The War Over the War

Tom Ricks
Tom Ricks

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Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Military Reporter
Tuesday, May 13, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined Washington Post military reporter Thomas E. Ricks on Tuesday, May 13 at noon ET to discuss the latest developments and the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

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Ricks has covered the U.S. military for The Washington Post since 2000. Until the end of 1999 he had the same beat at the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter for 17 years. His book, " Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq" was published in July 2006.

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Thomas E. Ricks: Hello to the few and the proud. The number of questions dwindles with every chart we do -- but the war isn't going away, so thanks for paying attention.

Let's turn to your questions.

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Washington: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez will be answering a questions here at 3 p.m. If you could get him to answer a few questions, what would you ask?

washingtonpost.com: Upcoming Discussion: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (washingtonpost.com, 3 p.m. today)

Thomas E. Ricks: I haven't yet read his book, but the question I heard from soldiers in Iraq when he denounced the war awhile ago was: "If you felt like this, why didn't you say so when you were in command?"

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Fort Bragg, N.C.: I'm not sure if you or Karen DeYoung are the correct person to ask, however I found the following, written by Washington Post staff writer Kari Lydersen (May 11) interesting, regarding selling of copper bullet casings from a munitions factory. They apparently stole 1.5 million rounds of ammunition and "one of the men now faces a sentence as severe as 245 years in prison for military-related theft during wartime."

I may be naive, and I know that some people still talk of the Long War (the "Global" War on Terrorism, as we know, has been reduced to a War on Terrorism), and I know that a military theft is significant, but it would appear that almost anything now can be paint-brushed with "wartime" even though not a heckuva lot of people are involved with the war.

washingtonpost.com: Thefts Rise With Copper Prices (Post, May 11)

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, even if not a lot of people are involved, the country is involved in two hot wars -- but you're right, the nation isn't mobilized for war. On the other hand, that may be the only way this country can fight at war that is likely to go for many more years.

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Amherst, Va.: Shouldn't any such discussion begin by referring to the conflict in Iraq as something other than "a war"? Wars are declared and fought between nation. This is rather a seizure and overthrow of a foreign power. Since the subsequent occupation, the British officially have barred the use of the "war" to refer to the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

Thomas E. Ricks: That's an extremely narrow definition of "war." Many wars -- perhaps most -- aren't declared, and the notion that they only are fought between states is a recent one. They have been fought between cities, tribes, regions and countries. For example, the Mongols didn't declare war, and hardly could be considered a nation at the time they showed up on the Russian steppes...

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Arlington, Va.: I just recently finished "Fiasco" and found it fascinating, and my breath was taken by the thorough lack of planning and acceptance of reality by so many of the planners. From what you see now in Iraq, to what degree have things been corrected? (I know that's a very general question.) Do you have any optimism for some sort of positive outcome there for the U.S. and the Iraqi governments, or does it all seem as big a tangled, tragic mess as it has been since soon after the invasion? Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks. Yes, I think the U.S. military's performance has improved in Iraq. Also, the "surge" has led to tactical improvements. But I remain pretty pessimistic about the long term. Thomas Powers has an article in the new issue of the New York Review of Books that says what the surge has done isn't change Iraq, but rather put a longer fuse on the same powder keg. I think he is probably right, unfortunately.

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Pentagon -- recently returned from deployment: As one who has not yet read Lt. Gen. Sanchez's book, are you surprised that no one has been fired (though we can stretch and say Secretary Rumsfeld)? Not necessarily for incompetence, but for failure to complete the assigned mission (and maybe for incompetence). I haven't heard of anyone except some junior troops accused of pulling triggers in Iraq and prisoner abuse in Afghanistan. No leadership personnel seem to have been affected by "not completing the mission," and if anything, many have been promoted or reassigned to more senior positions.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks for your service, and welcome home!

Yes, I am surprised that there has not been more accountability at higher ranks. There was a great tradition of holding commanders accountable -- some 17 division commanders were relieved during World War II, I am told -- that we seem to have lost...

Sorry for the pause -- Bob Woodward just dropped by to chat. That's part of the fun of working at The Post.

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Angers, France: Mr. Ricks, I realize that you may prefer not to respond to this sensitive question, but is it true, as has been reported, that you have made a decision to leave The Washington Post? If so, where are you going and what will you be doing? I will follow any future work that you do, wherever that may be. As I've told you before, I trust your reporting more that most any other reporters on military matters. Thank you for the work you do.

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey, thanks. Yes, I can answer this.

I have indeed decided to take a "buyout" from The Post, but there is less to that than meets the eye. I had told my bosses a while back that I planned to focus more on writing books and less on daily journalism, and I will indeed do that as planned -- I expect my next book on Iraq to be out early next year. That said, I plan and hope to retain some kind of "of counsel" relationship with the newspaper, which has been very good to me.

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Orlando, Fla.: Was the administration naive or stupid not to think Iran would be involved in Iraq if the U.S. removed Saddam? Why are they shocked now?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think they are shocked, but they do believe they have evidence that Iran has provided weaponry that has been used to kill American troops. That is serious.

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Richmond, Va.: Thanks for taking our questions. Who are the Iranians really backing? They seem to be backing anyone who isn't Sunni as far as I can tell (including both the Maliki and the Sadrists). Are they having as much trouble getting a handle on things in Iraq as the U.S. is?

Thomas E. Ricks: I've got a ton of questions today on what Sadr is up to, what his relationship is with the Iranians and who Iran really is backing. To begin with: I don't know -- and I am not sure any American really does.

With that caveat, here are some guesses:

  • Sadr is a survivor. All he has to do is stay alive, and let power flow to him.
  • Iran seems to be backing many factions, probably hedging its bets until it decides on a winner (or decides to simply back several if it wants to keep Iraq weakened and off balance).
  • I think Iran understands Iraq better than we do. That said, they do seem to step on toes there occasionally. Probably our best bet there is to hope they overplay their hand.

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Washington: Tom, is it possible the latest Hezbollah flair-up in Lebanon could be a diversion set up by the Iranians to divert attention from a new or growing operation in Iraq (that is, shipping Iranian-made weapons and trained fighters into Iraq)?

washingtonpost.com: In Lebanon, a Call for U.S. Action (Post, May 13)

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think so. Rather, I think what is going on in Lebanon increases the U.S. government's perception of Iran as a threat across the region.

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Charleston, W.Va.: I have read "Fiasco," as well as Woodward's last book on Iraq. I'm curious to know, does the military still want to be involved in Iraq? Do you get the sense whether there is any animosity directed toward the White House or the Pentagon for going into Iraq?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think the U.S. military ever particularly wanted to be involved in Iraq. And yes, there is tension -- the Army fears that continued deployment of a large number of troops could lead to strains that break it, while the Bush administration wants to be able to say (I think) that it left Iraq in as good as shape as possible when it turned the situation over to the next administration.

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Pacific Palisades, Calif.: A fairly large number of Americans are concerned that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq (say within 16 months) could lead to dangerous chaos and maybe regional war. What is your opinion?

Thomas E. Ricks: Yes, I think it is a real concern. Those who call for a swift drawdown should be able to explain why they think that a humanitarian disaster or a regional war won't happen (or why we shouldn't care if it happens).

The strongest argument I have heard for just getting out was from an officer in Iraq who argued that a big Iraqi civil war is inevitable, and that we just were postponing it. On the other hand, an advisor to the American effort in Iraq said to me: "Just because you invade a country stupidly doesn't mean you should leave it stupidly."

What a mess!

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Fishersville, Va.: Thank you for your service. Were you in the position to see soldiers who had been adopted by someone or a group of people receive monthly packages in the mail? If so, what affect do you think "care packages" have on the soldiers morale? Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: I think personal packages really help -- books, magazines, letters -- but soldiers who just get candy seem to pass it along to Iraqis. Not a bad thing, but probably not what the sender intended.

Here is a Web site for a unit now in Iraq (but leaving this summer I think) that offers some thoughts about care packages.

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Washington: If you got to ask the candidates one question during the debates, what would it be?

Thomas E. Ricks: "How long do you think U.S. troops will be fighting and dying in Iraq, and why?"

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New York: You "remain pretty pessimistic about the long-term" in Iraq, but what about the Iraqi Army's recent stepped-up success in Basra? Any hope in reading those tea leaves?

Thomas E. Ricks: Not that much. I think the basic question of who leads the Shiites remains unresolved.

I also may be getting old, but how many times have we seen cities "taken"? Basra first fell to the coalition back in 2003.

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Dallas: Mr. Ricks -- aw, rats. My jaw and heart just dropped a bit (my I.Q. is no doubt soon to follow) when I read you will be moving on from The Post. I have enjoyed your books and articles thoroughly, but mostly I've enjoyed these chats. You are at once very critical but very passionate about our military, and as someone with two brothers overseas (multiple times) during these conflicts ... I always sort of imagined you watching out for them in a small but significant way. Please do continue the important work you do in some regard, and head to your next venue with my heartfelt thanks and respect. (Too much?)

Thomas E. Ricks: Thanks very much! I like these chats too. Maybe I will continue to do them when I am "of counsel."

At any rate, I don't plan on walking away from all this. I talked for three hours last night with a guy I know from the 1st Cavalry Division. All these issues remain fascinating to me. It is just that I want to write about them more in book form than in daily journalism.

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Fairfax, Va.: Have you read Doug Feith's book? What do you think? I was there in Office of the Secretary Defense, and it seems like Doug was in a parallel universe.

washingtonpost.com: Ex-Defense Official Assails Colleagues Over Run-Up to War (Post, March 9)

Thomas E. Ricks: I read a pre-publication version of it. I was surprised at how much it was about meetings in Washington, and how little it really had to do with the conduct of the war. I also am surprised by his assertion that his book is authoritative because it uses some official documents and memos. I actually think I used more than he did -- I had tens of thousands of pages of investigations, affidavits, memoranda, after-action reviews and such.

But it's a free country. People who are interested should read his book and make up their own minds -- or watch his appearance last night on "The Daily Show" (which is posted at one of my favorite Web sites, Small Wars Journal).

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Baltimore: The female medic who won a Silver Star: Tom, I was staggered by the story of the 18-year-old medic who performed with consummate bravery saving wounded soldiers in Afghanistan while under fire (and while munitions from an exploding U.S. vehicle rained down). She gets the Silver Star pinned on her -- by Vice President Cheney, no less -- and the Army reacts by pulling her out, saying "uh, women shouldn't be doing combat medic duty." She went on the mission because she was the only medic available, and evidently this was not an isolated occurrence. You would think that a military that made up the tale of Private Jessica Lynch out of whole cloth would welcome a truly heroic woman soldier. Guess not.

washingtonpost.com: Woman Gains Silver Star -- And Removal From Combat (Post, May 1)

Thomas E. Ricks: The fact of the matter is that women are in all sorts of combat. I no longer am surprised when I see female pilots, and "support" ground units get hit all the time, because there is no safe "rear" area in Iraq. In fact, for years, probably the roughest place to be in Iraq was in a convoy from Baghdad up to Taji, just north of the city. (That's where that ABC anchorman got hit.)

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Myrtle Beach, S.C.: What are you hearing in the halls from the people wearing birds and single stars on their collars about strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan vs. what we hear from the administration?

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not hearing a lot, but lately I have been spending more time in Iraq than in the Pentagon.

Generally I think there is relief in the military that we finally seem to have a strategy that works, at least tactically. (It beats having no strategy at all, which is where we were at the beginning. Hey, that might be another question for Lt. Gen. Sanchez: What was your strategy in Iraq?)

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San Clemente, Calif.: I was amazed to read Gen. Petraeus was very much in favor of building a skateboard park to open this summer just outside of the Green Zone. I have many friends who have served in Iraq -- some of whom are "skaters" -- and not one ever has mentioned anything about Iraqi skateboarders. With very little clean drinking water and just a little more electricity in Baghdad, all these grandiose plans our military unveiled for the Green Zone and vicinity this week seem surreal and very CPA-like to me.

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, with all the cement walls we've put up across Baghdad, devoting a little cement to a skateboard park can't really hurt, I guess.

I was just thinking about an officer who said to me that a thousand years from now, some archeologist would be digging in what is now Baghdad, and come across a 10-foot layer of cement ... and he would say "this is the 2003-2013 era."

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Wokingham, U.K.: Should the whole arc of conflict from Gaza to Karachi be regarded as one big thing, with the forces of civilization and barbarism (whichever is which) fighting it out?

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think so, for three reasons. First, it isn't all aflame. Second, there are huge differences between the people there -- I used to live in Afghanistan, and the people there strike me as very different from those in Iran, let alone Iraq or Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- we should remember Andrew Krepinevich's law of the conservation of enemies: Don't make any more than you need to have at any given time.

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Seattle: As a former Army sergeant with many friends who have been wounded in Iraq (both wars), most of us still fail to understand why U.S. taxpayers should be paying our hard-earned taxes to prop up an Iraqi Army that spends most of its time pursuing age-old grudges against one tribal faction or another, when so much of our money goes to bribes and the Iraqi oil dollars disappear into the pockets of "government" officials over there. What makes you think -- five years on -- that any of this will change?

Thomas E. Ricks: I am not sure I do think it will make much of a difference. That's one reason I said I was pessimistic in the long term. Does that mean we should just pull out? I have doubts about that too. As I have said before, the beginning of wisdom on Iraq is to understand that there are no good answers.

On the subject of friends being wounded, I recommend the very good piece that was in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, by Michael Hastings. It was about four platoon leaders from the 10th Mountain Division. To find out what happened to them ... go read the article.

And thank you for your service. Please give my best to your friends.

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New York: The Post is hosting a live chat with Gen. Ricardo Sanchez later this afternoon to discuss his recently published book, "Wiser In Battle." The book was reviewed for The Post by Max Boot, a choice I find very dubious indeed. Boot suggests in his review that Sanchez is being disingenuous when he claims to have been unaware of Bremer's decision in May 2004 to ask Rumsfeld for approximately 30,000 troops in Iraq. However, Bremer has acknowledged that he did not share with Sanchez his decision to ask for more troops. This is just one of many instances in Boot's review in which his agenda seems to take precedence over his obligation to The Post to fairly appraise Sanchez's book. Why did The Post elect to have Max Boot review Sanchez's book in light of Boot's record of harsh criticism of Sanchez?

washingtonpost.com: The General's Chain of Blame in Iraq (Post, May 13)

Thomas E. Ricks: I dunno. The Post's Book World is walled-off from the rest of the newspaper, so I heard about the review when you did. I thought it was a good review, though.

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Pinole, Calif.: Thanks for all your hard work -- looking forward to your next book. Do you think the Marines are dealing with both Iraq and Afghanistan re: manpower issues, etc., better than the Army? If so, is there somebody with the Army command who could adapt the USMC plan to theirs?

Thomas E. Ricks: You're welcome!

The Marine Corps is a very different institution than the Army -- it is younger, more focused on the infantry, and is able to leave a lot of support functions (medical, educational, religious) to the Navy and even (in the case of artillery education) the Army.

That said, I think the shorter tours that the Marines were doing in Iraq were much less of a strain on families than were the 12-month tours the Army has been doing -- which then were extended to 15-months. On the other hand, one way to succeed is to keep people in place and develop relationships with the locals.

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Winnipeg, Canada: There was a moving article in the The Washington Post Sunday about how precarious life is for Iraqis living in post-invasion Baghdad. It seems that every decision, from what type of car you drive to how you choose to be addressed, has potentially life-or-death consequences. I find this hard to reconcile with President Bush's repeated statement that Iraqis are enjoying their new-found freedoms. Is there really any hope for the future, given that millions of Iraqis are coming of age in a time when every act has the potential of being fatal, and every stranger on the street is a potential assassin?

washingtonpost.com: Quietly Surviving in A Not-So-New Iraq (Post, May 11)

Thomas E. Ricks: Well, eventually the war will end -- I just don't think it will anytime soon.

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Vienna, Va.: Tom: I'm a great fan of yours and gained much insight from reading "Fiasco." My question is about Sadr. While I don't think he's in control of the situation, can't he make the strongest moves by deciding when and where to fight? If he agrees to a cease-fire that keeps him in power (not to mention alive), doesn't that show his strength against the government? If the government proceeds with attacking him, they then look even worse. I believe he is and will continue to be the biggest winner in Iraq so far.

Thomas E. Ricks: Thank you! I pretty much agree.

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Richmond, Va.: I haven't heard much lately in the news about Turkey and the Kurds in the north. Is Turkey still on the verge of invading the north, or has that cooled down? Isn't Iran having issues with the Kurds as well? Thanks.

Thomas E. Ricks: I see news of occasional air strikes, but I think that the United States must have told the Kurds to cool it with actions inside Turkey. That is just a guess.

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Chicago: Do you have any actual military experience, or are you another chicken hawk journalist?

Thomas E. Ricks: Feeling a little hostile, are we?

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Washington: Hi Tom -- love your work -- especially the old ten-steps article about military life. Can't seem to find it right now, but I agree 100 percent about buying good shoes. In Sun Tzu's "Art of War" knowledge of the enemy at all levels is paramount to success. It's clear we didn't know the Iraqis as well as we should have. To what extent do we understand the Iranians and what's the U.S. doing to make sure we don't repeat that mistake if and when.

washingtonpost.com: Tom Ricks's Inbox: Ten Life Lessons the Army Has Taught Me (Post, Aug. 10, 2007)

Thomas E. Ricks: I don't think we have a good understanding of Iran now.

I've traveled a lot inside Iran, but not lately. To brush up on my knowledge, about a year ago I watched a lot of Iranian films. (You can get them by Netflix.) There are some great ones.

I agree with you on Sun Tzu -- in fact, the epigraph to "Fiasco" is a quote from him about that.

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Marianna, Fla.: I am just an eighth-grader doing a school project about the war in Iraq, and I was wondering, what do you think about the war? Which side do you take on the issue of the troops? Do you think we should take them out or leave them in? Thank you.

Thomas E. Ricks: I think these are all harder questions than you might think. I think that Iraq is a much bigger problem for this country than was getting out of Vietnam.

Good luck with your project!

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Peaks Island, Maine: How does the building of walls bisecting Sadr City and air attacks on targets therein comport with the Petraeus counterinsurgency doctrine? What is the purpose of the Sadr City operation? What do your sources say as to whether the Sadr City tactics are winning more hearts and minds than are being alienated?

Thomas E. Ricks: Hey Peaks Island! Hi to the gang at the general store.

Actually the Sadr City operations do seem to me to be consistent with counterinsurgency doctrine, which isn't just about holding hands and singing "Kumbaya."

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Thomas E. Ricks: Thank you for another week of good questions. I appreciate your continued attention!

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