FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

Thomas E. Ricks
Monday, July 24, 2006; 1:00 PM

Thomas Ricks has covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post since 2000, reporting on activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kuwait, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq. He was part of a Wall Street Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2000 for a series of articles on how the U.S. military might change to meet the new demands of the 21st century. Ricks also was part of a Washington Post team that won the 2002 Pulitzer prize for reporting about the beginning of the U.S. counteroffensive against terrorism.

His book, FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, will be published by Penguin Press in July 2006.

Washington Post staff writer Thomas Ricks was online to discuss his new book and to answer your questions.

A transcript follows.


Scottsdale, Ariz.: I have not yet read your book. However, just from the titles of your articles, the tone is negative, negative, negative. What has the US and its military done RIGHT..not just tactical activities but strategic decisions and events? In the profession of journalism today, can a journalist be positive and not be viewed by their peers as a cheerleader, or must all critical reviews be critical?

Tom Ricks: Hi. I apologize for the tardy start--we had a kind of technological glitch.

To turn to the first question, from Scottsdale. I think this is a good way to start. Why write a book called "FIASCO" about Iraq.

The short answer is: because I want to win in Iraq. I don't know a lot of officers who think the current posture is sustainable, especially as the chaos continues in Baghdad. But I still think it is possible to win in Iraq, if we get better at recognizing mistakes and adjust better and faster.

So thanks for asking.


Fairfax, Va.: Is Iraq in the midst of a civil war at this time; and if not, what more will have to happen before the conflict there can legitimately be called a civil war?

Tom Ricks: I'd say it is kind of a low-level civil war. In fact, I think that the U.S. military mission may be to keep a lid on that war and keep it from intensifying or spilling over the borders and making it a regional war.


Orleans, Mass.: Do you think that a favorable outcome of the Iraq invasion was ever possible? By 'favorable', I mean a stable government, a peaceful society and one not unfriendly to the Uuited States (but not necessarily a democratic copy of us).

Tom Ricks: Yes, I think it was possible.


Annandale, Va.: The war is not over--yet you label it a fiasco. I didn't read your story and I didn't read your book. But I congratulate you on being the typical cynical, pessimistic, liberal Washington Post reporter that the rest of this country looks down on as somethign wholely un-American and frankly I just can't say enough about morale-destroying you probably are to our troops. I'm glad my WWII-era military father is gone so he wouldn't have to pick up the Post in the morning and see your trash on the front page of the paper. You can report all you want on the nasty stuff of the war but putting "Fiasco in Iraq" only serves denigrate our country and fighting people. You have no response to this. There is no good in that title for your book. I served in the military and we always laughed at the Washington Post and how they were completely out of tune with the rest of the country. Maybe you feel comfortable at 15th and K at the Post headquarters or in some other liberal bastions of this country--but in the rest of the country -- the solid majority of hard-working Americans who believe in freedom. You don't see squat.

Tom Ricks: This is an interesting question because it brings home to me how polarized the country is by this war.

It especially bothers me that there seems to be little room for "loyal dissent." People who try to make honest criticisms are attacked instantly.

I am seeing this on the left as well as the right, by the way. I sometimes think that the left would only be happy if we started labelling all their enemies liars. I noticed that one leftish blogger criticized me for quoting generals who said in 2003 that we were winning the war. I don't think he understands that part of my job is to quote people accurately--even if I don't agree with what they are saying.



Denver, Colo.: Your book is a strong criticism of decisions made leading up to and into our invasion of Iraq. Do you think that the American Press could have done a better job in reporting the dissent that existed even among the elder Bush's advisors for our plan to invade Iraq?

Tom Ricks: Yes, I think the media's coverage was part of the problem. But I don't like the broad brush of "main stream media." Why? Because Judith Miller of the NY Times messed up, but Tim Russert did a great job on "Meet the Press" of asking the right questions.


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?


Denver, Colo.: Mr. Ricks --

Judging from the excerpts, your book looks to be compelling and important. I recall at least two times when the newspapers said Gen. Casey was planning for a significant reduction in U.S. troops in Iraq. (Most recently in June '06).

These leaks seemed to come from the Army. But the reductions didn't happen. I think Pres. Bush complained at one press conf. that the Gen. was "engaging in speculation" about the troops.

Does this indicate that the Army brass would like to send some troops home, but can't get approval from the administration? Are these leaks are an effort to prod the White House on troop reductions?

Tom Ricks: Thanks, Denver.

The military long has wanted to cut the troop presence in Iraq. Don't forget that the original plan called for swift reductions for the invasion force that would have us down to about 30,000 by the later summer of 2003. Instead, here we are three years later at 127,000.

That said, my impression is that the Bush Administration also would like to see troop cuts, and that it is commanders in Iraq who are saying no, it is too soon. We have seen rushes to failure before in Iraq--for example, a battalion of the new Iraqi army was ordered to Fallujah in the spring of 2004, and refused. So I think now commanders are trying to show patience and move cautiously.


Washington, D.C.: Your first answer (..because I want to win in Iraq) illustrates the problem that has plaqued this war from the outset, i.e. what constitutes "winning", and how has whatever was originally intended as constituting winning, changed over time?

Tom Ricks: Thanks. You put your finger on an important question.

I think we could win in the sense of prevailing. But it would not look like victories in some other wars. In this war, for example, it would be a victory if, say, a leading insurgent agreed to put down his weapon and become, say, minister of agriculture.


Chicago, Ill.: I just want to express skepticism about "theses" regarding why things have "gone wrong" in Iraq. Maybe it is true that different tactics, a better policy toward the Iraqi Army, more troops, or some other maneuver would have pacified Iraq. But to me we are just talking about too complex a system to easily analyze; Iraq was a very high risk undertaking. The biggest risk and unknown was the nature of the enemy. The fact is that the Arabs have evolved an extemely pathological politics which has given rise to a mujahideen movement which is brutal, determined and resilient. They are willing to accept far worse outcomes on the battlefield than they could get at the bargaining table. Many in the Arab world want armed victory at any cost to assuage the humiliation they feel with respect to the West/Israel. This determination is the main thing that "went wrong" in Iraq.

Tom Ricks: Well, that's an opinion.


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. I am currently back in SWA and deal with OIF each day so it was a little diheartening to realize that it just wasn't me seeing most of wht you described.

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.


Arlington, Va.: Within the past year and a half, numerous books have been written with the same premise as yours, that the war in Iraq was strategic and tactical blunder. How is your book different from those such as Cobra II or the Assassins Gate?

Tom Ricks: Thanks.

I have read and liked both those books. I think the difference is that my book really takes off in the summer of 2003, which is when my book takes off. The bulk of the book is about 2003-04, but I also get into 2005 and end it in 2006.

I've teased Michael Gordon that I was going to call my book "Cobra Three."


Bethesda, Md.: Have you worked in Iraq? I have to admit I am skeptical about all these Iraq books coming out. Many journalist work a couple months there and then write a book. Do we really have the perspective yet to write about success, failure, etc.?

Tom Ricks: You're right to be skeptical. I should emphasize that my book isn't about my opinions--in fact, after the beginning, the first person hardly appears in the book.

What I tried to do in the book is summarize the views of hundreds of soldiers I interviewed, as well as facts I found in 37,000 pages of documents I read. There is a ton of information out there. Is it the final word? No. But it does tell you a lot that isn't broadly understood yet about this war.


Salina, Kan.: You did a great job on "Meet the Press." In your opinion, how much longer will our troops be in Iraq?

Tom Ricks: I would bet a loooong time. Maybe 10 to 15 years.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Thomas, thank you for fielding questions and your time. In view of the current crisis' gripping the global environment, do you still feel this administration can legitimiately claim Iraq as an "A-list" foreign policy priority? Do you feel the adminstration has begun to acknowledge nuclear proliferation among beligerent nations as a direct threat to the United States posture as the preponderant nation in the world?

Tom Ricks: Thanks. Yes, I absolutely think that Iraq is the top foreign policy issue facing the nation. If we prevail there, it will help us with virtually every other problem we face.

If we lose, watch out.


Corpus Christi, Tex. : Mr. Ricks:

You allege: "I've been struck at how warm and supportive the reaction has been from military officers to my book."

When can we expect you to provide actual evidence of the "warm and supportive ... reaction"? Was Paul Hackett, the self-described "Marine" and darling of the useful idiots of the Washington press corps, the one providing you with all of the "warmth" and "support"?

I got a kick out of seeing Tim Russert just suck down every one of your allegations without asking for any evidence. Of course, if Russert reads some allegation made by the New York Times or Washington Post, he thinks that allegation is "evidence" of what is alleged.

Tom Ricks: Well, that's not what I heard from Baqubah or Camp Victory this morning.

Their e-mails weren't for sharing. But go back and look at the question about from the retired Special Forces colonel. Do you think he also is a liberal dupe?


Washington, D.C.: I know some are labeling you a cynic, but I just want to say thank you to putting into eloquent words what the soldiers like my brother are going through over there.

I don't think anybody--whether from a blue or red state--want us fail over there. But if we're going to be over there, then let's at least do it right.

If you could change one fundamental aspect of the way our leaders are waging this war, what would it be?

Tom Ricks: Thanks.

I would like to see this war waged on a bipartisan basis.

And best of luck to your brother. It is tough duty over there, especially during these late summer months.


Quantico, Va.: First, I'd like to complement you on the large body of balanced material you've produced over the years.

I vividly remember a conversation I had with my Battalion Commander in Camp Lejeune about three years before the war started. I was a Marine Platoon Commander and we were conducting a formal professional discussion with all of the battalion officers on Dien Bien Phu. The subject turned to training for low intensity conflict (which includes counter-insurgency) and our ability to prepare for it adequately. The consensus was that we didn't have the time to prepare for the range of missions we might encounter and that we should focus on traditional high intensity combat. The theory was that we could always scale back but not up.

I think that, collectively, the entire U.S. military probably made the same decision. Thus, when the war evolved into an insurgency we started at a huge deficit. The result was that you ended up with a situation where every commander may have a completeley different idea of how to fight the war in Iraq. Your story of Major General Odierno is just one example of a failure to understand the nature of the conflict. Stories of very senior commanders being upbraided by LtGen Petaues (then the commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command), for instance, have made the rounds among junior officers. My question is this - do you really think that the services are making their best effort to adapt to the nature of the war considering the significant mental challenges that need to be overcome? For instance, we don't reward officers for serving as embedded trainers with Iraqi units. Many senior officers haven't even internalized the tenets of Manuever Warfare, the central warfighting theory of the Marine Corps, do you really think we can get all services to internalize the principles of counter-insurgency?

Tom Ricks: Thanks. Would you take our friend in Corpus Christi aside for a quiet chat?

Seriously, I think you raise good points. Counterinsurgency is tough--especially because it runs so contrary to much the US military has taught over the last two decades. For example, classic counterinsurgency doctrine says to use the minimal amount of force necessary to doing the job, rather than use overwhelming force. And it also says to treat the people well, even prisoners.

One senior officer in Iraq told me earlier this year that about one-third of his subordinate officers "get it," one- third are trying but not reallly getting it, and one-third just want to kick a little butt. That means your force is probably less than half effective, and part of it is counterproductive.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Tom: Two questions ...

1. You may have explained this on Meet the Press yesterday (nice job, BTW), but ... where did the title "Fiasco" come from?

2. Have you heard from Gen. Odierno since this morning's article? Do you expect to?

Tom Ricks: I'm glad you liked the "Meet the Press" segment. I was nervous.

The title struck me one day in Najaf, Iraq, the day after I was in a convoy that was bombed and machine-gunned.


Kabul, Afghanistan: Any plans to examine Afghanistan in the same amount of depth?

Tom Ricks: Hey Kabul! Wow! I used to live there--from 1969 to 1971. I actually wrote an article about that for the paper--maybe the folks can link to it.

No, I have no plans at this time to write a book about Afghanistan. I'd like to, because I love the country--I used to go skiing in the Salang Pass and also at a little hill west of Kabul, near Paghman, where we had a rope tow. In the meantime, I'd recommend Sean Naylor's very good book, "Not a Good Day to Die."


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.


Atlanta Ga.: Two questions - first, did you find anything to support the view that the admin knew before the war that Saddam didn't have WMDs?

Two, is there a consensus view among officers you've spoken with regarding how to quell the violence in Iraq, and if so what's the consensus?

Tom Ricks: 1. No, I suspect the administration talked themselves into it--even though there was no new evidence to support their shift to the view that Iraq was growing increasingly dangerous.

2. No, I don't think there is a consensus among all officers. But I think there is a pretty good consensus among those who have read and understood classic counterinsurgency doctrine. That sounds abstract but it really isn't--if you haven't, go read David Galula's little book, "Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice." It is about 125 pages, you can read it in an evening, and you'll never look at the Iraq war the same way again.


Gloucester, Mass.: You are getting it from both sides, and nobody has even read the book.

I have always failed to see what there is to win there, and now what there is to lose?

Reagan was correct to cut his losses and pull out and we had better do the same before it takes all of our money and will.

Tom Ricks: This is weird--first Kabul, then Gloucester, Mass. Both places I have lived in or near--I lived in Essex, Mass., as a child, and went back frequently because my grandparents lived there for another 15 years.

I think if we lost there, or left now, we would be abandoning many Iraqis who have sided with us, and would embolden enemies there and around the world.


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.


Tom Ricks:

Thank you for all your questions. I am sorry I didn't get to all of them, but I have to run.




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