Journalist parses the Iraq ‘Fiasco’

Times Staff Writer

ONCE it was fashionable for literature majors to opine that all good books began with a dramatic first sentence that sets the tone. “Call me Ishmael” was often cited. Without a military draft, today’s college students appear little concerned about the war in Iraq, but if they were, Thomas E. Ricks’ new book would fit the first-sentence-tells-all category:

“President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy,” Ricks writes in “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.”

If that is not punch enough, Ricks follows up quickly: “Thousands of U.S. troops and an untold number of Iraqis have died. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, many of them squandered. Democracy may yet come to Iraq and the region, but so too may civil war or a regional conflagration, which in turn could lead to spiraling oil prices and a global economic shock.”

Ricks, the Washington Post’s senior Pentagon reporter, rounds up the usual suspects -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and former New York Times reporter Judith Miller among them. He pins on this group a large share of blame for the intelligence failures, the misinformation about weapons of mass destruction, and the political hyperventilating that led Bush to order the March 2003 rush toward Baghdad.


But Ricks goes much further and finds plenty of blame to go around. Few, if any, journalists know the U.S. military better than Ricks, its organizational strengths, its flaws, its capacity for battlefield heroism and its tendency to do the wrong thing with the right motive. The Iraq war, he charges, was “launched recklessly,” in part because of Bush’s “incompetence and arrogance.” Worse, the U.S. occupation after the fall of Baghdad was “agonizingly incompetent.”

“Fiasco” is not a screed but a well-researched, strongly written account of the miscues that led from shock-and-awe to rampant sectarian strife. Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize winner, had access to top officers and their planning as well as “after-action” documents. More important, he was accorded candor.

Much of the mess, he concludes, began with the Army and the Pentagon bureaucracy, their institutional rigidity, a lack of planning for combating an insurgency, and some poor personnel choices.

Ricks will not be receiving Christmas cards from any number of high-ranking Army officers, including retired Gen. Tommy Franks, onetime Central Command boss; Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, onetime senior commander in Iraq; Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who oversaw Abu Ghraib prison; and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of the 4th Infantry Division.


Ricks portrays Franks and Sanchez as too narrow in their experience and too closed in their temperaments to comprehend the shifting complexities of a war followed by an occupation. Miller, according to Ricks, helped turn Abu Ghraib into an anything-goes interrogation mill, and Odierno allowed his troops to be overly rough in treating civilians.

True, there were Army senior officers, notably Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus and Col. H.R. McMaster, as well as Special Forces troops (“better educated than most soldiers and trained to be culturally sensitive”) who knew that U.S. heavy-handedness with prisoners and civilians was helping fuel the insurgency.

But their message was disastrously slow to spread through the ranks, Ricks asserts. Early in the occupation, U.S. forces roughed up too many civilians in search of information and then disbanded the defeated Iraqi army, providing fodder for an insurgency. Yet when the military needed to get tough, as in the April 2004 battle for Fallouja, U.S. commanders, in effect, ordered their troops to back down.

One theme of “Fiasco” is the disconnect between the military in the field and the civilian leaders of the Coalition Provisional Authority, who were embedded in the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad, notably ambassador L. Paul Bremer III. The military and civilian leaders spoke different languages and after Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down, they lacked a unified command or a comprehensive post-invasion plan. And neither really understood the social structure in Iraq. U.S. intelligence officers would monitor cellphones and the Internet to identify insurgent leaders: “So long sessions with top commanders would focus on the movements of four Saudi Arabian citizens while entire tribes in the Sunni Triangle were emerging unnoticed as centers of the insurgency,” Ricks writes.


On page after page, you can hear the agony of dedicated officers talking about their own errors and those of their bosses, civilian and military.

As a smaller, more flexible fighting force than the Army, the Marine Corps was more able and willing to adapt to the post-Hussein era, preferring a soft approach if possible but a tough one if necessary (“no better friend, no worse enemy” is a Marine motto). Ricks suggests that the political and military powers-that-be should have listened to Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, then commander of the 1st Marine Division, and Col. John Toolan, then commander of the 1st Regiment, in spring 2004 rather than stop the assault on Fallouja and give the city over to the so-called Fallouja Brigade, “which was made up of people we’d been fighting against,” Toolan tells Ricks.

“In June, after we had turned everything over to the Fallujah Brigade, Fallujah was like a siren, calling to the insurgents.... “It was like the bar in ‘Star Wars.’ ”

At the same time that Toolan and other Marines were seeing Fallouja becoming a sanctuary for insurgents, Bush was assuring the country that "[m]ost of Fallujah is returning to normal,” Rick notes.


In November 2004, the Marines had to return to Fallouja to rout the insurgents in the bloodiest street fighting since Vietnam. Even so, Ricks said, the momentum had been lost and the insurgency had been emboldened. A tactical victory proved to be a strategic setback.

(Ricks makes it clear that Mattis and Toolan were not shy in letting their bosses and peers know their misgivings. If the Army dislikes dissent, the Marine Corps encourages it: Both men have been promoted.)

If there is a moral to “Fiasco,” it may come in the chapter about the United States’ confused approach to dealing with Iraqi civilians in the first 18 months of the occupation: “By failing to adequately consider strategic questions, Rumsfeld, Franks and other top leaders arguably crippled the beginning of the U.S. mission to transform Iraq.... A confused strategy can be every bit as lethal as a bullet.”

Tony Perry has done three tours in Iraq, covering the war for The Times as an embedded reporter with the 1st Marine Division.