Book Review: Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks

by Jeffrey Caminsky - Date: 2007-01-18 - Word Count: 876 Share This!

Among the most illuminating, and hence the most damning recent volume about the war in Iraq is Fiasco, by Thomas E. Ricks. Like other recent books, the author describes in detail the dysfunctional decision-making that has plagued our endeavor in Iraq. But Fiasco highlights the lengthy series of critical turns and cross-roads that we have taken in the nearly four years since the invasion-any of which might have led us away from disaster and toward a stabler and less uncontrollable occupation. And he brings the insights of a career military writer to the task of analyzing what has gone wrong, and how wishful thinking and political turf battles in Washington have placed our soldiers in mortal peril abroad.

A Tragedy in Three Parts
Ricks treats the saga of Iraq as a tragedy in three parts. The first part, dealing with events leading to the invasion, portrays a military far more skeptical of the looming adventure than the public was aware, or the politicians would permit to become public knowledge. Though the Bush Administration was elected in part on a platform of support for a neglected military and opposition to the nation-building adventures of the Clinton years, the shock of September 11th soon turned into contingency planning for an invasion of Iraq-an old enemy uninvolved in the actual attack, but expressing sympathy for America's enemies. Apparently, however, this occurred without much thought for what might happen next. Upon taking office, the civilian leadership of the defense department had effectively neutered its generals, turning them into staff assistants for an overbearing secretary of defense. A long-standing contingency plan for just such an invasion-a battle plan named Desert Crossing, the culmination of years of in-depth planning that called for nearly 400,000 troops-had been discarded in favor of a test of Donald Rumsfeld's theories about waging a "lean and mean" war. As a result, we invaded Iraq with forces totaling just over a third of the original number. While Iraq's military proved no match for the scaled-down invasion force, the task of maintaining order once Saddam's regime had fallen would prove to be more demanding than the optimistic assumption of the war planners ever acknowledged as a possibility. The result was, in Ricks' words, "the worst war plan in American history."

The remainder of the book deals with the invasion and ensuing occupation, as well as the many miscalculations that have led us to our current state of affairs. Most of our initial mistakes were blunders by our political leaders, and those they sent to oversee the occupation. But some of the problems were institutional and would have required insightful leadership to overcome. Despite Rumsfeld's contrary preferences, for example, American military tradition in recent years has come to believe in Colin Powell's doctrine of "overwhelming force." Simply put, this called for application of American might that is so vast and irresistible that it buries all resistance by its mass, as well as through the power of its destructive force. Yet the techniques for fighting a counterinsurgency are completely different, calling for minimal forces and a light, deft touch rather than the heavy hand of tanks and armor. If confronted with an enemy of insurgents, the American way of massed power tends to be counterproductive, since it runs the risk of creating more enemies than it can kill.

Forgotten Lessons
As Ricks shows, these are all lessons which our military learned painfully in Vietnam, but cast aside after resolving never to become entangled in anything like it again. In Iraq, however, the politicians anticipated that we would be hailed as liberators and greeted with flowers instead of roadside bombs, and the military war-gamed against the Republican Guard rather than the Fedayeen. But in Rumsfeld's defense department, acknowledging the possibility that things might go differently was viewed as disloyal, and so little thought and no training was given to the challenge of fighting against a determined insurgency. This led many of our units in the field to engage in heavy-handed tactics that did little to quell unrest, but much to swell the ranks of the insurgents. Now, with the streets filled with sectarian violence and an unfolding civil war, our troops can either come down heavily to restore order, or try to stay out of the way. Both approaches carry significant risks and the possibility of disaster; neither approach is what we expect our Army to do, or what any of the soldiers expected when they volunteered to serve their country. And with Iraq now spiraling out of control, we find that all our massive firepower has lost much of its utility, and our troops find themselves caught in the crossfire between warring factions.

This book, and others like it, raise many unsettling questions that the country would have been wise to consider before the president issued the final order to attack. Its biggest contribution to our understanding of events is in recounting many of our blunders in terms and concepts that the non-military layman can readily grasp. The book provides a wealth of information and insight, but in the end confronts the reader with a sobering assessment of what can go wrong when the optimism and resolve of our public leaders manage to convince the public that doubt or skepticism is the same as disloyalty.

Related Tags: war, iraq, politics, book review, fiasco, ricks, current events, military history

Jeffrey Caminsky, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. Both his science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the first volume in the Guardians of Peace (tm) science fiction adventure series, and The Referee's Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating, are published by New Alexandria Press,

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