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I've spent the better part of the past 36 hours inhaling Thomas Ricks' "Fiasco" and I have to say it is easily the best book so far produced on the Iraq War. I say this as someone who supported the original rationale for going into Iraq and who still supports the war effort. But support should never be blind and I think there's much that opponents and supporters of the war can gain from reading Mr. Ricks' "near-term history" of the conflict. He has produced a remarkable book that synthesizes a broad range of information and yet does so in an immensely readable fashion. The author is to be genuinely congratulated. For me, the book was particularly insightful in offering a cogent narrative of how the insurgency came to be. It presented a detailed inventory of the political and military mistakes of the period stretching from immediately after Baghdad's fall in the late spring of 2003, through the rise of the insurgency later that year and into the middle of 2004.
Is the book perfect? No and doubtless as more time passes and as more information becomes available some of the conclusions and narratives presented here may change. But for the time being, the book is the best contemporary record of the events of the past three years in Iraq and I can't imagine it being surpassed anytime soon. I found it far more useful than the somewhat tepid "Cobra II" and the better-but-not-as-good "Assassin's Gate."
What most impressed me was the way Ricks dealt honestly with the shortcoming of the US military and particularly the US Army. I have the deepest respect and admiration for those who serve, but there has been a tendency to only blame the mistakes in Iraq on the civilian political leadership (who certainly deserve their share of the blame) and to forego honest criticism of the tactics and actions of the troops in the field. Ricks does an excellent job of calling into question the wisdom and preparedness of "Big Army" to fight the type of conflict this country has been engaged in in Iraq for the past three years.
As with any substantive work on an issue as politically-charged as Iraq, there will be discussion of the question of bias and motive on the part of the author. Ricks frankly writes with barely veiled contempt for the president and the secretary of defense, though Paul Bremer, General Ricardo Sanchez, and former Chairman of the Joint Staff Dick Myers come off as even bigger villains (if that's possible.) In many cases, I don't think the blame -- particularly as it relates to Bremer -- is misplaced. More to the point, Ricks' assessment of the mistakes made on the ground in Iraq are sufficiently worthwhile and thought-provoking that his "bashing" of certain officials can be tolerated. To be clear, it's not so much that I mind him assigning blame, it's more that he seems to view the handling of the Iraq war -- ironically enough -- in black-and-white terms with respect to senior political and military figures. In short, Ricks has heroes and then he has those who can do nothing right and, to my mind, this is most apparent in his treatment of Rumsfeld.
To cite just one example, early in the book he questions Rumsfeld's decision to bring in Pete Schoomaker, a retired general to replace outgoing Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki; Ricks notes that Schoomaker, in addition to being retired, is a Special Forces general who is removed from mainstream "Big Army" culture. Ricks seems to imply his appointment is a mistake. Yet by the end of the book, Ricks is trumpeting the fact that the Army in Iraq really needs to fight more like Special Operators and less like a conventional force. Wouldn't it therefore seem like a good idea to have Schoomaker at the top pushing for that type of change?
Similarly, there seems to be a basic conflict at times between whether Ricks thinks more troops are needed or not. He mentions (usually in passing) instances where commanders wanted more forces in specific instances, though he never does provide solid evidence of why their requests were denied or by whom, one of the major disappointments I have with the book. However, even as he suggests that more forces would help he also strongly highlights the damage done by large US presence deployments. This seems to be a disconnect -- and one that Ricks is not alone in making -- in criticism of the US strategy in Iraq. Is the problem that we have too many guys stomping around inadvertently making enemies or is that we don't have enough troops over there?
I bring these points up not only because they seem logically inconsistent but because Ricks "do-no-right" attitude towards the administration seems forced at times, almost like he needs to pile on to placate the many readers who doubtlessly will pick up this book hoping to have more ammo to slam Republicans in Internet chat rooms. Did Rumsfeld really do *nothing* right in the past six and a half years? (Don't feel the need to answer that.) My point here is that an attempt to appear even slightly balanced in presenting the viewpoints of the administration would have been nice, as would a different title, which seems primarily designed to capitalize on the polarization surrounding the war. Mr. Ricks has crafted a thoughtful book that deserved a more inviting title, not least because by the end of it, you're left wondering if we really have turned the corner in Iraq and are on the verge of a breakthrough or if it is really "too little, too late" as one Army reservist observes.
Two other quibbles:
I don't personally know Walt Slocombe, but I always thought he seemed a remarkably intelligent man and, moreover, seemed to be of good character. (Slocombe held the job of under secretary of defense for policy under Clinton, the job that the much maligned Doug Feith held under Dubya's first term.) I was always struck by the fact that Slocombe -- who apparently was moved by patriotism to work with the CPA -- defended Rumsfeld's version of the dismantlement of the Iraqi army, i.e., that it dismantled itself through desertions and that trying to maintain it as the force that was in place when Saddam fell would entail essentially a forced re-conscription of thousands of Iraqis who viewed the military as an instrument of oppression. Better to start from scratch, which we did, but which many critics claim freed up a large number of young Iraqi males with military training to fuel the insurgency. Slocombe's view on the subject -- presumably somewhat informed and coming from the perspective of a Democrat and former senior Clinton official -- is dismissed with one line to the effect of "others saw it differently." Pages and pages then go on about the terrible impacts on Iraq of the decision to disband the army. I have long wanted to see Slocombe's position on this explored beyond his own op-ed on the subject and I was surprised that Ricks gave such little emphasis to his view (or at least didn't explore it further.)
Finally, Ricks, like many others, repeats the notion that "containment was working" on Saddam. Not unlike the arguments proffered to justify the war by the administration, the statement that "containment was working" is only a half-truth. It may have held in check the threat Saddam posed to the region and it also now appears to have sufficiently degraded his ability to pursue WMD. But Ricks overlooks the impact of the containment policy on the broader US position in the Middle East and the detrimental impact that sanctions had on the Iraqi people. Clearly, the presence of US forces on Saudi territory (as part of containment) were a major source of ire for Osama bin Laden and in fact were the primary justification in his declaration of jihad against the United States in 1996. There also was the moral question of whether it was "worth it" in humanitarian terms to keep sanctions in place, as Madame Albright was asked once. Amidst the chaos and death of the Iraq War, it's easy to forget that sanctions, according to the World Health Organization and UNESCO, were driving Iraqi infant mortality rates sky high. Ricks glosses over this perspective in less than half a page extrapolating Paul Wolfowitz's pre-war views, but then later repeats the mantra that "containment was working" as he indicts US failures in Iraq towards the end of the book. We should be clear-eyed about the human costs of the current war, but we also should acknowledge the human costs of the course we were on if we hadn't invaded.
Those criticisms aside, I still cannot recommend this book strongly enough to anyone interested in what's happened in Iraq in the past three and a half years and where we may be headed. It is readable, insightful, and informative. You (as I) may not agree with everything the book has to say, but this book has more to say about Iraq than any work yet produced. Read it for yourself and reach your own conclusions.
39 internautes sur 43 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
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I recently completed reading Mr. Thomas Ricks' book "Fiasco" which attempts to scrutinize the history of the American-led efforts in Iraq during 2003-2005. The first couple of chapters are a very interesting and compelling look into the inner-workings of our government and how policy and plans slowly become action. I do not pretend to be a staunch supporter of our government's recent efforts in the Middle East, but nor am I a fierce detractor. I am merely a Soldier that served in Iraq (Baghdad and Karbala) from May 2003 to July 2004 with the 1st Armored Division. Reading through his book's accounts I felt a wide-range of emotions. Mr. Ricks does a good job of putting together a broad overview of the U.S. and other nations' activities, but he ultimately fails in his attempt to provide the world's citizens with an accurate image of Operation Iraqi Freedom. His failure does not seem to be because of any political or personal agenda; it comes from the common error of applying "cookie-cutter" or easily defined problems and solutions to a problem and region more complex than anyone can fully comprehend.
Mr. Ricks seems to put much effort into gaining personal accounts and professional documents detailing OUR efforts in Iraq. Much of the criticism is warranted and should be heeded for any future forays into similar situations/campaigns. As he states numerous times in his book, the United States Armed Forces conduct continually reviews of its actions in order to better perform in the future and incorporate these lessons as soon as possible to help its service-members currently engaged in that conflict/issue. The history of the United States shows how we, as a people and an institution, learn from our initial failures and then ultimately succeed because we refuse to give in to defeat. This is not an Anglo-European trait, it is a trait of every contributing culture and ethnicity to the American fabric. Our success comes more from acting, sometimes failing, and then acting once again (though this time much smarter than before) faster and more effectively than any other country. Mr. Ricks talks about this topic, but does not focus on it and instead dances around it.
From reading this book one would think that a very small group of individuals actually "got it" and applied the proper counter-insurgency techniques......and much later than necessary. In reality, the same techniques and tactics this book says should have been the strategy of the American-led effort was actually employed from Day One in many sectors and units. Because the area of Baghdad contained over 100 separate military sectors, it was easy to have a wide range of techniques and procedures meant to solve the Iraq crisis. Some of these techniques were ineffective and quite counter-productive to our efforts, which the book all too readily explains. But just as many units and individuals incorporated the correct techniques and policies into daily operations. This disparity of techniques in our initial efforts during 2003 can be blamed on a lack of a solid plan and guidance at the strategic level. More specific guidance from our strategic leaders would create better operational level plans eventually allowing the military's tactical leaders to succeed and provide a solid foundation for future transformation.
My sector in northern Baghdad, quite close to the area known as Sadr City, is only one example and definitely did not become a Utopia of peace and cooperation. But the sector, and those around mine, benefited from Soldiers and leaders that understood that the hearts and minds of the local populace were more important than their physical weapons. From the beginning we engaged the local leaders, regardless of religion or political affiliation. We lived in forward bases inside the city that gave us 24-hour contact with the population; many translators and police from the neighborhood slept in cots next to ours trying to get a little rest before continuing our efforts .The locals wanted to help us so much that we would have hundreds outside of our gate (in a former civil defense bunker) giving us intelligence on local thugs and higher level criminals. Within a month we established a police force, conducting joint patrols with our Soldiers, and began a neighborhood council. As I turned over command of this sector to a very capable leader, the transition caused few issues as he took my previous efforts and built on them. Business began to re-open at a staggering pace and organized local soccer matches at the schools began again. This occurred by July 2003 and not at a much later date as Mr. Ricks' book would lead people to believe.
I later returned to my old sector to recruit individuals for the growing police and Iraqi Army. The officer that took over my sector continued his positive work allowing me to recruit over 400 potential candidates ( in a total of 6 days) for the police force even while turning away 100-200 more individuals from either personal screening efforts (medical, educational, and age) or because there was not enough time in the day. The neighborhood council we stood up went through its predictable trials and tribulations, but they all came to me during the recruiting process and thanked us, not just me, for our efforts and promised to do their best. A common comment from these peaceful, dedicated Iraqis was that they did not trust the previous police force and military. The recruiting we did helped jump-start the people's flagging confidence in their local institutions by creating their civil services from the ground up. The former police force tried to return and the citizens protested to me at my bunker in the middle of their sector. They wanted a new force that protected them, not one that intimidated them.
It would be nice to have a full account of our efforts in Iraq that acknowledged every individual's actions both American/Coalition and Iraqi. But this is almost impossible to do because it would never fit in a 439 page book; maybe a 439 volume edition would come closer, but still not complete. And to be fair to the actual truth on the ground the author(s) should interview the Sergeants, Lieutenants, and Captains that interacted daily and hourly with the people and leaders. The Generals do a great job of managing the bigger picture, but they can only regurgitate the reports they receive, usually edited by many staff officers in their headquarters. They do not have the time to get to every house and neighborhood like many of us could; if they did, our higher headquarters would not function. These senior warriors understand that and pushed their Soldiers to tell their story to anyone that would listen.
Mr. Ricks makes a very valiant effort to give us, as creatures demanding instant information and gratification, an account detailing all of the important issues and experiences in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I believe it is impossible to have a complete understanding of the situation unless you actually walked the ground and lived the experience; even then you get a very limited view of events. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his account and recommend it to anyone, but as with many accounts, it gives a very narrow view of actual events.
Mr. Ricks, thank you for providing a more informative account of our efforts in Iraq, now I challenge you to dig deeper and get more of the "ground truth" from the Marines and Soldiers that walked the streets....I look forward to the sequel.