|Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
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The definitive military chronicle of the Iraq war and a searing judgment on the strategic blindness with which America has conducted it, drawing on the accounts of senior military officers giving voice to their anger for the first time.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post senior Pentagon correspondant Thomas E. Ricks's Fiasco is masterful and explosive reckoning with the planning and execution of the American military invasion and occupation of Iraq, based on the unprecedented candor of key participants.
The American military is a tightly sealed community, and few outsiders have reason to know that a great many senior officers view the Iraq war with incredulity and dismay. But many officers have shared their anger with renowned military reporter Thomas E. Ricks, and in Fiasco, Ricks combines these astonishing on-the-record military accounts with his own extraordinary on-the-ground reportage to create a spellbinding account of an epic disaster.
As many in the military publicly acknowledge here for the first time, the guerrilla insurgency that exploded several months after Saddam's fall was not foreordained. In fact, to a shocking degree, it was created by the folly of the war's architects. But the officers who did raise their voices against the miscalculations, shortsightedness, and general failure of the war effort were generally crushed, their careers often ended. A willful blindness gripped political and military leaders, and dissent was not tolerated.
There are a number of heroes in Fiasco-inspiring leaders from the highest levels of the Army and Marine hierarchies to the men and women whose skill and bravery led to battlefield success in towns from Fallujah to Tall Afar-but again and again, strategic incoherence rendered tactical success meaningless. There was never any question that the U.S. military would topple Saddam Hussein, but as Fiasco shows there was also never any real thought about what would come next. This blindness has ensured the Iraq war a place in history as nothing less than a fiasco. Fair, vivid, and devastating, Fiasco is a book whose tragic verdict feels definitive.
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.
- Thorough analysis of the Iraq war.
Thomas Ricks work is an in depth critique of the war. It is great reporting, well above television coverage and most newspapers. It has the added value of a professional writing style, making it easier to read than I expected....more info
- Exceptional insight
This should be required reading for all Americans. Now that we're deep into it we all need to understand how we got here and where we go from here. Those who fail to understand history are condemed to repeat it....more info
- One of the best account of the occupation
In my opinion, Fiasco is one of the best account of the controversial stabilization process managed by the US led coalition in post-war Iraq. He shows the way general Sanchez contribute decisively, together with ambassador Bremer, to fuel an insurgency all over the Country. He deserves credit also for having supported the Patraeus way to peace-keeping well before he were choosen to lead the US forces in Iraq. Intriguing its analisys of the techniques used by the insurgets and the tactiques to face them. Another must read book, if possible together with Ali Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq, which is about Iraqi inner politics. Germano Dottori...more info
- An Honest Appraisal of Bush's Iraq Blunder
This book should be required reading in all high school and two and four year college history and civics courses in the United States. It is a fair, balanced, and honest account of the Iraq war. Furthermore, everyone in the news media,especially the right-wing commentators,should read the book!...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
- 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
- Reminds Reader of "The Best and the Brightest"
This book reminds me of the late David Halaberstam "The Best and the Brightest" in that the book looks at Iraq situation at the political leadership level, the military view and a real close on the ground view with troops in the field. Of course Rick's title tells you the view point; this is a very negative view of our decision to go into Iraq and for not having a plan once occupying the country. Very interesting profile of the Bush administration particularly Paul Wolfowitz, the under secretary of defense who had a mission to redo Desert Storm, to free the Shia who rose up against Saddam in 91 but whose leaders were killed when the US coalition decided not to go further after promises of support. The ideal of a democracy in the Middle East posed a great opportunity; however, the realities of an Arab country embracing a western style of government seems in hindsight unrealistic until the Arabs put forth their own charismatic leader who can put it together. Plenty of discussion is included of those that resisted the attack on Saddam that included Zuni, Powell (who turned only with information that turned out to be untrue) and the former Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, John Shalikashvili. The leadership battle within the administration and in conflict with military leaders is fascinating alone. The failure to have a post war plan for occupation is well defined particularly as Ricks tells of limited troops, lack of trained MPs and military personnel who could fill the void, and he has numerous negative views of specific military leaders (certainly not all) and of course the political leadership at home. Along with failing to maintain order and stem looting, a lost opportunity to be appreciated by the Shia, Paul Bremmer's decision to disband the army and all the Bathists from government positions released over 600,000 personnel without jobs or monetary income created a large population that fed into the insurgency. The low point in the book for me was reading about a discussion between Rice and Rumsfeld about Bremmer and Bremmer's role in Iraq. Rumsfeld surprisingly claimed to have no responsibility over Bremmer, which is devastating to read considering the gross negative impact Bremmer had in Iraq. The book contains numerous troop interviews particularly among the middle officer rank to enlisted giving the reader the ground view. Ricks observes that the tragedies of Abu Ghraib prison abuse fueled the perception that US forces are not rescuers but occupiers. Ricks accounts for what he sees as the US misinformation about weapons of mass destruction that includes the role of Chalabi and other now questionable sources. Also includes are the politics and leadership role of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Sunni conflicts, the role of the Kurds and their relationships with US troops and administration. In this book, Ricks provides an over view of the situation in Iraq as it unfolds. One limitation is that the book talks little of the reconstruction efforts involving civilians, contractors and the military. The status and difficulties of those events would have been interesting particularly the criticism that has been offered that not enough Iraqis were employed to participate. Another note, the author points to the numerous military failures while not showing enough positives, leaving one the impression that the positives literally paled next to the negatives, and maybe that is true. Ricks does recognize that there are many competent leaders such as Petraeus, but he cites numerous failing at the top down that include General Tommy Franks. This leaves the impression that the leadership both military and political failed, not the troops in the field. The book is highly readable with short topical sections inside each chapter literally taking you from place to place or person to person within the related chapter. Also has a helpful index of military acronyms. ...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
- Don't tell me you "support the troops" until you've read this
In a world where the left tells you everything is wrong in Iraq and the right tells you how great things are going and how marvelous "W's" leadership is, if you want to get some glimmer of the truth, read this book.
Written with no axe to grind that I could detect, Ricks lays out the facts and lets you make up your own mind. He takes Bush and his team to task for some horrendous decisions, but he doesn't spare the leadership of the military either, and this is very well deserved. How many incompetents did we have to go through before we finally found somebody with stars on his shoulder who knew what he was doing? As a recently published article so wonderfully put it, in today's military, there are far more consequences for a private who loses his rifle than a general who loses a war.
You can not support the troops if you don't know what is going on in the war zone and how we got where we are, and for that this book is the best one I've read to date!
- Microsoft Office goes to war
What repeatedly comes to mind in reading this account of strategic military fiasco is the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in 1942. The parallels are striking: An understrength army is tasked with an oversized job; nightmarish street fighting ensues; political mismanagement and micromanagement hamstring the army's efforts; political arrogance alienates the populace. The army is deadlocked in a savage war of attrition it cannot possibly win.
This is a surprisingly honest book: The entire Iraqi Freedom operation was a debacle from inception. The case presented is absolutely damning. Here (crudely) is the picture painted:
1. In a speech given to the Veterans of Foreign Wars at Nashville, TN on August 26, 2002, the vice president sets in motion a domino effect through the nation, media, military, government, and intelligence agencies: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction" [page 49]. Cheney continually overrules all objections in the runup to war by claiming that had others "seen all the intelligence that we have seen" [page 57] there would be no doubt Iraq possessed such an arsenal.
2. Commanding general Tommy Franks, part of the DOD inner sanctum in the runup to the war, dooms his army by failing to provide his staff with detailed battle plans: "Three-star general David McKiernan couldn't get Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks had passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld.... [General McKiernan:] 'In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you got a set of PowerPoint slides' [page 75]. [Observed retired US Army colonel Andrew Bacevich]: 'To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness.' It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer's glossy sales brochure to figure out how to repair an engine" [page 76]. In retrospect, Franks' strategy appeared to be no more than his blitzkrieg slogan, "Speed kills".
3. Paul Bremer, US proconsul to Iraq in the first year of the occupation, further dooms the army - despite pleading and amazement of military and intelligence advisors - by 1) disqualifying (firing) tens of thousands of Iraqi civil servants based on their prior political affiliation, 2) abolishing the Iraqi army, and 3) indefinitely delaying formation of an Iraqi government. This is the same Paul Bremer who, entrusted with twelve billion dollars of US taxpayers' money, "lost" nine billion dollars of it during his one-year tenure - then returned to the US to receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
4. The Abu Ghraib scandal galvanizes Iraqi resistance.
5. The army's use of depleted uranium ordinance turns Iraq into a radioactive, ecological disaster area.
Unbelievable. If Ricks' account is true, and it appears to be a scrupulous recounting, Cheney should be impeached, Franks court-martialed, and Bremer charged. Two things Ricks touches upon but neglects to emphasize are: No standing modern army has ever defeated partisans and any competent military planner would have known this well in advance; the implosion of Iraq into a terrorist breeding ground was certain given the political actions taken. Based on these two facts alone, one must decide between an incompetence so vast it beggars belief, or a Machiavellian agenda to return Iraq to a Hobbesian stone age to provide justification for an endless US presence in Iraq. (An excellent adjunct to this book is the online film Beyond Treason.)
"Shakespeare's tragedies have five acts, and I fear we have not yet seen the beginning of Act IV" [page 451].
A clear, well-written, and well-documented account of the greatest political and military fiasco in US history. ...more info
- 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.
- 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 INGENUOUS AND THE DISINGENUOUS
What this narrative emphasises to me is that we, the public, need to use our wits much more in assessing what our leaders tell us. They and we both want to be positive and encouraged, but they will hoodwink us wholesale when they see fit, either because they don't know the truth or because they don't want us to know it, and patriotism can be bad for the brain. Fiasco is a methodical analysis of what has gone wrong in Iraq. Its tone is measured and civil, and no reader with his emotions under control will find the `venomous hatred of Bush' of which some of the president's votaries have a low threshold. Seekers after `balance' may be disappointed. Credit is given where due, but the press would report the `successes' if they knew what they were. Governments have enormous power over the flow of information, but the official assertions of success are notable for vagueness and generality -- acts of faith and hope with a few small petals of tangible success to weigh against the ton of lead weights on the other side of the scale.
Where officialdom has been outstandingly successful is in controlling the vocabulary of the discussion. Not even Ricks has wholly escaped this sleight of hand. For one thing, this is an `insurgency' with a difference that he does not mention. Insurgencies, as in the former British colonies, are usually against an established order, not against newcomers, and Ricks doesn't note anything ridiculous in invaders from seven thousand miles away complaining of `interference' from neighbouring states. Immemorial Persia had supported its Shi'a brethren on its borders for centuries before modern Iraq was defined after WWI by someone in a suit in London drawing straight lines on a map of the desert. Ricks also talks throughout about `the insurgency'. How many insurgencies are there? Ba'athists are one group, Al Qaeda another, and the Mahdi army yet another: there are other rebellious Shi'a and Sunni formations, and it is normal in countries under invasion for the ordinary citizenry to take up arms. It is one thing not to be able to separate the threads of this tangle, but for the occupiers and their masters to lump them together under some convenient heading is culpable falsification.
One can credit some of the first movers with innocent ignorance. It was Dr Rice who told the British ambassador `American ideas are universal', something it would take a certain type of American to believe. Dr Rice is loaded with academic distinctions, and so is Mr Wolfowitz, who believed that the occupiers would be welcomed and who could not understand for a long time why more forces were necessary to support the occupation than to win the first battles. Any reasonably bright schoolchild would have known better, and that should teach us not to trust people's judgment on the basis of academic brilliance. They can be as much the creatures of their background and conditioning as anyone else can, but as none of us has to be. In particular it should be a warning-sign when anyone plays the nazi card. The utmost respect is due to Mr Wolfowitz or Mr Feith or anyone whose families suffered as theirs did in the Holocaust, but when they use the conventional terms regarding Chamberlain, Churchill and appeasement they are talking stick-figures with labels round their necks and not history at all. `Appeasement' was a very successful political slogan, and a case for using it can be argued, but cut-and-dried fact it ain't. It is also instructive to reflect that the most hideous atrocities of the Holcaust took place not when Hitler was supposedly being appeased but when he was under the greatest military pressure after Stalingrad.
Just as there are times for scepticism, it should also be obvious that expert knowledge and advice dare not be disregarded cavalierly, as Mr Rumsfeld and his Republican apparatchiks did with their commanders' counsels. This was the blindness of arrogance, and contemptuous treatment of questioning should also alert us that all is not to be believed. This is how we should recognise a Ruler of the Universe, come on earth to supplant all previous wisdom. However Mr Cheney's sudden new approach after 9/11 demands a different explanation. America had no parallel previous experience, Cheney sensed a public ready to believe almost anything, he took the initiative with assertions regarding intelligence reports on wmd's that he must have known were false, and I believe that the reason for this was that he saw a chance to drive through Rove's agenda for Republican supremacy (with some oil opportunities too). He kept his head when all around were losing theirs and the president was looking for his own.
Oddly absent from the narrative is Blair. One frequent apologia for this operation after the search for wmd's drew a blank is that we were acting on the best available information. Ricks's disclosure of the NIE report and the forcible suppression (together with wilful ignorance) of some of its contents does much on its own to explain Powell's disastrously misinformed address to the UN, but what Powell himself produced as his trump card was a British intelligence report which had been given much the same treatment by Blair. After an extraordinarily long honeymoon Blair had sunk himself at last. It didn't take Britain much time to damn him as untruthful, and that shows that nobody has to be duped for long. Another oddity is that there was a British report, cited by Ricks, on the successful quelling of the Iraqi uprising in 1920, and no sign that Blair mentioned it. Poodle indeed, wanting to be patted by his master.
There is much more on the nature of insurgencies, comprehensively mishandled by the dysfunctional forces involved. We can't take our rulers on trust, so we had better think for ourselves. `Whither will it find its outcome, whither its cessation,/ the rage of folly laid to rest?' asks Aeschylus, and Ricks closes with some scenarios, even attributing a victory of one kind, possibly unwelcome, to Mr Bush. Often repeated is the military wisdom that in dealing with an insurgency the local populace are the prize, not the battleground. It will presumably be a problem if the entire nation actually equates to the insurgency, supposing that is not the case already. Wherever we are going we wouldn't want to start from here, but we might as well do in our minds what the authorities have never even yet done in theirs and clarify what objectives we may be left with. We cannot just walk out on this chienlit, so one objective has to be some degree of order and reconstruction. This modest aim may not satisfy all, but even it looks difficult. The perception that matters will deteriorate if we withdraw seems to me to misstate the issue, which is that I see no real prospect of betterment if we stay. What we have is lions led by donkeys, told that they had come as liberators but now left fighting a whole population just because they are there. I have opposed this operation from day one, but I am with its supporters to the extent that I don't want America to lose any more face, having thoughtfully paraded its own shortcomings to its own bitterest enemies already. Extreme force will get us nowhere, because genuine terrorists willing to kill themselves are not going to be deterred by that, and Al Qaeda in Iraq are not going to be bombing America and Britain for the simple reason that they are busy in Iraq. It doesn't require many for the foreign suicide missions, and they can find any they need in more tranquil surroundings.
It will need some humility I'd say, and greater willingness to engage with other parties who have a close interest in the matter, Axis of Evil and all, and we can't expect them to make it easy for us. After the sickening civilian carnage and the desolation visited on Iraq, this may also offer some relief to the troops steadily exhausting themselves in a mission as unpromising as Conrad's warship firing blindly into the Congo jungle. Theirs not to reason why, maybe, but it's the right and duty of the rest of us.
- We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
This records the tragedy of Irag and all the actors that the American people gave free reign. As Ricks says we are only in the third act of a 5 act play. It should be required reading. If you don't want to read then see the movie " No End In Sight" the plot is the same....more info
- I knew "Mission Accomplished" was too easy to be true.
Tells the story of what went wrong in Iraq. Namely we didn't have a strategy to secure the peace once we won the invastion. Fascinating, makes you wonder how so many people could have been so wrong....more info
- Recipe for failure in Iraq: combine one part military incompetence with one part political cowardice
Simply put, Ricks believes the war in Iraq became a fiasco that did not have to happen. He shows how the military approach to planning the war was deeply influenced by a failure to understand the nature of insurgency, a bureaucracy resistant to change of any kind, incomeptence in field operations, and blindness to conditions after the battles that would keep us in Iraq. Neither do political leaders on both sides of the aisle escape blame for their massive obtuseness, arrogance, and lack of backbone. As a military historian who has written affirmatively about the Marines, Ricks does not come across as a "war protester" or a bitter critic. He is as quick to name the names of heroes as he is to assess specific blame for policies. Fiasco is a detailed and important story how a road to disaster becomes paved one stone at a time. ...more info
What a book. The true behind the scenes revelation of how and why the Iraq war happened. No BS just the facts....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
- Exposing lies
This book gives an unbiased account of how our "leaders" wanted a way to bring Iraq into the war on terror. It exposes how Bush, Chaney, Rumsfeld and other top officials lied to the world about what was going on in Iraq. It also shows from start to 2004 (as we know still going on) that we had no business attacking Iraq. No one conducted analysis on post occupation problems or had an exit strategy. The fly by the seat of their pants handling of the occupation and attempt at turning Iraq back over to the rightful owners was simply stupidity, arrogance and ignorance combined with lies and unnecessary bloodshed on both sides. This book was written by an authority on the war and all americans should know the truth as on PBS FRONTLINE two part series in which the author was interviewed.
It has become apparant the United States (even though we have the best when it comes to military personnel and equipment) does not have any business getting involved in a war, post WWII. This war has caused over 4,000 american soldiers to lose their lives and over 25,000 to be injured or lose a limb and over one million Iraquis to die. Money has been diverted from much needed domestic concerns in order to keep this war alive and it continues to the tune of what I unerstand to be about 3 billion dollars a day. I digress - this is a great book and people should educate themselves on how the government misled the american public in order to go into a country we had no right occupying....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.
- A Must Read
Everyone regardless of political persuasion should read this book. It is an eye-opener on the tragedy of the Iraq war...more info
- Make sure to read that last chapter...
It's clear that quite a few people posting reviews for this book haven't actually read it, which is a shame and also dishonest. It's very easy to look at the title of the book and some of the chapter titles, then tie that to the fact that the Iraq war was not the war the Bush administration said it would be and come away with the impression that Fiasco has an axe to grind, or that angry opponents of the war can hold the book up and say "Aha! Got'em!" That is simply not the case. Ricks is indeed critical of how the war was executed, but if he's critical of anyone/anything, it's the military and the CPA. People looking for a rant against the Bush administration will be disappointed with this book.
Fiasco is essentially divided into two parts: the run-up to the war, and how things started going wrong in 2003/2004. As for the run-up to the war, I still think George Packer's book, The Assassins' Gate is superior. Ricks' book is essentially a military history, and while he discusses how we got into Iraq, it is not as in-depth or insightful as Packer's book, or even Woodward's for that matter. It is the remaining bulk of the book where Ricks really shines. The most valuable contribution Ricks makes would have to be his chapters on the creation of the insurgency. He goes into more detail here than most other observers and his discussion of how America's military went a long way in creating the insurgency through their tactics. Sometimes he takes a step back to look at the operation as a whole, but Ricks is amazingly focused throughout the book as he takes small snapshots and arranges them into a much larger picture by the book's end.
As much as people have said that this book (or others) are THE definitive book on Iraq that explains everything, please remember that no one book can adequately tackle this subject. Ricks provides light coverage of the run-up to war, but again, Fiasco is mainly a military history. There are many many subjects that Ricks doesn't cover. It's fantastic if you're able to pick up one or two books here and there and catch the news if you can, but if I've learned anything in the past six years of studying the Middle East, it's that with every book I finish, I realize just how much I didn't know. Read Ricks, but read Packer, Woodward, Nakash, Tripp, Marr, Sluglett, Anderson & Stansfield, Dodge, and Diamond too. If the Bush administration can be faulted for anything, it would be that it set out to make extremely important decisions about Iraq without really knowing enough about the country to do so wisely. Don't allow yourself to make judgements about how to leave Iraq (an equally important decision) without knowing what you're talking about. Otherwise, you're no different than Bush.
One of the most important facts about this book is that it should not be used by opponents of the war as evidence that the U.S. should leave Iraq now, the way some Presidential candidates are advocating. The last chapter is absolutely vital in this respect. Ricks and others share their judgements here...
"If the the government fails, we'll have to go back in," in a third war, commented John Lehman, a Reagan-era Navy Secretary. The stakes are simply too high to let Iraq become a sanctuary for anti-U.S. terrorists. page 433.
"To push Iraqi forces to the fore before they are ready is not 'leaving to win,' it is rushing to failure," said Special Forces Officer Kalev Sepp, the insurgency expert who advised Gen. Casey in 2005. If we leave too soon, he and his colleague Col. Hix argued, we might just be setting ourselves up for another war. "It is not beyond the realm of the possible that the United States would find itself in the position of leading another invasion of Iraq...to make right what was allowed to go wrong for the sake of expedience," they warned. page 435.
These are just a few examples, but the point is clear. It's ok to be upset with the decision to invade in the first place, or with the Bush administration's mishandling of the war. It is not ok, however, to let those feelings cloud your judgement and assume we can just throw our hands up and walk away from Iraq without facing serious and far reaching consequences. To get an idea of how much worse things could be if the U.S. leaves too soon, pick up Fiasco and make sure to read what kind of situation we could likely face, as described by an Iraqi blogger on pages 435-436. Such a scenario would make everything up to this point look like a walk in the park unfortunately....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
- 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.
- The only book on the Iraq War you need to read
The paperback edition of Tom Ricks' "Fiasco," published in mid-2007, caps with a new postrscript the author's astounding accomplishment in documenting from named sources all the flawed steps in the conception, selling, and execution of the Iraq War; the book's title is amply born out by the text. Even the most hardened conservative and Bush booster will be convinced, no more than 30 pages into the book, of the accuracy of Ricks' reporting and the truth of his assessments. This is one of the best books I have read about ANY war....more info