A Tough, Hard Look at the Long War

By Fontenot, Gregory | Army, November 2006 | Go to article overview

A Tough, Hard Look at the Long War


Fontenot, Gregory, Army


A Tough, Hard Look At the Long War Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq. Thomas E. Ricks. The Penguin Press. 482 pages; photographs; maps; index; $27.95.

Thomas Ricks' thesis in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq is unambiguous. Indeed, he leaves nothing to chance in assuring that the reader understands what that thesis is, stipulating on the first page that he chose the subtitle precisely because it conveys his view that Operation Iraqi Freedom constituted military "adventurism" in the worst sense of the word. The invasion of Iraq was "launched recklessly, with a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation," he says. "Blame" for this adventure, according to Ricks, lies "first and foremost" with the President. He further asserts, as supporting themes, that the U.S. government had, in this case at least, systemic problems in the National Security Council (NSC), the intelligence community, the Department of Defense and within the armed forces. Among the armed forces, he singles out the Army, in particular, as unprepared for the insurgency which ensued.

Fiasco is breathtakingly provocative and sometimes shrill. Ricks starts angry and stays that way for more than 400 pages. He is unhesitating and unstinting in his criticism of the Secretary of Defense and his principal deputies including Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith, the NSC, Tommy Franks, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the director of the CIA, Ambassador Paul Bremer and many in the U.S. Army. Depending on whose ox is gored, readers may find themselves nodding their heads in agreement one moment and incensed the next. The wise will separate the message from the tone.

Ricks argues convincingly that many of the important decisions in planning the campaign were based on ideological presumption and not on the basis of consideration of all points of view. What is surprising is not that this was the case, but that anyone is surprised. Decision makers at very high levels often follow "gut" instincts in making decisions rather than carefully weighing alternatives; concerning Iraq, they have also often acted on firmly held beliefs rather than responding to voices in dissent. The debate over the number of troops required for Operation Iraqi Freedom is a case in point. The number of troops needed to take Baghdad proved to be fairly small, just as the Secretary of Defense claimed. But at least in transition from "major combat operations" to "stability operations" that number appears too few, which seems to vindicate Gen. Eric Shinseki. What seems inescapable is that Ricks is right in concluding that the U.S. plan for post-war Iraq was inadequate and not only in the number of troops required. More important, his argument that first-rate operational thinking will not substitute for second-rate strategic thinking is on the mark.

Fiasco is loosely organized in four parts. The first Ricks refers to as the "run up" to the war, the second is a very short take on the invasion of Iraq, the third and most important section of the book is devoted to the "derelict occupation." Ricks concludes with an afterward in which he suggest three possible scenarios for Iraq in the future. However, since each of the scenarios depends on historical analogy, Ricks prudently avoids predicting which might prevail.

Ricks is at his best describing and analyzing the transition from Phase III to IV, to use Joint taxonomy. He argues convincingly that the United States missed more than one opportunity to set the conditions for success in Iraq. The assumption that Iraq required no lengthy occupation is foremost among the many reasons things did not develop as well as they might have. He concludes that the combat commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, proved distant, distracted and disengaged almost immediately following the fall of Baghdad. According to Ricks, at the operational and tactical level the responsibility for failure lay with the U.S. Army, which he claims neither understood what needed to be done nor recognized the developing insurgency in time to take effective action.

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