Bruce Bartlett vs. the Bush Smear Machine
What Should Happen When Fidel Castro Dies?

Thomas E. Ricks (2006), "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq"

I have been unable to write my review of Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks (2006), Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (New York: Penguin). The book is indeed very good: well-written, incisive, thoughtful, focusing on key moments and decisions while providing a remarkably good overview of the big picture.

But I find I cannot write a review of it.

So here is (the bulk of) Michiko Kakutani's review:

Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks - The New York Times - New York Times: From Planning to Warfare to Occupation, How Iraq Went Wrong. By MICHIKO KAKUTANI The title of this devastating new book about the American war in Iraq says it all: “Fiasco.” That is the judgment that Thomas E. Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, passes.... [H]e serves up his portrait of that war as a misguided exercise in hubris, incompetence and folly with a wealth of detail and evidence that is both staggeringly vivid and persuasive.... “Fiasco” is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how the United States came to go to war in Iraq, how a bungled occupation fed a ballooning insurgency and how these events will affect the future of the American military. Though other books have depicted aspects of the Iraq war in more intimate and harrowing detail, though other books have broken more news about aspects of the war, this volume gives the reader a lucid, tough-minded overview of this tragic enterprise that stands apart from earlier assessments in terms of simple coherence and scope.

“President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.... The consequences of his choice won’t be clear for decades, but it already is abundantly apparent in mid-2006 that the U.S. government went to war in Iraq with scant solid international support and on the basis of incorrect information — about weapons of mass destruction and a supposed nexus between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda’s terrorism — and then occupied the country negligently. Thousands of U.S. troops and an untold number of Iraqis have died. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, many of them squandered. Democracy may yet come to Iraq and the region, but so too may civil war or a regional conflagration, which in turn could lead to spiraling oil prices and a global economic shock.”...

An after-action review from the Third Infantry Division underscores the Pentagon’s paucity of postwar planning, stating that “there was no guidance for restoring order in Baghdad, creating an interim government, hiring government and essential services employees, and ensuring that the judicial system was operational.” And an end-of-tour report by a colonel assigned to the Coalition Provisional Authority memorably summarized his office’s work as “pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck.”...

“Fiasco” does not possess the dramatic combat details of “Cobra II”... but... it goes on to chronicle America’s flailing efforts to contain a metastasizing insurgency over the next three years.

Mr. Ricks argues that the invasion of Iraq “was based on perhaps the worst war plan in American history.”... The result of going in with too few troops and no larger strategic plan, he says, was “that the U.S. effort resembled a banana republic coup d’état more than a full-scale war plan.”... This was partly a byproduct of the Pollyannaish optimism of hawks like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.... Mr. Rumsfeld’s stubborn reluctance to acknowledging a growing insurgency and his resistance to making adjustments, Mr. Ricks says, contributed further to the military’s problems on the ground....

Among the crucial post-invasion missteps made by the Bush administration, he suggests, were the decision, after the fall of Baghdad, not to send two additional divisions of troops immediately, which might have helped keep the lid on the insurgency, and the orders issued by the head of the American occupation, L. Paul Bremer III, disbanding the old Iraqi army....

Not only had the war “stressed the U.S. Army to the breaking point,” a study published by the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute declared, but it had also turned out to be “an unnecessary preventive war of choice” that “created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland” against further attacks from Al Qaeda. The war “was not integral” to the global war on terrorism, the report concluded, but was a costly “detour from it.”

I have been unable to write a review because I keep flipping back and forth between the book Fiasco and the clips--the articles that Tom Ricks wrote for the Washington Post. The book tells a particular story--here are selected paragraph topic sentences and phrases from Tom Ricks's Fiasco, chapter 15, "The Surprise," on spring 2004:

[I]t was clear that the U.S. effort, both in pacification and reconstruction, was faltering. But it wouldn't be until spring [2004] that it would become clear just how troubled it was...
U.S. forces learned but then went home, while the enemy learned and... fought better the next time...
Nor had many commanders grasped the nature of the war...
As... more than one hundred thousand troops departed, there was a worrisome falloff in the quality of the intelligence gathered.... "We changed out every unit in that country, so you had the natural dip in situational awareness"...
[T]he inaccurate U.S. assessment of the situation wasn't attributable solely to the [troop] rotation. The 82nd Airborne had been operating in Al Anbar province for six months when its commander declared the insurgency all but dead there...
[T]he CPS and the U.S. military were too busy fighting each other to notice the gathering storm...
"We wondered why"... [General] Sanchez wasn't simply replaced...
"By early '04, the president was quite aware of Bremer's flaws," said a former administration official. "But he couldn't let him go in an election year"...
The Green Zone had security, it had services, it had the things Iraqis wanted. "A lot of people had no electricity but could look across the river and see the CPA all lit up at night. And that was the way we communicated"...
By early 2004, "we began to smell like losers" in Iraq... "because we can't deliver on personal security for Iraqis. There were robberies, kidnappings, carjackings. At that point, the military brass and the CPA were still pretty clueless"...
"When Bremer would walk in... I'd just look at him like he was a piece of shit, and that's how I felt about him"...
"The development of the security forces... is a failure that is difficult to comprehend. Ten months into the operation there is not a single properly trained and equipped Iraqi security officer in the entire al Anbar province"...
The training program had been handled in a way that, like so manyother early policy decisions in Iraq, ignored the lessons of history...
"[T]he SecDef told us, 'These precious Special Forces have been busy... don't need to be wasting time training Iraqis."... It was a decision that would come back to haunt Bremer... when it became clear that Iraqi forces lacked leaders... whom they were willing to follow into battle"...
Marine Col. T.X. Hammes.... The numbers being released by the Bush administration, he wrote in his diary that winter, were a "fantasy"...

But go back to clips, and you discover that Tom Ricks was writing "he said, she said" articles in the first six months of 2004. Witness this one, with none of the context necessary to show his readers that Wolfowitz is a fool living in an ideological fantasy land:

Wolfowitz Says Iraq Stay Could Last Years. The Washington Post - Washington, D.C.. Author: Thomas E. Ricks. Date: Jun 23, 2004. Start Page: A.16. Section: A SECTION. Document Types: News. Text Word Count: 628

The U.S. military could remain in Iraq for years, but with the passage of time it should be able to step back into more of a supporting role for Iraqi security forces, the Pentagon's number two official said yesterday in a hearing notable for sharp partisan exchanges.

"I think it's entirely possible" that U.S. troops could be stationed in Iraq for years, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told the House Armed Services Committee. But, he added, as the Iraqi army and new national guard develop, "we will be able to let them be in the front lines and us be in a supporting position."

Wolfowitz said it is possible that U.S. troops could be used to enforce Iraqi martial law after the partial transfer of power a week from now. Ayad Alawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, has said martial law is possible to crack down on insurgents.

Helping impose martial law, Wolfowitz said, "might actually be something that we might mutually agree was necessary to bring order in a particularly difficult place."

But much of the hearing was devoted to a series of unusually pointed discussions between Wolfowitz and Rep. Ike Skelton, a centrist Missourian who is the committee's senior Democrat.

Skelton told Wolfowitz he senses two Iraqs: "One is the optimistic Iraq that you describe, and the other Iraq is the one that I see every morning, with the violence, the deaths of soldiers and Marines." He added, with some emotion: "I must tell you, it breaks my heart a little bit more every day."

Skelton also was dismissive of White House comments about "staying the course" in Iraq. "I don't think anyone here questions your resolve or questions the resolve of the president to succeed in Iraq," he said. "But there's a difference between the resolve on the one hand and competence on the other." He said he now fears that the United States is descending into "a security quagmire" in Iraq.

The two men went back and forth several times.

"From your description, Mr. Secretary, I don't see an end in sight," Skelton said. "We're stuck."

"We're not stuck, Mr. Skelton," Wolfowitz replied. He said that the U.S. strategy in Iraq clearly is to develop Iraqi forces that can take over security from U.S. and allied troops.

At another point, Skelton said he did not see a plan to bring about success in Iraq. He added, "We broke it -- we must do our best to fix it."

Wolfowitz shot back, "We didn't break Iraq. Saddam Hussein broke Iraq." The Pentagon official, just back from a four-day visit to Iraq, said, "It is going to be a big job to repair it, but I feel much more confident than before this trip, after spending many hours with the new prime minister and members of his government, that there is an Iraqi team ready to take charge on July 1st and committed to fixing that damage."

As the hearing went on, Wolfowitz sought to temper his initial presentation. "Maybe it's optimistic compared to the total gloom and doom that one otherwise hears, but I in no way mean to minimize the security problem," he said. "I agree with you, it is the obstacle to all the other progress that has been made." He said he is worried especially about the next six months, as insurgents seek to derail the Iraqi elections being planned for January 2005.

Wolfowitz also said the media are part of the problem in Iraq. "Frankly, part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors," he said.

Reporters in Iraq recently have restricted their movements, sometimes at the recommendation of U.S. officials, because of widespread violence.

Tom Ricks could have done any of a huge number of things to tell the Washington Post's readers that Wolfowitz was--as Ricks knew he was--either lying through his teeth or the most deluded man north of the Picketwire. A brief mention of at least one of the many episodes from Wolfowitz's history--"Team B" in the late 1970s, the strange "Wolfowitz Memorandum" of 1992, Wolfowitz's advocacy in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the U.S. strike Iraq first, Wolfowitz's role in pushing the idea that Saddam Hussein was linked to 9/11, Wolfowitz's role in pushing the idea that Saddam Hussein was a near-imminent threat to the United States, Wolfowitz's role in pushing the number of troops in the invasion of Iraq far below what the military planners desired, Wolfowitz's role in pushing the idea that allies who could provide lots of Arabic-speaking military police were not needed--would have made a much better, a much fairer, a much more accurate story.

Why, Tom, why? Why in the name of the Holy One couldn't you have told us what you knew was going on back in 2003 or 2004? What did you think you were doing? Why keep your real views of Wolfowitz and Bremer and Odierno and company secret, so that they show up two and a half years late and many, many brave men and women's lives short?

In this context, I think, we should note that twelve days before his "he said, she said" Wolfowitz vs. Skelton piece, on June 11, 2004, Ricks wrote a very different kind of story for the Washington Post: Sacrifice In the In-Box: By Thomas E. Ricks. Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A25.

The death notices from Iraq come across my computer screen by e-mail and always follow the same format. Each states the name of the dead soldier and his or her rank, age and hometown, as in: "Pfc. Melissa J. Hobart, 22, of Ladson, S.C." It also identifies the unit, and so tells you whether this was an active-duty soldier or a part-time reservist or a National Guard member.

As a military reporter for The Post, I get copies of all of them. On good days there are none, or one. On some bad days, such as this past Monday, there are several.

If the soldier was in the Army, there also is usually a sentence giving a bare-bones account of the means of death -- mortar attack, roadside bomb, small-arms fire or vehicle accident account for most. June 2: "Capt. Robert C. Scheetz Jr., 31, of Dothan, Ala., died May 30 in Musayyib, Iraq, when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device" -- the U.S. military term for a roadside bomb, frequently made with an old artillery shell and a remote detonator. The Marine Corps notices are shorter, because they don't disclose the cause of death, on the grounds that -- as those news releases sometimes state -- such information could aid the foe in Iraq.

In other conflicts I've covered -- Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti -- the death notices were fewer or came in bursts and stopped after a few weeks or months. Now the notices have gone on for more than a year, providing a continual but uneven drumbeat.

There have been lots lately. I read them all. Even on the busiest of days, when I am on deadline writing an article, I pause when an e-mail pops up on my screen with the subject line "DoD Identifies Army Casualty."

I do this partly for my job, tracking the casualties to maintain a sense of where the fighting is hot. I also look to see if the person was from Virginia, Maryland or the District, so I can let The Post's Metro section know if it needs to do a story.

But I read them as much for personal reasons. In 15 years of covering the military, I've interviewed thousands of soldiers. So, with that feeling of being suspended at the top of a roller coaster just before it plummets, I look to see if I knew the soldier or his unit, especially from my time knocking around Iraq with the 1st Armored Division, the 1st Infantry Division and other outfits.

I keep my fingers crossed: So far, no one I've interviewed during several "embedded" reporting trips has appeared in the KIA notices. But there frequently are losses from brigades and battalions I've spent time with in Baghdad, Baqubah and Baiji and outside Najaf.

I also do it because I feel I owe it to each soldier to pause and read this short notice of his or her passing. It isn't much to ask.

So often the notices are about young men from small American towns I've never heard of dying in small Iraqi towns I've never heard of. May 26: "Pfc. Owen D. Witt, 20, of Sand Springs, Mont., died May 24 in Ad Dawr, Iraq, when his armored high-mobility-multipurpose-wheeled vehicle rolled over." Where is Sand Springs, Mont., I wondered. I couldn't find it in a road atlas.

Sometimes the names just strike me. "Lance Cpl. Elias Torrez III, 21, of Veribest, Texas." I think of a father and grandfather bearing the same name, and the grim news they've just received.

"Spc. Beau R. Beaulieu, 20, of Lisbon, Maine, died May 24 in Taji, Iraq, during a mortar attack on Camp Cooke." I would have liked to have met him, I thought.

Together, the notices amount to a mosaic of sacrifice, showing what parts of America have sons and daughters dying in Iraq. May 21: "Sergeant First Class Troy L. Miranda, 44, of DeQueen, Ark." They remind me that what goes on in Iraq isn't just a matter of President Bush's political future, or the billion dollars being spent there every week by the U.S. military, or the role of the United States in the world. It also is about the nearly unbearable price paid almost every day by some American family.

They aren't all from small towns, of course. There are Hispanics from big cities -- "Lance Cpl. Benjamin R. Gonzalez, 23, of Los Angeles, Calif., died May 29 due to hostile action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq." There have been more of these since the Marines went back into Iraq this spring -- the Corps seems to attract a lot of Hispanics from the coasts and from the Southwest, such as "Staff Sgt. Jorge A. Molina-Bautista, 37, of Rialto, Calif." and "1st Lt. Oscar Jimenez, 34, of San Diego, Calif."

Also, with more front-line units from the National Guard serving in Iraq, there lately have been more aging sergeants, fathers and grandfathers, such as "Command Sgt. Maj. Edward C. Barnhill, 50, of Shreveport, La."; "Sgt. Frank T. Carvill, 51, of Carlstadt, N.J."; and "Staff Sgt. William D. Chaney, 59, of Schaumburg, Ill."

The Guard units, based as they are in communities, also bring painful clusters of casualties. This was the notice that appeared on my screen at 6:12 p.m. Monday:

"Assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, headquartered in Cottage Grove, Ore.:

1st Lt. Erik S. McCrae, 25, of Portland, Ore.

Sgt. Justin L. Eyerly, 23, of Salem, Ore.

Spc. Justin W. Linden, 22, of Portland, Ore."

They are all losses, but the youngest ones haunt me most -- those Justins, Dustins, Brandons, Shawns, Kyles, Corys and Codys barely out of their teens, or sometimes still in them.

"Pfc. Cody S. Calavan, 19, of Lake Stevens, Wash., died May 29 due to hostile action in Al Anbar Province, Iraq." He was younger than my own son, I think -- born when Ronald Reagan was president, and probably still in kindergarten during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. And now he is dead somewhere in western Iraq.

I hope history finds their sacrifices worth it.

Why, Tom, why? Why in the name of the Holy One couldn't you have told us what you knew was going on back in 2003 or 2004? What did you think you were doing? Why keep your real views of Wolfowitz and Bremer and Odierno and company secret, so that they show up two and a half years late and many, many brave men and women's lives short?