Tom Ricks of ‘Wash Post’ Explores Iraq ‘Fiasco’ in Book, Articles

By: E&P Staff

Monday was a busy day for Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post staff writer Thomas E. Ricks, who has covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post since 2000. His book ?Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq,? published by Penguin Press, hit the stores. Part II of his series based on the book hit the Post. And, in early afternoon, he hit the Web at his paper?s site for an online chat.

Part I of the series for the Post appeared Sunday and was called ?In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam: Early Missteps by U.S. Left Troops Unprepared for Guerrilla Warfare,? which probably needs no further explanation.

Part II centers on ?Fighting the Insurgency: One Unit’s Aggressive Approach.? The unit is the Army?s 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, famous or infamous according to Ricks, for its harsh tactics against the local populace, including rounding up massive numbers of civilians and throwing them in Abu Ghraib prison.

These tactics, Ricks writes, were meant to ?pacify the northern Sunni Triangle? but instead, according to numerous Army internal reports and interviews with military commanders, it ?alienated large parts of the population.? Nevertheless, its commander has since been promoted and will soon become the #2 U.S. commander in Iraq.

Here are a few highlights from the online chat

–Arlington, Va.: Mr. Ricks, I caught your segment on Meet the Press yesterday. As a recently retired Army Officer, I can vouch for the fact that MANY in the Army and Marine Corps realize the planning process for Iraq was corrupted. Maybe your publisher can send you out into the American ‘red states’ so the other 35% of the folks that still believe Administration can finally get a dose of reality. I look forward to reading your book. Thanks for getting out the truth.

Tom Ricks: Thanks very much. ??I’ve been struck at how warm and supportive the reaction has been from military officers to my book. Over the last couple of days I’ve gotten many from officers, including some now in Iraq, thanking me for my articles. ??I think that one way to support the troops is to criticize the generals–and I think that the officers writing to me understand that, and appreciate the spirit in which I wrote?.

–Cambridge, Mass.: Many people believe reporters have a liberal bias. Even if that perception is without merit, do you think titling your book “Fiasco,” and calling the war an “epic disaster” will make Washington Post readers more or less skeptical about the objectivity of your reporting?

Tom Ricks: Well, what should I have called it?….

–Central Virginia: Why do you suppose that so many people are so dead-set against recognizing (1) the mistakes that we made in Iraq, or (2) the rolling disaster over there?

Tom Ricks: Man, I wish I knew. I wish we could all calm down and stop questioning the patriotism or integrity of anyone who disagrees with us….

–Kuwait: Mr. Ricks, as a retired O-6 (colonel) who recently retired with over three decades of service, including time as an NCO in Viet-Nam with Rangers and SF, I found myself nodding and grimacing while reading the two articles. The question is: Can the Army turn this around and actually salvage something from the mess it currently is in? Or is this simply another war that will end up like Algeria or Viet-Nam? A long war which will drag on and on and eventually see the US depart with the “mission” not quite accomplished?

Tom Ricks: Thanks, Kuwait! I love the reach of these talks. ??Yes, I think it is salvagable. I know that not everyone in the military agrees. And some guys actually think we are winning. ??But I think that in order to win, the American system would need to work better.

The military establishment would have to mobilize to win, like sending the best it has to the advisory effort, and giving it all the resources needed by the advisory teams. We’d also need to stop saying that “we haven’t suffered a tactical defeat” and recognize that every time a friendly mayor or police chief gets killed or intimidated, that’s a setback for us. Maybe we could look more seriously at leadership issues–after four years, not a single general has been relieved for failure. Compare that to Gen. Marshall’s relief of more than 200 officers at the outset of World War II. It also would help to have Congress hold substantial hearings on the conduct of the war. ????

And finally, thanks for your service to the country.

–Stafford, Va.: Where does the crux of the blame for the FIASCO lie? There were a lot of efforts to incorporate lessons learned and new “ways of thinking” into military concepts, doctrine, education and training prior to OIF. Why did these efforts fail to take?

Tom Ricks: I’d say the book argues that you don’t get a mess as big as Iraq from the failings of one or two men, such as President Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Rather, I think there was a systemic failure. Sure, the Bush Administration made mistakes, and failed especially to recognized the nature of the conflict in which it was engaged (which as Clausewitz says, is the key task of the supreme leader).

But I would would say the military establishment bears much of the blame, especially for the flawed occupation. In addition, the media and the intelligence community made mistakes.

Finally, I think that Congress was asleep at the wheel. That’s crucial. Congressional hearings provide oversight and accountability and (when done well) pump information into the American system. In other wars, you had hawks and doves. In this war you had the silence of the lambs.

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