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Book review: Fiasco

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

This was an extremely enlightening history of the Iraq war from its planning stages until approximately mid 2006. Thomas Ricks is a widely respected journalist who has written about the US military for nearly two decades, and much of the material for this book is taken from interviews with troops who served in Iraq. First and foremost, Ricks paints a picture of a war sold to the American people under false pretenses and rejects the notion that the Bush administration was simply mistaken in their intelligence gathering. There were many people in the defense community who were publicly skeptical of the alleged WMD programs and the supposed links to al-qaeda. Many, such as Generals Anthony Zinni and Eric Shinseki, also cautioned  that 200,000 to 300,00 troops would be needed to successfully complete the mission. They were ignored. According to Ricks, the Administration had an ideological commitment to this war, and they carefully molded the facts to fit this objective. This much is generally already known, but the majority of the book concentrates not on the justifications for the war, but on the execution of it.

To add insult to injury, it seems to have been amateur hour in the Bush administration and the Pentagon.  Few doubted that the troops would make quick work of Saddam's army, but the aftermath was completely underestimated, that despite the warnings of many senior military officials. Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and one of the chief architects of the war, actually thought that the occupation could be achieved with 35,000 troops, a figure that seems laughable in retrospect. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and President Bush all assured the people that this would be a cakewalk. Thus, very little effort went into the post-invasion stage because they thought the US would be greeted as liberators and everything would essentially just fall into place. 

The military was underequipped and insufficiently trained to handle an extended counterinsurgency. Consequently, many of the problems, including incidents like Abu Ghraib, seem to be at least partially attributable to not having enough boots on the ground. One of the constant themes of the book is the lack of strategy. War was never even officially declared and after the initial invasion, troops on the ground were not even sure what their mission was. According to Ricks, this led the troops to believe they were mere peacekeepers when in fact they were facing a rapidly growing insurgency. Two completely different scenarios that require completely different strategies and mindsets. Ricks does not shy away from laying part of the blame on certain military officers, like General Tommy Franks, for their lack of strategy as well.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book was the contrast between the Army and the Marines. Somewhat surprisingly to me, the Marines' approach to the insurgency was more nuanced and culturally sensitive. They saw their primary objective as winning the hearts and minds of the people whereas the Army, according to Ricks, tended to solely concentrate on killing insurgents. Certain Marine officers even publicly disparaged their Army cohorts for their heavy-handed tactics. Most notably, the 4th Infantry Division under General Odierno is singled out for their brutal treatment of Iraqis, civilians included.

Make no mistake, this book is a scathing critique of the war and its execution. That being said, Ricks is quite fair in that he consistently offers the opposing argument for the individual or organization he is criticizing. The book leaves off in mid 2006 when Iraq was on the verge of civil war and before the surge of 2007. And while the situation has clearly improved since then, the end game is still far from certain. Bottom line: this is a must read for anyone hoping to understand the Iraq War.


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