of responsibility for the earlier mishandling of the war.
- Explaining the Mess in Iraq
Among the most illuminating, and hence the most damning recent volume about the war in Iraq is Fiasco, by Thomas E. Ricks. Like other recent books, the author describes in detail the dysfunctional decision-making that has plagued our endeavor in Iraq. But Fiasco highlights the lengthy series of critical turns and cross-roads that we have taken in the nearly four years since the invasion--any of which might have led us away from disaster and toward a stabler and less uncontrollable occupation. And he brings the insights of a career military writer to the task of analyzing what has gone wrong, and how wishful thinking and political turf battles in Washington have placed our soldiers in mortal peril abroad.
A Tragedy in Three Parts
Ricks treats the saga of Iraq as a tragedy in three parts. The first part, dealing with events leading to the invasion, portrays a military far more skeptical of the looming adventure than the public was aware, or the politicians would permit to become public knowledge. Though the Bush Administration was elected in part on a platform of support for a neglected military and opposition to the nation-building adventures of the Clinton years, the shock of September 11th soon turned into contingency planning for an invasion of Iraq--an old enemy uninvolved in the actual attack, but expressing sympathy for America's enemies. Apparently, however, this occurred without much thought for what might happen next. Upon taking office, the civilian leadership of the defense department had effectively neutered its generals, turning them into staff assistants for an overbearing secretary of defense. A long-standing contingency plan for just such an invasion--a battle plan named Desert Crossing, the culmination of years of in-depth planning that called for nearly 400,000 troops--had been discarded in favor of a test of Donald Rumsfeld's theories about waging a "lean and mean" war. As a result, we invaded Iraq with forces totaling just over a third of the original number. While Iraq's military proved no match for the scaled-down invasion force, the task of maintaining order once Saddam's regime had fallen would prove to be more demanding than the optimistic assumption of the war planners ever acknowledged as a possibility. The result was, in Ricks' words, "the worst war plan in American history."
The remainder of the book deals with the invasion and ensuing occupation, as well as the many miscalculations that have led us to our current state of affairs. Most of our initial mistakes were blunders by our political leaders, and those they sent to oversee the occupation. But some of the problems were institutional and would have required insightful leadership to overcome. Despite Rumsfeld's contrary preferences, for example, American military tradition in recent years has come to believe in Colin Powell's doctrine of "overwhelming force." Simply put, this called for application of American might that is so vast and irresistible that it buries all resistance by its mass, as well as through the power of its destructive force. Yet the techniques for fighting a counterinsurgency are completely different, calling for minimal forces and a light, deft touch rather than the heavy hand of tanks and armor. If confronted with an enemy of insurgents, the American way of massed power tends to be counterproductive, since it runs the risk of creating more enemies than it can kill.
As Ricks shows, these are all lessons which our military learned painfully in Vietnam, but cast aside after resolving never to become entangled in anything like it again. In Iraq, however, the politicians anticipated that we would be hailed as liberators and greeted with flowers instead of roadside bombs, and the military war-gamed against the Republican Guard rather than the Fedayeen. But in Rumsfeld's defense department, acknowledging the possibility that things might go differently was viewed as disloyal, and so little thought and no training was given to the challenge of fighting against a determined insurgency. This led many of our units in the field to engage in heavy-handed tactics that did little to quell unrest, but much to swell the ranks of the insurgents. Now, with the streets filled with sectarian violence and an unfolding civil war, our troops can either come down heavily to restore order, or try to stay out of the way. Both approaches carry significant risks and the possibility of disaster; neither approach is what we expect our Army to do, or what any of the soldiers expected when they volunteered to serve their country. And with Iraq now spiraling out of control, we find that all our massive firepower has lost much of its utility, and our troops find themselves caught in the crossfire between warring factions.
This book, and others like it, raise many unsettling questions that the country would have been wise to consider before the president issued the final order to attack. Its biggest contribution to our understanding of events is in recounting many of our blunders in terms and concepts that the non-military layman can readily grasp. The book provides a wealth of information and insight, but in the end confronts the reader with a sobering assessment of what can go wrong when the optimism and resolve of our public leaders manage to convince the public that doubt or skepticism is the same as disloyalty.
- The Iraq War: One Big Fiasco
will admit that, in the beginning, I supported the War in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had demonstrated himself to be an enemy of freedom when he invaded Kuwait without provocation in 1990, he'd used chemical weapons against both Iranians and his own countrymen, and, at least as presented by the people who are supposed to know such things, it seemed pretty conclusive that in 2002-03, he was trying to develop WMD's once again.
Then, reality set in.
The initial invasion itself was a stunning success, but things quickly unraveled after that.
Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks, in his book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq chronicles what went wrong, and how we ended up in a world where the United States continues to occupy Iraq, three thousand American soldiers are dead, and we seem no closer to an end than we were on the day that Saddam's regime fell.
If nothing else, Ricks' book makes clear that there was a stunning lack of postwar planning on the part of those in the Pentagon and Bush Administration who were pushing for war. Whether they were just stunningly negligent, or whether they actually believed that American troops would be greeted as liberators and showered with rose petals is unclear, but the fact that nobody seemed to bother to plan for what might night to be done with Iraq after we deposed Saddam arises to a level of incompetence that is almost criminal.
Ricks does not limit his blame to the Bush Administration though (although there are plenty of targets there from Rumsfeld, to Wolfkowitz, to the President himself) but also points out the mistakes made at the operational level by military commanders who clearly didn't understand the type of war they were fighting. Singled out for especially severe scrutiny are Raul Sanchez, who commanded the troops in Iraq in 2003-04, and Raymond Ordierno, who commanded the 4th Infantry Division during its first tour in Iraq.
After reading Ricks' analysis of countless volumes of official military records and interviews with officers who served in Iraq, there are only several conclusions that one can reach.
First, the initial justification for the invasion of Iraq was entirely mistaken. There were no weapons of mass destruction in 2003. They didn't go to Syria. They just never existed.
Second, while the United States may have had a great plan to defeat the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard in 2003, there was absolutely no plan for what we would do with Iraq afterwards. Instead, we got the statements of people like Paul Wolfkowitz, who apparently believed that American troops would be greeted as liberators the minute the crossed the Iraq-Kuwaiti border, and refused to admit he was wrong years later despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Finally, whether we like it or not, Iraq is America's tar baby. Ricks argues that we can't just withdraw now and leave the Iraqis to sort things out themselves, at least not until the nation is stablized and there's a real Iraqi Army in place to defend the state. The consequences for the region and, by extension, American national security, of a fragmented Iraq are simply too great at this point. Iraq is not like Vietnam for one very important reason --- abandoning South Vietnam was not a significant strategic loss for the United States. Abandoning Iraq very well could be.
The unfortunate truth is that America has placed itself in a position that it didn't need to be in, and finding a way out will prove far more difficult that anyone really wants to admit.
Like it or not, this is a problem we've handed to ourselves, and one we're likely to be dealing with for some time to come....more info
- Excellent facts but insufficiently critical of its sources
The content of the book won't surprise anyone, given its title - - this is a highly critical account of the US war against Iraq. Ricks argues, in brief, that the Bush administration used "worst-case" analyses of Saddam Hussein's capabilities and intentions to argue for war, and then used "best case" scenarios to argue that the war would not be costly in blood and treasure. The unfortunate result is that the "groupthink" of the Cuban Missile Crisis will fade away from undergraduate political science textbooks, to be replaced with the Bush Administration's war on Iraq.
The book really consists of a very long string of 2-3 page long sections, grouped into chapters. Each section reads as if it comes from Ricks' notes from a single interview. He often does not try to put transitions from one section to the next, and many sections repeat material in other sections (Ricks seems to have deleted most of the contradictions between interviews, or notes them when they occur). While I understand the time pressures that such a book faces in order to remain "current," Ricks really needed to put more time into rewriting his material in order to construct a stronger overall narrative.
It's important to recognize that Ricks' sources are overwhelmingly military guys, with only a very few civilian policy makers. These sources have an interest in attributing mistakes to their political bosses. Naturally the brass will tend to claim that they tried to warn the Pentagon, or the President, about one thing or another, but were ignored. Ricks gives these self-serving perspectives too much credit.
For example, one of Ricks' most important sources is Col. Teddy Spain, commander of the Military Police in Baghdad. Clearly the high brass did not respect the MPs, many of whom were national guardsmen and not professional soldiers. Certainly the MPs and their commanding officer have every right to resent this. Given these understandable perspectives, you'd expect Ricks to take a critical stance toward what Spain tells him - - but, as near as I can tell, Ricks always agrees with what Spain says.
Though he needed to be more critical of his sources, this weakness lessens when Ricks turns to differences of opinion among the brass. Indeed, the book excels in uncovering such disagreements. While all the military officers predictably criticize Bremer and Rumsfield, their comments on one another are more unpredictable and, thus, more informative. Ricks makes good use of these disagreements in order to build an indictment of most of the US military. He also singles out a few units and commanders (such as Gen. Petraeus) for praise. Those he praises recognized early that Iraq was an insurgency or civil war, and did not treat it as a conventional war.
As many of the other reviewers note, this is an incredibly detailed "instant history" of the Iraq War, and well worth reading for that reason alone. But it could have been better if Ricks had thought like a historian, always critical of his sources, instead of thinking like a journalist who needs to keep those relationships going by not being too critical.
- A very thought-provoking analysis of U.S. mistakes in Iraq
This is a very well-researched book about the U.S. involvement in Iraq from the quick victory in 2003 to U.S. military operations of 2006. Ricks displays a thorough understanding of the military and its methods, planning, and operations in Iraq. While Ricks points out the mistakes, he backs his arguments with plenty of quotes of senior military officers and government officials.
Some of the facts were very disappointing and disturbing. For example, before the war began, the former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld wanted military plans to be watered down to Powerpoint forms. With all the military officers' schooling in staff school, this may have seemed like a total disregard on the right way to write plans and orders. Rumsfeld also restricted the military in force size and Ricks points out that this may have set the stage for the problems of scarcity of manpower to carry out post-war activities. Many of the problems in the civilian leadership in the Defense Department caused a rift between civilian leadership and the senior military officers.
Another big problem was that very few planned for the long, drawn-out post-war that was waiting in the shadows of Iraq. Ricks points out the unpreparedness of both the military on the ground and the Defense Department's civilian leadership on the post-war phase. Rumsfeld and his deputy Wolfowitz were totally unprepared for what would happen after the war. As the military waited for further orders, an opportunity to win over the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people were lost.
There are other obvious problems as well as Rumsfeld. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA for short) headed by L. Paul Bremer was supposed to oversee the rebuilding of Iraq. I was appalled at the staffing of the CPA with young Republican Party idealists (in 2003 to 2004) instead of experts for basic necessities like rebuilding the electrical system and other utilities. Bremer isolated himself from the problems and shortcomings of the rebuilding process.
This is a book that provides criticism backed by numerous facts and deep analysis. It is in no way filled with empty opinions. This makes it a very good book to read on the mistakes of the U.S. government and military in Iraq. Not all examples are bad ones. There are military officers as well as U.S. government officials who tried the correct the mistakes from their predecessors. Throughout it all, Ricks still maintains a sympathetic tone in regards to the military who have to do the hard work of rebuilding Iraq. What makes Ricks unique is that he is well-informed on the inside culture of the U.S. military which added to the value of his comments and criticism. I highly recommend this book for someone who wants a clearer picture of the U.S. involvement in Iraq instead of reading the newspaper or watching it on TV. ...more info
- Despite All the Planning, Rumsfeld Had No Plan
Mr. Ricks argues that the invasion of Iraq "was based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history," an incomplete plan that confused removing Iraq's regime with the far more difficult task of changing the entire country.
The result of going in with too few troops and no larger strategic plan, he says, was that the U.S. effort resembled a banana republic coup d'¨¦tat more than a full-scale war plan that reflected the ambition of a great power to alter the politics of a crucial region of the world.
The four hundred plus pages move along pretty fast and Ricks to his credit, lets the facts tell the story without extensive or heavy-handed direct criticism of President Bush or then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.
I think Fiasco along with Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 are the two best books about the Iraq war to date. Recommended....more info
This book gives detailed account of our push into Iraq. The manner in which the book is written is very clear and easy to read. Thomas Ricks strongest critique is that the United States military failed to anticipate and recognize the insurgency, and tried to fight it with conventional methods that helped them grow in number and force. His work is backed up by many sound sources. He did his homework, but no one is infalable. He makes a mistake when he gave ColMcMaster the credit for cleaning up the town of Talafar and Mosul. As an example ColMcMaster's 3rd Armored (ACR) Cavalry Regiment's entered Talafar and Mosul and was able to capitalize on the Army's 1-5 Stryker Brigades successes. While the big push was going on in Fallujah thousands of insurgents escaped the battle and made their way to Talafar. A company from the 1-5 (about 200 men) maintained the American presense in Talafar and made major headway into establishing daily interaction with the local Iraqis. The 3rd ACR was then able to build on the successes of the Stryker Brigade. Other than this the book is spot on and an excellent resource....more info
- Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
In "Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq," Washington Post reporter, Thomas E. Ricks, builds a huge case that American soldiers and Iraqis have paid a too-heavy price in blood--and American taxpayers have paid a too-high price in treasure--for the "failures of high officials and powerful institutions" during the U.S.'s 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Ricks argues that these failures occurred at every level of the war, from the strategic decisions made by our country's political leaders to the tactical-level techniques chosen by Army leaders on the ground. However, despite Ricks' efforts at massing evidence to support his arguments, his strong political bias consistently undermines the strength of his points, leaving the book as flawed as the U.S. invasion plan for Iraq that Ricks so frequently derides.
Ricks begins "Fiasco" with a "Cast of Characters," a list of the book's key political and military players. It is only fitting that he should begin thus, since much of "Fiasco" reads like a Star Wars-like space opera, with Ricks' introducing key players with descriptors that make them more stereotypes than well-rounded characters--in effect playing what he believes to be the appropriate theme music whenever a villain or hero walks on the stage. Ricks' league of villains in "Fiasco" includes the following leaders:
* President George W. Bush, Jr., the president of the republic, whom Ricks introduces by immediately referring to (without substantiation) as incompetent and arrogant.
* Vice President Richard Cheney, whom Ricks claims essentially cornered President Bush into ordering the invasion of Iraq and whose heart ailments, Ricks speculates, may have caused his political transformation from realism to neo-conservatism (the dark side of "The Force" for Ricks).
* Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who play the roles in Ricks' space opera of Governor Tarkin and Darth Vader respectively. Ricks introduces Rumsfeld as a leader who thrived on "blustery Princeton frat boy towel-snapping banter" and Wolfowitz as the "dangerous idealist" whose naive neo-conservative philosophy laid the foundation for the Bush Administration's decision to invaded Iraq and subsequent evils of this decision.
* Iraqi National Congress Leader Ahmed Chalabi, whose insidious, behind-the-scenes role in Ricks' space opera is akin to that of a dark Sith Lord: Ricks claims that, first, Chalabi manipulated the U.S. into invading Iraq by planting false intelligence about stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD); then, Chalabi successfully maneuvered Bremer into radically de-stabilizing Iraq and fueling the insurgency with Bremer's orders of de-Baathificiation and Iraqi Army-disbandment.
* Various stormtroopers, including U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Tommy Franks and CJTF-7 Commander Lieutenant General (LTG) Ricardo Sanchez, whom Ricks portrays as poor strategic thinkers, micromanagers, and toxic leaders; and Major General (MG) Raymond Odierno, 4th Infantry Division Commander, whose division's large-scale, conventional tactics epitomize for Ricks everything the U.S. Army does wrong in Iraq.
Locked in hopeless battle with these villains are Rick' outnumbered and overpowered Jedi Knights, men who seem to possess no flaws and whose sensible, rational views are consistently trumped by the incompetence and arrogance of the book's villains. Ricks' heroes include retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, former CENTCOM commander, who espouses a realist's policy of containing rather than overthrowing Saddam Hussein; Secretary of State Colin Powell, who at first resists the Bush Administration's neoconservatives but who is ultimately defeated by false intelligence and George Tenet; General Eric Shinseki, Army Chief of Staff, whom Ricks describes as the only senior Army leader with the perspicacity and moral courage to stand up to Rumsfeld; Democratic congressmen Robert Byrd and Ike Skelton, whom Ricks portrays as not only wiser and more learned but also more courageous than their fellow congressmen; the entire U.S. Marine Corps and Special Operations Command, who, unlike the lumbering conventional U.S. Army, know how to wage a counterinsurgency (COIN) war; and two inspired Army tactical commanders, MG David Petraeus, 101st Airborne Division Commander, and Colonel (COL) H.R. McMaster, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment Commander.
Although there may be some truth in some of Ricks' characterizations, it is troubling that in a tome of this size Ricks can produce few (if any) well-rounded and fair portraitures. Ricks' heavy-handed, two-dimensional approach in describing each of his "cast of characters" ultimately weakens his points by causing the reader to feel manipulated by Ricks and to wonder what the truth would look like if told by Ricks' villains.
Ricks' political bias in "Fiasco" extends beyond stereotypical characterizations: there are also Ricks' sins of omission. For example, Ricks declines to expound upon any of Saddam's atrocities as one potentially valid justification for invading Iraq, referring to Saddam as merely "brutal." Nor does Ricks explicate how the atrocities and security services of Saddam's regime differed in essence from those of Nazi Germany or exactly how continuing to merely contain Saddam might have been a moral choice for the U.S. government in 2003. Also, not only does Ricks fail to adequately address the full case for militarily defeating Saddam in 2003, he fails to address any potentially valid reasons the post-invasion Iraq insurgency should be defeated today. Case in point, Ricks' treatment of Zarqawi is even more cursory than his treatment of Saddam: he mentions Zarqawi only once and then only in the context of U.S. strategic errors and the Zarqawi-like destabilizing effect of some of these errors. In general, Ricks chooses to dwell not on the mass murder of civilians by Iraqi insurgents but instead on the effectiveness of insurgent forces relative to U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. However, even if this relative effectiveness were entirely true (it is not), this would not mean that defeating the Iraqi insurgency is morally and strategically unimportant for the U.S.. (It is important.)
Ricks' bias is also apparent in his lack of consistency: it often seems as if he were simply reporting any criticism of any policy or tactic in Iraq regardless of whether or not his critics are in agreement with one another as to the correct solution. At times, for example, he parades out Army officers who argue that the U.S. would have operated more successfully in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 if troops had been less visible to Iraqis; at other times, he quotes officers who essentially argue that "living among the people" was a critical COIN principle too often violated by U.S. forces who chose instead to live on large, comfortable, and secure bases.
Also damning to Ricks' credibility are his errors of fact, such as when Ricks uses an Army specialist's remarks to argue that the stress of multiple deployments is causing a growing number of good soldiers to leave the Army. This notion that soldiers are leaving the Army in growing numbers is frequently set forth as fact in left-wing publications; however, this notion is decidedly untrue: the number of first-term and mid-term re-enlistees for the Army has steadily increased each year since 2000, with units who have recently returned from combat often boasting the highest reenlistment rates.
In the Middle East, there is a saying: you cannot hide the sun with the fingers of your hand. In "Fiasco," Ricks' cannot hide his clearly partisan bias behind stacks of carefully selected quotations. Due to Ricks' overwhelming bias, "Fiasco" should never be considered an authoritative historical source. This is too bad, since "Fiasco" contains many useful points that may indeed be accurate. At the operational level of war, for example, Ricks' criticism of how Ambassador Bremer fueled the insurgency and destabilized Iraq by ordering the disbanding (rather than the transformation) of the existing Iraqi Army, the exclusion of high-level Baathists from government positions, and the closing of what had been state-run factories is no doubt accurate. There is also probably much truth to Ricks' criticism that many of the tactics employed by the U.S. Army in Iraq during 2003 and 2004 were too heavy-handed and fueled the insurgency, particularly with regard to the mass round-ups of detainees, the wrongheaded use of counterbattery artillery fire, the sometimes offensive treatment of Iraqis by U.S. forces, the misuse of special forces for raids rather than for training Iraqi security forces, the counter-productive isolation of U.S. forces from Iraqis on large bases, the inadequate organization and capabilities of Army military intelligence units, and the initial lack of understanding of many Army commanders that the hearts and minds of the people were the real prize and not the killing and capturing of insurgents.
This said, Ricks' obvious bias leads to an overall lack of credibility, a lack that made it difficult for me to accept many of Ricks' arguments as complete, fair, and true. Surprisingly, however, many of the writers who reviewed "Fiasco" when it was published seemed generally undeterred by Ricks' bias. Among these reviews, there was some breakdown along political lines--liberal reviewers seem to have whole-heartedly embraced the book's arguments as facts while more conservative reviewers generally praised the book while enumerating a few of the book's flaws. Two examples of the latter type of review include Ben Tucks and Benoit Dureiux' 2006 review in the "Journal of Military History," which refers to areas that "could have received more attention" while also calling the book "essential reading," and LTC Brian McNemey's 2006 review in "Military Review," which states that Ricks "brings substantial authority" and "overwhelming corroboration of his claims" while simultaneously pointing out that Ricks "more or less ignores the genuine success of the coalition" This generally kind critical treatment of "Fiasco" may have less to do with the efficacy of Rick's evidence and logic than it has to do with the truly perilous situation in Iraq in 2006 and the strong emotions at home this situation was then spawning. I for one, however, suspect that in this galaxy and in a future not too far away, historians will tend to treat the "villains" of "Fiasco" much kinder than Ricks treats these leaders and that "Fiasco" itself will eventually lose its mainstream critical acceptance and be seen for what it is--a terrific catalog of harsh criticisms concerning the political and military leaders of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM I, but never a detached, fair, or authoritative account of historical personalities and events.
In short, any buyer should be forewarned that "Fiasco" was not written to be an enduring classic, but rather it was written to provoke controversy and sell books. The fact that, since its publishing, the book has facilitated the U.S. Army's taking a hard look at itself and reinventing itself as a more effective counterinsurgency force has been a fortuitous accident and does not add to the book's intrinsic value, which at best, is only slightly better than mediocre.
Everyone who cares about what we are doing in Iraq should read this book. In a nonjudgemental way, the Pulitzer Prize winning author tells what we did/are doing in Iraq. You may draw your own conclusions....more info
- Ricks was right
Incredible. Without any doubts the best book I have read about Operation Iraqi Freedom. Yes, we have experienced a lot of changes and we have made significant progress in Iraq since this book was originally published, but this book is an eye opener. A good number of civilian and military leaders are not looking too good in Fiasco, but that is exactly what this book is all about.
- Obsolete Before It Was Published
Admittedly, it is a bit unfair to say this book was obsolete before it was published on the count that no book on current affairs can accurately predict the future. With Fiasco, however, Ricks attempts to paint a comprehensive picture of the Iraq War that to the reader becomes a bit of an obituary for our military operations in the Middle East. By late 2006/early 2007, we know the picture of Iraq as depicted in Fiasco to be far from complete. I would knock Ricks for his seeming inability to translate the possibility of an improved course and his reliance on only a few military insider opinions for the vast body of this book. Moreover, somewhere along the line, Thomas Ricks confused his military reporting with actual service and deigns himself capable of passing sweeping judgements about a profession he has never held himself. Although that certainly isn't a prerequsiste for being a reporter, it would help the reader overcome the arrogant tone Ricks gives off in most of his reporting in this book and in the WAPO.
Overall, I gave this book high marks for coverage of the war RELATIVE to other accounts of the Iraq War. No reporter or historian should pattern themselves after this book's research or analysis, but its readability and earnest attempt to scrutinize our country's missteps in the war are admirable. It should be noted that I have not read The Gamble yet and intend to do so. Perhaps Ricks' treatment there of the war overcomes the difficulties he experienced in Fiasco?...more info
- Failure in leadership
It seems that there are more and more books written every week about the failure of the Bush administration and the runaway chaos going on in Iraq. Everyday people are dying in Iraq in roadside bombs, terrorist attacks, malnutrition, and dismal healthcare. Electricity and water are absent in many neighborhoods. Many books come to the same conclusion: Iraq was a mistake!
In `Fiasco', the author describes in detail the decisions that led to the war on Iraq in 2003, and the mishandling of the subsequent occupation.
According to the author, the Bush administration had no plans to attack Iraq prior to September 11. After September 11, though, the White House was in a conquest mode. First Afghanistan was attacked and occupied. Then plans were drawn to attack and occupy Iraq. However, according to the author, the White House was so driven to attack Iraq that it completely ignored key advice from private and military advisors.
The author relates how in some instances, the White House was careless and unprofessional. Rumsfeld would give PowerPoint presentations to get his point across to military personnel. The author compares this to a manager giving a sales brochure to a mechanic and telling him to fix the car. In other words, the wrong people were at the helm.
According to the author, the White House received classified information that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction, and that Al Qaeda did not operate out of Iraq. In fact, Saddam had no relation with Al Qaeda or any of its operatives. Bush invaded Iraq because he wanted too, not because Intelligence convinced him too. Many authors come to this same conclusion.
One of the reasons Iraq was invaded was to defeat terrorism. But according to the author, the war on Iraq will only breed a new and different type of terrorism aimed at Americans worldwide. The author asks, `how will a boy react when he returns to his village only to see it completely destroyed by the US military, with his family all dead?' The boy will not grow up to be friendly to US interests. Furthermore, how will the man of an Iraqi family react when his house is suddenly broken into by US soldiers pointing guns at his family, and in some cases, willfully or accidentally killing them? There are also many rape stories committed by US soldiers. The occurrences at the Abou Ghraib prison tarnished the image of US soldiers worldwide. Images of the torture committed at Abou Ghraib will only raise Iraqi (as well as Arab) children with hatred towards anything American. A new wave of terrorists could be in the making, and the author warns that we should be ready for this.
Everyone has heard and seen images of Abou Ghraib prisoners before this book was published. However, the atrocities mentioned in the book reminded me of books I had read about the Holocaust. We can really be evil towards each other.
According to the author, high ranking officials knew what was going on in Abou Ghraib, but chose to ignore it. The reason for this is that the US military assumes all Iraqis are hostile. This is dangerous, the author warns, since it turns ordinary Iraqis with no qualms against the US into hostile mercenaries.
We all have read in many books and articles, and seen on TV news, that the invasion of Iraq was a big mistake. This book traces the steps taken that led to this mistake.
The author does admit that only time will show whether the war on Iraq was both a military and political success (especially against terrorism), but so far, evidence shows otherwise....more info
- A Bright Shining Lie
Neil Sheehan wrote his classic account of the Vietnam War, with the subject title, 13 years after the war was over. Thomas Ricks has captured so much of the essence of America's latest folly while there is still no end in sight to this war. 'Fiasco' is aptly named, but he could also have borrowed Sheehan's title, perhaps even more so, for the numerous lies that were used to promote this latest war.
I hesitated before buying this book. Do I really want to go through all of this again, having lived through the depressing news account of the war? But I found his damning account of America's "leadership", done without polemic, in flat academic tones, to be most rewarding. It is an excellent summary of how we got to where we are. He clearly has been able to establish rapport with all levels of those in the military, and has correctly shown that numerous ones, though certainly not all, are wiser than the civilian "leadership" they serve.
On several occasions in the book he raises what should be the central issue of this, or any war, via the insights of the soldiers fighting the war: Have we created more "terrorists" than we have killed?
If there is a shortcoming in the book, I believe Ricks failed to think "strategically," the same criticism he leveled at the civilian leadership in Washington, as well as numerous generals in the field. In the afterword, he outlines possible future scenarios based on historical antecedents, and lists the Philippines as the "best case scenario." Yes, an almost 50-year occupation! Without ever asking the question: Why did we occupy it in the first place? Was that occupation in any way vital to the United States? He does not list Vietnam, where we simply decided we had had enough of failure in attempting to impose our ideas on others, and left. What were the ramifications of that? As a worst-case scenario he posits a full-blown War of Civilizations, without underscoring how much of that conflict would be one of our own creation.
Sadly, Ricks has the time to correct this deficiency, and propose better strategic alternatives to a war without end. I sincerely hope he will in his next book. ...more info
- The Story Behind the Mistakes of Iraq
Thomas Ricks is the Washington Post's senior Pentagon writer. His book is a catalog of the errors that led to and accompanied the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Ricks describes in great detail how the neo-Cons in the Bush administration forced through the decision to go to war, with Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz leading the campaign to run a war on the cheap. Moreover, while there was some military planning for what to do after a victory in Iraq, the neo-Cons were so enamored of the false line sold by Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi that the US forces would be met with jubilation in Baghdad and could basically just go home then, that there was no real plan for what to do afterwards.
He describes the sad adventure of the first American ruler of Iraq, Jay Garner, who actually knew what he was doing but was constantly blocked by Rumsfeld, only to be suddenly replaced by the clueless Paul Bremer. Most of the problems in Iraq today apparently stem from Bremer's disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army, depriving the country of a domestic security force, and the Baath Party, depriving the ministries and agencies of the bureaucrats who made things work. It's unclear if the decision was actually Bremer's or whether it was secretly made by Rumsfeld or George W. Bush.
When the situation fell apart, the American forces were unprepared to fight a counter-insurgency war. Ricks says that after having mastered counter-insurgency in Vietnam, the American military was in such a state of denial that they completely blocked out everything they had learned after the fall of Saigon. While some units in Iraq actually tried to treat the population with respect, many were arrogant and disrespectful, turning would be friends into enemies. The rapid rotation of troops also meant that those who had learned something about the situation were often replaced by unprepared newbies. Even when the military finally started to grasp the principles of counter-insurgency, this has been largely undone by the continued pattern of keeping US soldiers in giant bases that are mini-versions of America, rather than living among the Iraqis.
The outrages of Abu Ghraib were another consequence of war on the cheap, with too many innocent people rounded up and thrown into a vastly over-crowded facility, staffed by National Guardists who were untrained for the mission. Only the lowest level soldiers were punished for mistreatment of the prisoners, and not those really responsible for spreading the atmosphere of abuse.
Interesting sidebar: The hardback edition was written in 2006, before the current revelations of abuses by the Blackwater security mercenaries. But in describing how the town of Fallujaj went from being tense to exploding, Ricks writes that it was a Blackwater mission that set off the powderkeg.
- The difference between anti-war and anti-armed forces
In the last decade, the pro-war camp has conflated "anti-war" with "anti-armed forces." The anti-war camp hasn't really helped itself in this regard (Remember "General Betray-us?").
Fiasco as a non-fiction book is great because it is exhaustively researched and well written. What drives me to recommend it, though, is that it combines anti-war evidence with respect for the military.
The thesis is that some politicians, empowered by public sentiment post 9/11, were able to overrule the judgment of experienced military men. Ricks doesn't beat the reader over the head with this point, he simply states the evidence and lets the reader decide.
Fiasco is both an excellent piece of non-fiction and something that was lacking in much of the decade: a reasonable anti-war voice....more info
- informative, regardless of your preconceptions
One more book on the Iraq war? Another tome by a person who believes the war was a mistake? Sigh - but wait - this is a good one, informative, easy to read, entertaining. Read it, regardless of your preconceptions. You won't be sorry.
I've just read through a few dozen of the recent reviews of this book. The reviews are interesting, seeming to swing wildly from praise to condemnation depending on the reviewer's political affiliation. That's too bad, because regardless of whether you approve of the Iraq war or condemn it, "Fiasco" contains a lot of interesting and important information. It's a carefully thought out and written book which is also pretty entertaining.
Books like this on contemporary events may not be to everyone's liking, but they contain a level of detail which more distant history, that written 30 to 50 years after the event, will neglect. The Iraq war is likely to shape the course of America's international influence and history for many decades to come. For that reason, books from Bob Woodward's early work praising George Bush's war strategies to this one which questions it, are very worthwhile reading, for all of us.
In summary - this is an entertaining book which should educate any reasonably objective person who is interested in military history or in America's current international policies.
Recommended for those with an interest in the military, in politics, and in international affairs....more info
- How Did We Let Iraq Happen?
The content of this book is shocking and dismaying, as Ricks lays out in systematic detail the lies and self-deceptions of the Bush Administration and its flunkies. I paid attention throughout the war buildup, but it was hard for me to keep everything clear over so many years and so many switchbacks and turns. That's why it's great that this book sets the record straight. I hope that every high schooler in the country is forced to read it for the next two decades.
My one quibble is that the book is not well-written. Perhaps that's an unfair expectation for a book written by a war correspondent. But I found the writing to be so clunky that it interrupted my ability to enjoy the narrative thread and, occasionally, to understand what was going on. A good editor would make this book an all-time classic in popular history, on the lines of a Halberstam work. I hope that the third edition -- whenever the next update is produced -- gets the right editing treatment....more info
- We changed the wrong regime
I have spent significant time this past year reading books on the war in Iraq, war on terror and the Middle East. Thomas Ricks incredibly well research and well articulated book certainly is the best book on the war in Iraq that has been written so far.
While it is easy to be a Monday Morning QB, Ricks manages to outline with great precision a series of what can only be seen in the best case as wild-eyed optimism and in the worst case gross negligence and malfeasance by the Bush administration. Working in the business world, it is mind boggling that a war planning effort assumed every best case scenario and did not develop contingency planning for the inevitable -- some of those best case scenarios not turning out as planned. When circumstances on the ground rendered many of those initial assumptions moot, all senior levels of the administration dismissed and denied the reality of what was happening on the ground and attempted to make pariahs out of those challening the administration's plan, both within the government and outside.
What makes this book "difficult" to read is to think about the number or proud and patriotic men and women who gave their lives following the stubborn and arrogant administration which has failed to take any accountability for their bad decisions and poor leadership. It reads like a bad joke that President Bush awarded L. Paul Bremer, Gen. Tommy Franks and George Tenet the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- and this was after Bremer's poor civilian leadership was contributing to the chaos in Iraq and Tenet's intelligence record on WMD was already discredited.
Rick's covers the strategic blunders the Bush Administration made on troop levels, deBaathification, reconstruction planning, etc. by leveraging plenty of sources, both on and off the record -- all of which have made not only the country of Iraq, but the whole region more unstable and dangerous than it was when Saddam still controlled Iraq.
No one can be certain how history will judge the eventual outcome of the war in Iraq. We all can only hope that our next regime, whether Republican or Democrat, has learned the lessons that Rick's wrote about and will show more strategic vision to turn the tide in Iraq by stabilizing the situation and creating conditions for some form of success.
This book is indispensable reading for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the war in Iraq and why we are in the situation we are in today. ...more info
- A must read
whether you agree or disagree you must read this book. No other book provides a more detailed picture of how we ended up in iRaq and why we lost our way when we got there....more info
- The best (and most frustrating ) book about Iraq
Hi there. I've written more than my fair share of amazon reviews and opted never to write a review of this book as there is already a wealth of well views and takes on this book; additionally, I'm quite biased with my own experiences in the reality this book portrays. After reading this book, I muttered a gentle "Damn, that's about right" and passed this book around to some friends. What led me to this review was the reaction of a few friends who are more right-leaning than I but as well informed as myself.
First off, I'm a moderate. I believed Bush to be a sub-par commander in chief when he was sworn in but am continually amazed at the mess he's made of this war. I disagreed with the war because I knew the basis for it was bogus but I did hope for the best. To say I am deeply saddened by the outcome would be an understatement. Nuff said about me.
This book doesn't highlight the blind gung-ho attitude our policy makers had for this war so much as it shows the honest dedicated work our intel and planning people put into gathering Phase Four Planning- re: What the hell to do once we overthrow Saddam. These rational people and their findings were shrugged off by the blindly idealistic conservative government and by the media who parroted their views. Do yourself a favor, reread a Newsweek form mid-2003, it'll blow your mind. Not only did our politicians believe that this would be some magical cakewalk, the press sold it that way as well.
This book details how a few people whose un-substantiated claims gave "basis" for the war (Re: Chalabi). How our folks who showed that Phase Four (again, post-overthrow activities) would be a nightmare conflict between rival sects, insurgents, and potential invaders but were not only ignored but silenced and reprimanded by high ranking officials. How Colin Powell was sent off to knowingly and dutifully sell off his well-earned reputation.
But this review isn't about all that or how well Ricks ties this convoluted mass into an engaging narrative (for the record, Ricks' prose and ability to organize events into a comprehensible narrative is laudable). This review regards who you can and cannot give this book to. This review is about your money. Is this a well written even-handed approach to the debacle that is the Iraq War? Yes. I highly recommend it for all REASONABLE people. There is nothing in this book that cannot be verified. There is nothing in this book given a liberal slant.. or any slant for that matter. There are those in this book who have earned praise and are given it. There are those who are worthy of contempt but their decision making and mindset is well enough explained you can understand why they made the foolhearty plans they did. You can disagree with them, sure, but you can see how they honestly thought they were doing the right thing.
Secondly, this is non an Anti-American novel.
However, don't loan this book to diehard Republicans no matter how open minded they are. I tried this; I said to a friend I highly respect "Hey this guy Ricks did a good job, whaddaya think?" My friend read the first third of the book and at midnight called me to say, and I pretty much quote "Why the hell are you giving me this garbage? This is crazy left wing propaganda. It makes me sick."
The thing is this. Both my friend and I keep pretty close watch on these matters; we both have our respective vested interests. To me, this book contained and describes my own frustrations with the war. To my friend, this book, despite its accuracy, was an attack on our entire mission in Iraq. He saw it as an affront to everything we're trying to accomplish in Iraq. I understand his anger; but his anger shouldn't be at the book but at the actions this book portrays so well.
Ricks doesn't mince his words. He doesn't try to water down his journalistic style to make a better story; he aims for accuracy and he achieves it amiably. Fiasco is a steadfast documentary of the desicions that went into the war and the lack of leadership that caused debacle after debacle once an end to major combat actions was announced. I can give no journalistic novel higher praise than I do for this book; additionally, I know this book will be required reading for members of our intelligence community (along with The Looming Towers by Lawrence Wright).
In summary, Fiasco is a well painted portrait of our efforts in Iraq and the internal forces that undermine them. If you are interested in reading a well shaped retelling of the actions that led us to invade Iraq as opposed to sanctions or perhaps military action against another foe, I can think of no stronger recommendation.
What a book. The true behind the scenes revelation of how and why the Iraq war happened. No BS just the facts....more info
- Great book
It is amazing that the author was able to get so much information on our adventure in Iraq while the Bushies were in power. His contacts with military personnel are especially revealing. He has strong opinions about the motives and competence of both military and civilian leaders. He backs his opinions up with first hand testimony from the people involved and simple statements of fact....more info
- Whatever could have been done wrong, was
As many have noted in these reviews, the title says it all. This is a tale of incompetence, stupidity, and arrogance that is shocking, yet hardly surprising for anyone who has followed these events. Ricks lays it out with an admirable clarity, concentrating primarily on what happened on the ground.
There are great advantages to his approach, as the reader learns about the military aspects of what went on. While I understood the outline of the military situation, this book added essentail elements that I only suspected. In a nutshell, he says, there was a disconnect between strategy and tactics, which kind of bubbled down from lazy, muddled, self-deluding thinking at the top. On the one hand, Bush II assumed that we would be welcomed as liberators, so no coherent post-war plans were prepared, at least that everyone agreed on as the way ahead. Nonetheless, there were some in the civilian leadership (Bremer in a way and many in the Depts. of State and Defense) who assumed it should be an anti-insurgency policy, which would call for cultivating the good will of the popularion, i.e. that it was not against terrorists so much as to protect the population and win its good will.
On the other hand, with all the rhetoric that conflated Irak with terrorism and Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction - all revealed to be dead flat wrong and not at all universally reflected in the intelligence that was available at the time - most soldiers felt that they were dealing with "the enemy" and hence were justified to do so harshly (they made hostages of the families of suspected insurgents, violated the sanctity of their homes, randomly killed or intimidated Irakis "in their way", and tortured suspects often with overt sexual innuendo - all of which were particularly offensive to Moslem sensibilities). This naturally alientated the population, directly adding support for insurgents as they perceived Americans to be occupiers rather than liberators. This fundamental contradiction between strategy and tactics wasted the first 4 years of the occupation and led to a situation that has disastrously deteriorated and may now be irretrievable.
Unfortunately, how these decisions (and in many cases, non-decisions) were arrived at and then maintained remains murky. This is not a Halberstam-style Best and Brightest with full background explanation and historical context, but far more limited in scope. As such, we get much more on the decisions and faulty assumptions that led to the invasion, and here there is a gallery of stupid bad guys, from Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz to many more in the Pentagon leadership. Bush, Powell, and Rice are seemingly peripheral figures here, and Rove scarcely appears; this cannot be a complete picture of how it happened. Perhaps we will have to wait for more reporting to come out, but this was a disappointment to me. Other sources, such as Woodward, simply fail at that as well in my view. At any rate, because of the relentless lack of introspection of the principal protagonists and their penchent for secrecy, a Pentagon Papers investigation for Iraq was probably never undertaken.
Once inside the military campaign and occupation, the book covers the operational errors, and they are truly disgusting. For example, there are the fools enscounced in the protected Green Zone making policies to encourage capitalism while knowing nothing of what the military was facing and without any inkling of Islamic culture or Iraki politics - they were genuine naifs, yet too ideological and arrogant to learn - and if they did, they headed back to their DC careers instead of staying to pass on or apply their insights. You also get how Abu Graib occured and countless other incidents that add up to a catastrophic diplomatic failure, both within Irak and in international opinion. There is a huge amount about the new mode of warfare, relying on improvised explosive devices, which is the characteristic innovation of insurgent attack in this war that the Army failed to anticipate. Also, it is quite clear that the military should have had more troops, which directly led to terrible failures in the early days, such as allowing militant Baathist leaders to escape into Syria, failing to stop early looting as Iraki opinion was solidifying, and (for fear of destroying WMDs) leaving weapons caches unprotected so that insurgents could simply walk away with sophisticated armaments. The overall impression is disbelief that we could have been so stupid.
Beyond these details, which only confirmed my worst fears, Ricks' greatest accomplishment is that he does not view the operation as an inevitable failure: he continually looks at it as potentially salvagable and offers many stories of success that are admirable if rare and largely unheeded until it was too late. His argument, in my opinion, is compelling and convincing - this was very important to me and decisively changed the way that I see our choices ahead. All along, I had assumed it was doomed to fail, and I now see that as simplistic and biased. This was invaluable to me and worth the price of admission.
Moreover, Ricks strives to give people the benefit of the doubt, even regarding the commander who was in charge of Abu Graib. (The reservists running the prison, in this view, were receiving too many prisoniers for them to handle, had unclear directives from the top originating with Gonzales' infamous memos redefining "torture", and were virtually untrained in interrogation techniques.) I felt great sympathy for the people on the ground, who are taking the worst hits to perpetuate these self-defeating policies. In my opinion, Ricks' perspective is realistically balanced, however much it decries the incompetence of Rumsfeld et al., or Bush's foolishly implacable optimism. To Bush supporters, which I most emphatically am not, this means that Ricks did not produce a simple polemic, but an honest attempt to get to us to question what we should do there next and why. Rumsfeld comes off the worst, and it makes you wonder if his whole image (as a brilliant toughie who can get things done) is nothing more than sham, which also was a surprise to me. I just wish Ricks had more on the others, esp Bush, Rice and Rove. It should be noted that Ricks does not cover very well the private mercenary armies that we have hired.
I recommend this book as an excellent starting place to understand the biggest political failure of this generation and as a plea for dialogue. Whatever we think of the causes of how we got where we are, we Americans need to come together to figure out what to do next, not vilify eachother for short-term political gain. We must get beyond the blame game, to salvage what we can. Interestingly, as I first skimmed the conclusion, I noticed a number of scenarios, from hopeful through to nightmare: upon closer reading, I was stunned that what Ricks saw as probable was what I had assumed was the absolute worst case. This is frightening and the situation that we fell into and exacerbated there is far more dangerous than most of us care to imagine. ...more info