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Whose Fiasco?

Friday, December 1, 2006

Thomas E. Ricks.
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq .
Penguin. 496 pages. $27.95

T homas Ricks, the distinguished Pulitzer-prize-winning former Wall Street Journal and current Washington Post journalist, has published widely on defense issues, winning the respect of many, both inside the Pentagon and while on deployment abroad, for his disinterested narratives.

Ricks has been to Iraq on five separate occasions in the most dangerous of places, at real danger to his person. His present account, despite the unfortunate sensationalism of its title, reflects personal autopsy, examination of a variety of documents, and his own familiarity with military officers — the vast majority of them in the book apparently disgruntled by the American performance in Iraq. The result is a damning indictment of the initial decision to invade Iraq, of the manner in which the war was conducted, and of the “fiasco” that resulted and now confronts us.

The Ricks narrative, much of it now familiar from previously published writs against the Iraqi conflict — “the worst war plan in American history” — runs roughly as follows. The attack itself against an essentially contained Saddam Hussein was unnecessary — “the most profligate action in the history of American policy” — a result of fudged intelligence and hysteria over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Far worse, deployments to Iraq diverted attention from the real theater of anti-terrorism operations in Afghanistan. Our preemption was a result of neoconservative utopianism — foisted upon a naïve and inexperienced George W. Bush by a few Washington insiders with a variety of agendas but couched in pseudo-learning about the Middle East that overwhelmed the formerly realist Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team.

The American military rushed into Iraq with too few troops — “They chose to go into battle with a ground combat capability,” General Barry McCaffrey is approvingly quoted as saying, “that was inadequate, unless their assumptions proved out.” And neocons had no real clue about what would spring up immediately behind us as we raced into Baghdad. So back home we declared “Mission Accomplished” — even as the jihadists and ex-Baathists were filtering through our attenuated lines to begin their insurrection. When we did belatedly react, the U.S. military ended up terrorizing civilians and tried to use clumsy, brute force instead of sophisticated counterinsurgency tactics against an ever more subtle enemy that hid among civilians.

General Tommy Franks, as the henchman of an imperious Donald Rumsfeld, was undeniably clever enough to force-feed his flawed plans down the throats of the Pentagon’s top brass but not wise enough to understand the nature of asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency — and thus predictably bailed to write his memoirs and hit the lucrative lecture circuit before his victory was mussed up.

There are other villains aplenty in Ricks’s account, whose novelty is that along with the usual suspects — Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, and Paul Bremer — the military elite is likewise condemned. Especially culpable in Ricks’s view were its top generals, from General Richard Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, down to General Ricardo Sanchez, who ran the military side of things in Baghdad. The former supposedly exercised no independence in thought and showed no strategic sense, while the latter lacked the tactical know-how to defeat insurgents.

The result? Despite superbly trained and spirited soldiers in the field, we have a hopeless war on our hands that we can’t rectify and so must probably abandon — albeit not without considerable and undeniable damage to our military, national prestige, and the Iraqi reformers. This, then, is the gist of Ricks’s indictment.


I t should be said at the outset that this volume belongs to a fast-growing genre of such journalistic exposés about Iraq in which military officers — openly when retired, usually in private while on duty — former civilian bureaucrats, and Middle East diplomats castigate the three-year American experience in Iraq. Given the current public weariness with postwar Iraq, it is as natural to expect such condemnatory volumes by George Packer, Larry Diamond, General Bernard Trainor and Michael Gordon, or Bob Woodward as it was to have read the 2003 generation of upbeat accounts of the brilliantly conducted three-week war by Karl Zinsmeister or Bing West.

That wild swing of the pendulum is usually what happens when the wisdom of military operations is adjudicated by perceptions of ongoing success or failure. Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack, written in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of Saddam’s statue, was a favorable assessment of the Iraq war when things still looked good; his current State of Denial is a j’accuse published after Woodward’s once flawless war had become someone else’s flawed peace. We should remember that cynical fact. We are still in the middle of the shooting in Iraq, and the final definitive assessment will reflect not only Ricks’s present perceived pessimism over the wartime ebb of the battlefield, but also the final verdict to come when we really do know who won and lost.

But there is a second disturbing phenomenon of the current genre of the Iraqi exposé besides the problem of writing “history” in medio bello: Ricks’s frustrating use of unnamed or anonymous sources. The Trainor and Gordon account in Cobra II cited their unknown talkers in pseudo-footnotes (“Interview, former senior military officer”; “Interview, former senior officer”; “Interview, former Centcom planner”; “Interview, Pentagon Officials”; “Interview, U.S. State Department Official”; or “notes of a participant”). Ricks trumps that unscholarly practice by quoting sources in both direct and indirect discourse — and then leaving them unnamed: “ ‘Doug’s [Feith] very smart, almost too smart,’ said a Bush administration official”; or “Soldiers arriving from austere, dusty bases elsewhere in Iraq sometimes were shocked by what they saw in the zone, recalled one officer. Thursday and Friday nights in the zone’s bars, he said, had a wide-open feel to them: Everyone was drunk, and the mission was to hook up. Military guys would walk in there, and their eyes would get big.” In dozens of instances, the verbatim indictment of the present policy cannot be verified by anyone other than Ricks himself.

It is well past time to call our present authors to account for this unsound practice, made all the worse by a veneer of endnotes that give us no information about unidentified informants. History is not the impressionistic art of autobiography, memoir, or essay, but is to be offered as an account of what happened with sources that provide the means of checking the historian’s veracity. Once journalists decide that they are no longer writing dispatches of the moment but real histories in the midst of a controversial and hotly debated war — and are intending to hype their work as a best-selling exposé — then they become historians and so are obligated to inform the reader, and posterity itself, where and from whom they obtained their primary evidence.

In a book of this nature, officers who choose to remain unnamed are ipso facto critical of the present leadership. There are no anonymous quotations in this volume that reflect approval of the war. And the wages of such a questionable approach to primary materials were ironically brought home to Ricks himself in the course of promoting Fiasco, when he repeated rumors from unidentified (“some”) sources — variously identified as both American and Israeli — implying that the Israelis deliberately exposed their civilians to rocket attacks from Lebanon to gain sympathy and thus score political points from the world community: “According to some U.S. military analysts . . . Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they’re being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.” But when called by his critics to substantiate just these serious and unproven charges, and after considerable damage to the reputation of the Israeli Dense Force had been done, Ricks backed down and apologized for his unsupported allegations with a weak mea culpa about his revelations: “Ugh. I wish I hadn’t.”


T here are other problems with Fiasco. Many of the criticisms are internally inconsistent. Ricks rightly calls for a lighter imprint brought about by more Special Forces troops, fewer conventional units, and fewer rear echelon supporters in lavish supply centers — all the while lamenting the paucity of present troop levels. But like it or not, in the American way of war more troops will inevitably mean a larger American imprint, and fear of that was precisely one of the reasons Rumsfeld himself was averse to creating a huge presence similar to that in Vietnam circa 1966.

centcom commander Tommy Franks and General Ricardo Sanchez, in charge of all ground forces in Iraq, are offered as emblematic of all that went wrong. Yet the few officers who are praised in the narrative — Generals George Casey and John Abizaid, for example — soon find themselves in charge of the entire Iraqi theater: more evidence of a fiasco or the Pentagon’s necessary adjustment in a time of war?

We are supposed to deplore the reassignment of the gifted Iraqi veteran General David Petraeus to the “relative backwater” of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas — but, in fact, Petraeus was rewarded with a much-needed respite and now may well be scheduled to return to Iraq to replace General Casey as commander of all ground forces there. The result of this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t approach is an atmosphere of deductive gloom: Retired General Peter Schoomaker, Ricks notes with disdain, was appointed out of nowhere to replace the stalwart and blunt-speaking Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who — like the ubiquitous General Anthony Zinni — has talked to journalists and thus is portrayed as heroic.

But isn’t Schoomaker’s Special Forces background precisely the type of resumé needed to conduct Ricks’s favored war of counterinsurgency and special operations? And when we are told that the first Gulf War was a strategic mistake for our failure to remove Saddam and for stirring up an uprising only to see it squashed as we allowed the defeated Baathists to use gunships to shoot down the insurrectionists, isn’t Ricks making the case for the present war? If it was wrong to leave Saddam in power then, isn’t it right to remove him now? And when he describes the never-ending wear and tear on the Air Force as it conducts apparently unsustainable patrols in no-fly zones, the case for the removal of Saddam seems to be cemented.

There is, of course, also the problem of hindsight. For example, rather than deploring the supposedly now-obvious errors of disbanding the Iraqi military, Ricks would be more persuasive had he analyzed the equally bad choice of keeping a Baathist cadre intact in a democratic culture that inevitably would reflect the newly empowered Shia majority.

There are very few Arab voices in the narrative. But as we know from Fouad Ajami’s recent The Foreigner’s Gift, when we are familiarized with the wounded pride, need for honor, and complex agendas of Arab intellectuals, religious figures, and government officials, our purported gaffes seem rather more inevitable than preventable. And we need some insight not only about our supposed allies, but about our enemies as well, since military fiascos are not just the result of one side’s mistakes, but of enemy prowess as well.

But above all there is a regrettable absence of perspective, both contemporary and historical. Abu Ghraib is a centerpiece of the narrative. But it pales when compared to the terrorists’ own penal horrors, as we learn from a sentence or two devoted to the lopped limbs and worse that were found when Fallujah was retaken. And might we judge our folly in pulling back from the first siege of Fallujah, for example, by what happened to the U.S. in the hedgerows in 1944, the Bulge, Okinawa or the Yalu to determine whether such blunders are specific to Iraq, the American military, or war in general?

And when Ricks on rare occasions does cite wars of the past, the results confound the force of his narrative. In talking about the Israeli rebound in the 1973 war, he states approvingly, “Shocked by surprise attacks from Syria and Egypt, the Israelis quickly rallied and launched a counteroffensive, losing only 250 tanks and 772 troops.” His “only” suggests success and adept leadership, although such losses to tiny Israel in a matter of hours constituted almost a third of our deaths in three years of fighting in Iraq and ten times as many tank losses as during our far longer “fiasco.”

None of this is to say that Ricks at times is not correct in his criticism. Tommy Franks should not have left the theater abruptly upon the conclusion of the three-week war. Moqtada al Sadr long ago should have been dealt with for the mayhem and murder he committed. We waited too long to hold elections. Not a single American from the occupation authority should ever have appeared on television. And the pullback from Fallujah in spring 2004 was a near-disaster.

But because the reason-to-be of the entire narrative is to prove the validity of the book’s title, Ricks’s identification of these undeniable lapses loses its force — buried as they are amid a near 500-page blunderbuss blast against the Iraqi war. It is true, of course, that part of the historian’s task is to explain and analyze what went wrong in a war, through citation of sources, primary and secondary. But when a journalist asserts, often without documentation, that everything went wrong, then the reader is unable to discern even what may well be true.