Monday, July 24, 2006

Writing a critical analysis about a war in progress is always a risk. But in a long war, such as the one in Iraq, there is a market for such analysis. Tom Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post has taken a shot at in “Fiasco,” which is his take on Phase IV of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Phase III, the military defeat and removal of the Saddam Hussein regime, effectively ended on April 9, 2003. Phase IV, Stability and Security Operations in military parlance, goes on today. Mr. Ricks’ look at the situation is a hard and unsparing one.

Although the book is primarily about Phase IV, Mr. Ricks briefly surveys the conflict’s first three phases to include the road to war. The chapter that deals with the sometimes personal conflict between retired Marine Corps general Anthony Zinni and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is particularly illuminating.

Gen. Zinni was a believer in the ongoing containment of Iraq that he felt, and still feels, was successful. Mr. Wolfowitz believed that the Hussein regime constituted a cancer that had to be removed. Although he clearly sides with Gen. Zinni, the author goes into some detail explaining how each man reached his respective position, and he does so in a balanced manner. Readers can — and will — draw their own conclusions.

Mr. Ricks believes the war to have been mismanaged at both the strategic and tactical level, and he identifies culprits. He clearly believes that the incompetence and arrogance of Douglas Feith, the former Pentagon policy czar, and Paul Bremer, the American proconsul for the first year of the war, were major causes of the flawed implementation of the occupation.

In fairness to Mr. Bremer, Mr. Ricks points out that the division of command responsibilities for the occupation may have made the job impossible; but the author does not let Mr. Bremer off the hook for his disastrous decisions to disband the Iraqi army and fire key Ba’athist technocrats in the ministries without proper replacements.

Mr. Ricks flatly accuses Gen. Tommy Franks of abrogating his command responsibilities following the fall of Baghdad by concentrating on his transition to retirement at a time when strong guidance was sorely needed.

Nor is the author sparing of media colleagues. Judith Miller, another Pulitzer Prize winner, comes under particularly harsh fire for misuse of sources and shoddy fact checking. If the Valerie Plame affair crippled her career, this book may put it out of its misery entirely.

At the operational level, Mr. Ricks does not let senior military leaders off the hook for ineptitude in conducting counterinsurgency operations. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the overall commander during the first year of the war, gets poor grades for micromanaging tactics without giving his subordinates clear commander’s intent statements regarding the strategic and operational objectives.

Maj. Gen. (now Lt. Gen.) Ray Odierno comes under very harsh criticism for creating more insurgents than he killed through his division’s iron-fisted handling of the civilian population. It was Maj. Gen. Odierno’s troops who captured Saddam, and Mr. Ricks credits him for that. The author is also harsh with the military system as a whole, which refused to prepare for counter-insurgency in the wake of Vietnam, a war that the system chose to forget rather than to learn from.

The book does have heroes, however. Lt. Gens. Jim Mattis, Dave Patraeus and Marty Dempsey get high marks for mentally adapting to the insurgency. Because all three are still involved, he has some optimism that they can lead to better operations in the future.

Mr. Ricks sees the individual soldiers and marines as real heroes and generally writes off many tactical problems to lack of proper leadership from their seniors. He clearly believes that they have been more adaptive than the senior Pentagon leadership and many of their generals.

Readers who are not familiar with the timeline of major events, or those obsessed with linear thinking, may find themselves somewhat put off. Although his book is roughly chronological, Mr. Ricks tends to lump things into subject areas and some events get revisited. This is not history, but it is good analysis. He has a good ear for dialogue and lets the characters tell their stories.

Opponents of the war and the administration will like the book, and many of the author’s conclusions will likely not go down well with the White House or the Pentagon. However, I could find no factual errors in those parts where I have detailed knowledge. Like it or hate it, the book is a good read.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who has advised the Pentagon on counter-insurgency matters.

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