[In this book, the author offers an] account - explosive, shocking, and authoritative - of the American military's tragic experience in Iraq. [The book also offers] accounts of battles such as 2nd Fallujah and Tall Afar, whose names should take their place alongside two Jima and Porkchop Hill on a select list of honor.... Too many American and Iraqi lives have been lost, and too much of America's might and influence has been squandered, for these individuals to escape a fair reckoning. [This book] is that reckoning. -Dust jacket.
First, the book is highly biased. Ricks only quotes people to the right of the conservative-in-the-orginal-meaning Andrew Bacevich (the only exception is Juan Cole who is allowed to offer two factual inputs.). Much of the original controversies are simply air-brushed out of the picture. Ricks' primary mission is to shield his friends from criticism. There are various circles of friends, starting with the Washington Post and other print titles, the US Marines, the US army, the US army reserves, the United States of America, allies of the United States of America and the rest of the world. If the story absolutely, positively requires Ricks to point fingers at some of his friends, the circle concept comes into play, e.g. the New York Times' Judith Miller is offered as a scapegoat, nicely diluting the equally unprofessional cheer-leading of Ricks' own paper.
Secondly, the book assumes readers with ADD both in regard to external facts and to the text itself. An example of a non-mentioned fact: "This new emphasis (on the operational level) also was meant to address what the Army had decided was a major failing during the Vietnam War" (p. 131). It is beside the point that I do not agree with this analysis that Vietnam was an operational failure, the important fact is that this analysis leaves out what came to be known as the Powell Doctrine ("Do we have a clear attainable objective? Is there a plausible exit strategy?"), which itself was based on the Weinberger Doctrine compiling the lessons of the Vietnam War. If the US had made sure to answer the questions of either doctrine, the quagmire might never have happened.
"Petraeus, now at Fort Leavenworth, ... made the thousands of Army officers who were students there also begin to study this peculiar way of war (ie COIN), so unlike what the U.S. Army had studied for the previous three decades" (p. 414), conveniently ignoring all the published lessons of Somalia, Kosovo, ... (such as the vulnerability of helicopters in close terrain). Ricks' faulty memory approach lets the US military off the hook far too easily.
Thirdly, this book, like so many others, plays down US war crimes. While Ricks presents many clear cases of war crimes, he hardly ever comments or discusses these cases. He simply notes that the US military justices sends the criminals home (fining them all of USD 5.000 for murder, if they prosecute at all) where they live happy lives as high school teachers. Remedial lessons about the Geneva conventions and the laws of war should be a high priority for any US unit. Can it really be a lessons learned that treating civilians with dignity is good?
Fourth, the book establishes easy scapegoats in Rumsfeld, Chalabi and those Neo-Cons. The failure and incompetence of the military-industrial complex runs much deeper. Within Ricks' cherished Marine Corps, the Warrior ethos is to blame with its COIN-unsuitable world-view. Generals such as James "It's fun to shoot some people" Mattis are part of the problem and the destruction of Fallujah the consequence of their actions.
If the book's purpose is to have the military-industrial complex rethink and refine its approach, it has failed. If entertainment and glorification of Ricks' circle of friends is its purpose, it succeeds.
However one would hesitate in calling it the definitive account of this period of the war, though it is undoubtedly one of the most important. Firstly, as is immediately noticeable when scanning the dramatis personae provided at the front of the book, there are virtually no Iraqis here, which is unfortunate in a book to do with Iraq. In fact the only Iraqi who makes an appearance is Ahmed Chalabi and he comes across as some kind of evil Machivellian villain manipulating things behind the scenes, blamed by various Coalition Provisional Authority officials for all sorts of bad decisions made by the Bush administration and Bremer in Iraq. He's also blamed for faulty intelligence and the shoddy reporting by the New York Times' Judith Miller. Now, there's no doubt that Chalabi played a major role in feeding people in the administration and in the world of journalism the kinds of stories they wanted to hear in order to further his own agenda. However one suspects there's a great deal of buck-shifting going on here.
Another issue to keep in mind is that Ricks' book seems heavily influenced by the milieu in which it was written. It is an account of how the military operated in the years 2002 to 2006 but it is also a polemic. Ricks is arguing for the adoption of Counter Insurgency strategy (or COIN) by the military in Iraq if it wants to have a hope of success. Now, he makes a very compelling argument, but as a result of this agenda, sometimes it feels as if Ricks is focused on addressing officers within the army. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can sometimes feel as if the narrative is kept within a box. Assumptions and attitudes are only questioned so far. So, for example, he looks at the containment vs. elimination debate within the military on the question of how to deal with Saddam Hussein but does not really examine the history of the US-Saddam relationship or question the assumption that he had to be dealt with in one of these two ways.
Now I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad thing. However, it does mean that this is a book with a certain focus, and that is the operations of the U.S. military in the Iraq War, from planning to execution, and the successes and failures thereof. It is in its own way an excellent book and one I would certainly recommend to anyone who wants to understand what the US military encountered and how it adapted during the first few years of the Iraq war.
Let me be clear: I opposed this war before President Bush chose to start it mainly because it was a distraction from fighting terrorism. `Fiasco' details the choices made by the Administration, the willful ignorance of facts that didn't fit their chosen path.
Fiasco is strongest in describing the false premises upon which the Administration built its case for war, the lack of planning for Phase IV (post-war plans), and Bremer's enormous false steps. And Ricks' admiration for the US military shines through as he relates its failures, successes, and `lessons learned'. There is indeed much to be admired in the US military - such as the Army's Center for Army Lessons Learned where the whole point is to review what the Army did, what it did right, what it did wrong, and how to apply those lessons in the future. Sounds like something the White House should try.
Fiasco is such an important book that I would like to give it a `5' star rating and it really should be read, but the book lacks structure, other than simple chronology and after a while begins to read like a string of newspaper articles. The concluding Afterword was especially weak with brief descriptions of what might lie ahead. Ricks is best at description, okay at prescription, and poor at prediction. Fortunately, most of the book is descriptive and very little is predictive.
Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the story of the Iraq War.
However, after that very solid start on the political background and decisions before the war, this books disappoints - it doesn't live up to early promise. The book is very scattered, with very short, one or two page pieces (vignettes really). There's very little overall structure, despite the impression the parts and chapters give. Still there are some priceless pieces of writing here, and some powerful set-pieces, but it gives the impression of a daily column spliced together; with repetition of explanatory phrases and of individual incidents replete througout.
Author Ricks's book is mostly concerned with our military exploits in Iraq. He feels strongly that Generals Franks and Sanchez were not up to the job. When L. Paul Bremer arrived on the scene to start up the Coalition Provisional Authority things didn't get better. When someone started talking to Bremer about his experiences with insurgency fighting in Viet Nam, Bremer told him he didn't want to hear about Viet Nam. French author Col. Roger Trinquier's book on the war in Algeria was known and read at the Fort Leavenworth's School of Advanced Military Studies. It could reasonably considered to be a bible on insurgency warfare yet its recommendations were all but ignored.
The basic concept to be learned from past experience is that an occupying force must live among the people in order to gain their support. If you have their support then they will not aid the insurgents. Easy prescription for success? Yes, but it was rarely followed. The military live there in air-conditioned encampments with all the comforts of home. Shoot first and ask questions later was often the policy. Marine Major General James Mattis thoroughly believed in the "live with them" approach, and when he was assigned to the Fallujah area he had trained his troops to be part of the population. When he took over he was quickly ordered to conduct a major insurgency campaign involving going house to house through the whole city to root out the enemy. His protests about this approach went unheeded. He then engaged in battle, and when he was close to achieving victory he was ordered to back down. He protested again, and again was not listened to. Fallujah was once again a terrorist stronghold.
Well you get the idea. The upshot of this tale is that nothing was planned for. No one wanted to hear from anyone with dissenting views. When General Garner was appointed to head up the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance he found a gentleman named Tom Warrick who exhibited an extraordinary expertise in Iraqi affairs. Shortly after he was hired VP Cheney passed down the word to have him fired. Warrick's views did not coincide with those of the administration. Another amazing thing about this book is the recounting of the childish rivalry between the State Department and the Pentagon. I sure wish someday people in the Administration could act like grown ups.
Ricks interviewed numerous people, and fills the book with quotations. When he seems a bit hard on someone he often quotes people with a different point of view. This is an amazing book that often reads like a thriller. It is difficult for me to understand how anyone could read this book, and not realize that things went horribly wrong in our invasion of Iraq. Some other reviewers have nit picked at things in the book, but seem to not see the forest for the trees.
As Ricks is mostly concerned with military operations he doesn't dwell much on the civil administration other than to castigate Bremer from time to time. I am currently reading "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran which is mainly concerned with civil affairs. These two books together cover much of the whole Iraqi affair. I might mention too that where the Emerald City book overlaps Fiasco there is a high degree of accord between the two.
A must read book.
The author gets a few things right. He is almost obsessed in his criticism of the Bush administration, to the point where he contradicts his own self in the book. The book reads as an `everything the Bush administration ever did was wrong' critique.
In the book the author:
--Describes flaws in the US Army's warfighting policies. The army proved good at destroying the standing army in front of them, but wholly inadequate fighting terrorists. And really inadequate at fighting most of the likely post cold war opponents that they might have to fight. The author mentions the Army policy of running away when attacked in a convoy. Just on the day of Saddam's verdict I was on an army convoy, I asked what the SOP was if we were to be attacked, and the answer was to run away, to disengage. No matter how good armor is, it can be defeated with enough tries.
--See's some but not most flaws of the US State Dept.
--Rightfully points out some of the awesomeness of the US Marine Corps.
--Points out the disastrous results of forcing General Conway's hands in Falluja. The general said that they had a plan, and that they shouldn't be rushed. If done properly the taking of Falluja would only need to be done once. There were established good counterinsurgency tactics and procedures that the Marines were set to follow. But the death of the Blackwater guys caused an outcry for "something to be done" for bombs to be dropping. So Politics, and politicians forced the Marines to act prematurely.
--Points out the disastrous results of tying Conway's hands after forcing the Marines into action prematurely and not according to the plan. After the Marines were ordered to please political pundits by forcing the action in Falluja, imagery of the death and destruction caused an outcry, and then Conway was ordered to cease. This effectively put Falluja and Ramadi in enemy's hands. Even when they were eventually retaken by force the damage was done, and the population, which are the prize of a guerilla war, were lost.
--Accurately points out some of the disastrous results of the Abu Ghraib scandal.
The author really does a swell job of pointing out the mistakes that have been made in the war. And there really have been a lot of mistakes made.
One useful thing the author does do in the book is contradict some of the stupider conspiracy theories about the Bush administration, and about invading Iraq being the policy of the administration before 9/11 ever happened. He accurately and believably describes how the events of 9/11 forced the leaders of the administration to change their policy of non nation building, and of staying out of the affairs of foreign countries.
The author is a big fan of General Anthony Zinny, as am I. And there is much mention of the military not using Zinny's plan to invade Iraq. And perhaps Zinni's plan would have solved many of the problems that there are now. From what the author describes it seems like Zinni's plan was a good one. But maybe if Zinni thought that containment was working, maybe his assessment of an invasion plan was also off.
The author maintains that Bush Sr, and then Clinton had a working policy of containment in Iraq. And the author derides Wolfowitz for maintaining that something different needed to be done.
Contrary to the author's assertions containment did not work. It was working for the Russians, the Germans and the French who were dealing with Saddam, but it was not working so well for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children that were dieing of starvation. And the Arab world was seeing that, if our own public was not, and the population of the Arab world was not blaming Saddam or the French for the images of starving Arab children, they were blaming us.
The containment policy also brought about the attack on the USS Cole, the attack on the Khobar Towers, the bombing of the American Embassy in Kenya, and several other high profile terrorist attacks.
The containment policy brought us 9/11. The direct result of having troops in Saudi Arabia to contain Saddam Hussein was the planes flying into buildings in NYC.
The containment policy was not a success. Something had to change. Wofowitz was right about that.
Bush's policy of invading Iraq has brought about much crying. I mean, Iraq sucks. It does. Iraqi citizens are being subject to terrorists, criminals, religious militias, and such on a daily basis, and US troops are being killed in the effort to help them out. But we are fighting. Yes we are making mistakes, and we are also making not mistakes.
Our military is learning, and sometimes it isn't. We are putting forth an effort. And we may or may not be successful in creating a free and prosperous Iraq. A free and prosperous oasis in the middle east that is an ocean of genocidal tyrant dictators.
Can it be done? Can we be successful? I think so.
Our bureaucracies might prevent it from working out. The Army the CIA, the State Dept are all bureaucracies that were in no way ready to do the right thing here. But for the millions of taxpayer money spent on those institutions they should have been. If they can't do this, if they can't learn and do what they are supposed to do, they should re-think there reason to exist.
Despite all of this, I think everyone over here in Iraq should read the book. It is well documented, and the book does a very good job of pointing out mistakes made. If we can't learn from our mistakes we will not prevail.