A detailed, distressing portrait of the US military in Iraq

A Washington Post reporter seeks out the views of US military men and women on the ground in the warzone.

Journalism, it is often said, is the first draft of history. The implication is that later research will correct the mistakes of initial reporting, perhaps even come to far different conclusions about events and their importance.

It's hard to imagine, however, that the passage of time will do much to amend the distressing images of military malfeasance sketched in Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post's senior Pentagon reporter.

As the subtitle implies, and the title makes clear, this is not a book likely to be lauded by the Bush administration or supporters of a very tough war now well into its fourth year.

It's not a political rant nor is it shrill. But in its low-key, extraordinarily well-sourced, highly-detailed portrait of the run-up to and conduct of the war it is devastating.

Beyond the debate over why the US invaded Iraq (WMD and all that), it shows how US military leadership – both uniformed and civilian – failed to plan for the most likely postwar scenarios. And how they ignored evidence that the US-led coalition faced a growing insurgency and not just what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously dismissed as "pockets of dead-enders."

The format here, as Ricks writes, is "narrative history on the heels of the events it covers."

"Fiasco" is based on hundreds of interviews, most of them with military men and women and most of them on the record.

Here, soldiers and marines, from grunts on patrol to four-star generals, are forthright in the information and opinions they share.

When he wasn't reporting from Iraq, Ricks regularly communicated with soldiers in the field via e-mail. He talked to those in the midst of the fight as well as to veterans of two and three combat tours back in the US and musing about what they'd done and learned. In addition, he accumulated an estimated 37,000 pages of memoranda, depositions, PowerPoint briefings, and transcripts, much of it not made public until now.

The picture that emerges is of a lack of strategy from the top down, best-case assumptions about what would happen after the fall of Baghdad despite the warnings of such senior officers as then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki and retired Marine Corp Gen. Anthony Zinni. "Strategy was seen as something vague and intellectual, at best a secondary issue, when in fact it was the core of the task they faced," Ricks writes.

Uniformed and civilian military leaders are both often accused of fighting the previous war. In this case, according to Ricks's sources – most of them field grade and senior officers – the Army forgot "almost everything it had learned in the Vietnam War about counterinsurgency."

For one thing, as the violence escalated "force protection" became paramount. This meant large, relatively secure forward operating bases for most of the troops when regularly engaging the population in smaller units was the classic mode of counterinsurgency.

Meanwhile, the reaction to roadside bombs and other attacks sometimes made things worse.

"Frustrated troops used force first, violating a lesson of every successful modern counterinsurgency campaign: Violence is the tool of last resort, especially for troops foreign to the local population," Ricks writes. The logical extension of this was mistreatment of civilians and captured suspects, which only fed the insurgency further.

Ricks and many of the officers he interviewed are especially critical of Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) officials as well as of such senior Army officers as Gen. Tommy Franks and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was relieved as commander in Iraq after prisoner abuse was revealed at Abu Ghraib and at other locations.

But there are many heroes here, too: Maj. Gen James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division; Army Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division; and Army Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment whose doctoral dissertation in history, "Dereliction of Duty" – required reading for many officers today – focused on the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. Plus the troops who've lost nearly 3,000 comrades in a war that's far from over.

Bob Woodward's most recent book on the Bush administration – "State of Denial: Bush at War" – is for and about inside-the-Beltway political junkies. "Fiasco" is for those who want a serious, on-the-ground picture of what's actually happened with the war.

Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer.

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