Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks, Penguin Press, New York, 2006,496 pages, $27.95.
Thomas E. Ricks, the prominent Washington Post military affairs reporter, has contributed his own assessment of the evolving U.S. entanglement in Iraq in his new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. This work follows just several months after Michael R. Gordon and retired General Bernard E. Trainor released Cobra JI: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (Pantheon, Westminster, MD, 2006), and will undoubtedly elicit strong reactions from those in uniform. Ricks broadens the aperture of debate, sharply needling the Bush administration and senior military leaders for their slapdash approach to the postwar effort. He is especially caustic about U.S. leaders' failure to understand that we had wandered into the pernicious thicket of an insurgency; about our misdirected and sluggish response once we did recognize that we were facing an insurgency; and about the abysmal conditions that led to the Abu Ghraib scandal.
While Ricks conducts a trenchant post-mortem of the convoluted lead-up and embarkation to war, Fiasco primarily focuses on the time between the occupation of Baghdad in April 2003 and the second battle for Fallujah in late 2004. There are no unprecedented revelations here. Ricks does not reveal the hideaway locations for weapons of mass destruction, nor does he uncover evidence to substantiate pre-war claims about clandestine Baathist-Al Qaeda linkages. Instead, what he brings is a numbing degree of clarity, both anecdotal and evidentiary, to support three essential claims.
The first claim involves the argument for going to war. Ricks contends that it would have been insufficient to muster support had it not been made in the shadow of 9/11. With sad repetitiveness, he demonstrates how Congress seemed to sleep through the administration's drumbeat, unwilling to challenge even the wobbliest assertions that had been flagged within the intelligence community. He also indicts the media for its own docility at the time, singling out Judith Miller for her series in The New York Times that seemed to validate the administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Unfortunately, Fiasco went to press just a bit too soon to take note of a late July 2006 poll revealing that more than 60 percent of the American public still believe that Iraq had a WMD program. This, despite scores of post-invasion investigative reports that have consistently asserted the opposite-that there is scant evidence of anything resembling the notion that Saddam aspired to reinvigorating such efforts. It makes one wonder where the American public gets its news.
Ricks's second focus for critique is the lack of post-war planning. One senses the reporter's increasingly visceral response to what sometimes seems like a deliberate avoidance of preparation for the aftermath. He cites an Army War College convocation led by historian Conrad Crane in December 2002 that presciently warned: "The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace is real and serious. . . Thinking about the war now and the occupation later is not an acceptable solution." Ricks condemns the planning done by Joint Task Force IV, under the direction of then-Brigadier General Steve Hawkins, citing one officer's assessment of JTF IV as "fifty-five yahoos with shareware who were clueless."
But even here, Ricks is not so much turning over new rocks as reinforcing what has already reified into conventional wisdom. After all, in the days immediately following the fall of Baghdad, the whole world watched spellbound as Iraqi citizens ransacked their own edifices of culture while American soldiers stood by, seemingly mystified by the erupting chaos around them.
Ricks is most ruthlessly effective when he disrobes the emperor by dissecting the administration's unwaveringly sunshiny outlook. …