Fiasco, by Thomas Ricks

On vacation, couldn’t wait to get to Thomas Ricks Fiasco, acclaimed by many as the best writing to date on the Iraq war. Ricks is the Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post and the author of an account of Marine Corps boot camp, Making the Corps. He is not an anti-war writer and is not even against the war in Iraq — although the history of the war in Iraq from the planning stages through the continued insurgency in early 2006 is simply devastating — and he names names.

Like all good stories, this one has layers. It begins with the invasion planning in the terrified environment that followed the attacks of September 11. It confirms FDR’s maxim that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — especially in leaders. Some of the material concerning the early invasion planning, was covered by Woodward in Plan of Attack, although in keeping with his different role at the Post from his senior colleague, Ricks tends to use military, not political sources, The effect is sickening — like listening to the victims not the perpetrators.

Ricks does not focus heavily on Bush, although we all know where the buck stops. The role of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld are described with detailed research and on-the-record sources. Ricks paints a picture of deception, including self-deception, that is simply devastating. As the fiasco unfolds, it is clear that the military is fighting a very different war than it planned to fight and that it is not equipped to prevail strategically or doctrinally.

At one level, of course, war is always a fiasco: brutal, random, disorganized. It was the grunts of WWII who gave us the word snafu: situation normal, all fucked up. But the absence of strategy is has made Iraq an especially outrageous fiasco. Multiple strategies were available to the US as late as the end of 2002. We has a variety of containment options including a) strengthen the northern and southern partitions by strengthening no-fly zones, b) contain and attack military assets as Clinton had with Desert Fox (an effort much derided by Republicans that turned out to have been remarkably effective — although without any intelligence both administrations were guessing), c) contain and lighten up on sanctions in hopes of fostering political dissent. If we were convinced, as was US, German, French, Chinese, Russian, and most other intelligence services, that Iraq posed an imminent threat, we still had a variety of strategies available — all less attractive to be sure because all required that the US assume control of Iraqi society: security, the economy, and of a transition to some form of stable self-government. A high-risk proposition, but as an alternative to allowing crazy people to build for a war of mass destruction, surely a viable one.

Leaders use intelligence, ideally highly accurate and verifiable, to form a strategy — and they think through the second and third order consequences of this strategy. Would we simply invade, destroy Saddam and the senior Baath, and leave town? Or we could invade and oversee a transition to a functioning democracy? Would we be prepared to fight a war with Syria or Iran? How many lives and how much money would we be prepared to risk?

A leader is then forced to make a serious of tactical choices — choices that are easier and far more consistent if the point of the exercise is clear.

  • What will we do with the Iraqi military? (Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, fired them all — creating a large cadre of well-trained, well-armed insurgents).
  • What about senior Baath officials in the ministries (the ministries were the Iraqi economic infrastructure. Bremer fired all Baathists).
  • What would it take to rebuild the economy? (Bremer insisted on rampant privatization from day one. Strike three).
  • How, specifically, will we control and govern 25 million people with different religious and tribal affiliations, little in the way of civic trust, public institutions, or self-governance?
  • Oh, and how will we achieve the militarily tedious task of overthrowing Saddam?

For this, a few weeks of good work where the outcome was never in doubt, we had plans — and we carried them out nicely. Ricks makes clear that the work of building a coherent strategy never happened. Soldiers were asked to make it up as they go along — not something you ever want soldiers to do. Worse, US soldiers were trained for battlefield warfare, not for counterinsurgency warfare. The two war-fighting doctrines are not remotely compatible: one requires maximum firepower, one minimum firepower. In the former, the Iraqi people are the field of play — in the latter, they are the prize. Perhaps the strongest part of the book are the detailed stories of US Army and Marine units that figured this out on the fly (the absence of a strategy produced an enormous range of behaviors — and Ricks documents leaders whose men were abusive and awful as well as those who were genuinely innovative). For example, in the fall of 2003 the military found itself faced with an insurgency (back when Rumsfeld banned the word from the Pentagon). Soldiers fell back on what they knew how to do, which was conduct large-scale “cordon-and-sweep” operations. These missions detained and often humiliated thousands of Iraqis, most of them fence-sitting neutrals. U.S. military intelligence officials later concluded that 85% of those detained were of no intelligence value. Humiliating civilians has no role in battlefield warfare but it violates a key principle of counterinsurgency warfare, which is to treat your prisoners well.

The 101st Airborne in Mosul from 2003-2005 is one example that has been chronicled elsewhere, but Ricks tells the story well. These efforts were led at the top by warrior scholars of history and warfare (we are talking Generals with Harvard PhDs here — we had two of them in Iraq). These men had fully absorbed the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare in Vietnam and elsewhere, in part from a book that Ricks recommends repeatedly by David Galula titled Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.

Regardless of your take on the war, you are likely to learn a lot from this book. It manages to remind us of the bravery of young fighters — few Americans even now realize that the two Battles of Fallujah, in April and November 2004 were as tough as Hue or Khe Sanh in 1968. There are real heroes here and it we honor them too little these days. In contrast, the hubris, recklessness, and arrogance of senior administration officials (and, it must be said, of some senior military commanders) will nauseate you, even or perhaps especially if you voted for these guys.

You may also learn a lot about the military itself. Like most Americans (although perhaps unlike most Democrats), I regard the US military as a global resource and a national treasure. It can deploy war-making or peacekeeping forces rapidly anywhere on the planet (it can serve humanitarian purposes as well, although it is not designed for it). In my experience as a civilian, the US military is more fact-based and merit-based — meaning more professional and less “political” at the front lines than almost any large American institution (comparable are McKinsey & Co., Goldman Sachs, and the Catholic Church). It attracts, develops, and motivates terrific people — and has been one of America’s few post-affirmative action institutions for at least a decade. The military takes learning very seriously (Ricks spends time with the US Army’s Institute of Lessons Learned — a place devoted to rigorous self-criticism and self-evaluation that is a marvel to us mere business managers).

Of course the military is bureaucratic — they invented bureaucracy, or at least hierarchy. And like most things governmental they waste remarkable amounts of money. But it is an institution with serious responsibilities and it is for the most part run by highly professional people who take seriously their responsibility and the awesome lethality we have bestowed upon them. The loss of two thousand of our finest aside (and it should never be far aside), it is outrageous to see the American military misused — and the seething rage of US military commanders is never far below the surface of this fine book.