Taking It to the Streets in Iraq

Review of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks

It is not an exaggeration, or at least not much of one, to say that with his new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas Ricks has changed the debate over Iraq. Others have criticized much of the decision-making of the Bush administration—on going to war in the first place, on hyping Saddam’s purported links to al-Qaida and his progress in pursuing nuclear weapons, and most of all on the shoddy, cavalier preparation for the post-Saddam stabilization of Iraq. But almost all these previous critiques focused on President Bush, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other civilian leaders of the Bush administration.

Ricks hardly spares the war’s civilian architects, but his is the first major book to take on the U.S. military as well. Ricks critiques its acquiescence in the development of the war plan that paid little heed to “Phase IV,” the postinvasion activities needed to rebuild a shattered state, with a particular focus on CENTCOM Commander Gen. Tommy Franks. And he goes well beyond that, also severely scrutinizing the performance of U.S. armed forces on the streets of Iraq in the period since April 2003 when Saddam was deposed—until now a neglected, if not largely taboo, subject. That is what makes his book different, and important.

To be sure, Ricks is precise and selective in his criticisms of the military. He goes out of his way to say that most individual soldiers and Marines worked very hard, endured great sacrifice, and displayed remarkable courage during their deployments to Iraq. (Though he occasionally criticizes the mega-bases that provided cheeseburgers and CNN and workout rooms in true American style, saying that they kept GIs too far from the indigenous populations they should have been working to protect.) And there are numerous individual military heroes in Ricks’ historical account—Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, as well as Army Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, Army Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis (I am using their ranks at the time of their original service in Iraq).

Yet the chief contribution of the book is to stoke a debate over the performance of the American military. In this vein, Ricks focuses his sights most intensively on four uniformed officers: CENTCOM Cmdr. Tommy Franks, 4th Infantry Division Cmdr. Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno (who ran operations around Tikrit and other areas north of Baghdad in 2003-2004), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers, and America’s top commander in Iraq in the early going, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez.

The main lesson the military took from Vietnam, according to Ricks, was not to improve counterinsurgency techniques, training, and doctrine, but simply to avoid that style of warfare in the future. Ricks has a fairly convincing body of evidence to substantiate this allegation, including the testimonies of several important Army leaders and intellectuals who confirm that field manuals and other doctrine have not placed any real focus on counterinsurgency in the 30 years since Vietnam ended. As a student of the military myself, I would concur with this judgment. Peacekeeping of the type done in the Balkans in the 1990s was hardly the same thing, so our recent experiences there did little to alleviate the problem (except to the extent they may have influenced the education of the Petraeuses of the world at the individual level).

The substantive heart of Ricks’ critique is that Franks, Odierno, Myers, and Sanchez failed to understand counterinsurgency warfare; repeated many of the mistakes made in Vietnam, including the overuse of destructive force; and put America as well as its coalition partners on a path that may well lead to defeat. Ricks takes major issue with the following widely prevalent tactics of the American operation:

  • conducting widespread cordon and search operations that had Americans bursting into tens of thousands of Iraqi homes and detaining tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, most of whom were innocent—yet many of whom wound up so angered by the experience that they either supported or joined the insurgency thereafter;
  • returning artillery fire far too indiscriminately, killing and wounding huge numbers of innocent Iraqis in addition to the insurgents and terrorists who were being targeted;
  • frequently detaining innocent family members of suspected insurgents and treating them in effect as hostages to be released only when the suspects turned themselves in; and
  • using force too freely at checkpoints and in road convoys, letting the immediate tactical instinct to employ massive firepower in self defense overwhelm the strategic need, well understood by students of counterinsurgency, to avoid killing innocents and thereby creating more enemies among their families and friends.

How does Ricks prove his case? It is here that the book reaches its limits, not through any fault of Ricks’ so much as the difficult nature of his enterprise. By necessity, most of Ricks’ evidence comes by way of anecdote from individual soldiers and Marines and quotations from well-placed military officers and other officials. In this pursuit, Ricks is doggedly thorough; there are many anecdotes and many quotations, including some from Anthony Zinni, former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim, and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

But in the end, testimony from soldiers, no matter how compelling, is not proof that the problems Ricks describes were as pervasive as he alleges, nor proof that the misapplication of American military power was the defining characteristic of the mission. Ricks’ thesis is summarized by his subtitle “The American Military Adventure in Iraq.” (If there were any doubt, he clarifies on the book’s opening page that “this book’s subtitle terms the U.S. effort in Iraq an adventure in the critical sense of adventurism—that is, with the view that the U.S.-led invasion was launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation.”) Having read this and many other books about Iraq, I say that I found his thesis more persuasive than I might have expected. But Ricks deliberately dwells on the negative. There is much more on Abu Ghraib and Fallujah than on Mosul or the Shiite heartland or Basra, for example, and more citations in the book’s index about someone like Odierno than about Petraeus and Chiarelli combined.

That said, painting a more balanced picture would have retilled ground that so many have gone over before and made for a gargantuan book. In fact, there is a case that Ricks wrote more than he needed to. The section of the book described above is buried between solid but familiar accounts of the pre-war debate (which has been reported on endlessly) and the debacles of the last couple of years, notably Abu Ghraib and the battles for Fallujah (which are still fresh in memory). Anyone looking to get Ricks’ main thesis but preferring to avoid the full read should focus on the middle section of his volume, which alone more than justifies the $28 price. And it may leave your hand shaking just a bit when you finish and put it down.