A war and occupation that didn't go the way the planners had anticipated

Review Military

August 06, 2006|By ROBERT LITTLE | ROBERT LITTLE,SUN REPORTER

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq

Thomas E. Ricks

Penguin Group (USA) / 482 pages / $27.95

The title of Thomas E. Ricks' new book, being a rather blunt assessment of the war and occupation that the volume so devastatingly describes, will surely alienate readers disinclined to invest in a 482-page reproach of the United States' operations in Iraq.

And that is a shame, because what Ricks offers in Fiasco is more than simply a sharp dissection of the nation's military and civilian leadership and their flawed - maybe non-existent - strategy for rebuilding a country. Through a meticulous reconstruction of recent history and a sometimes overwhelming abundance of sources, Ricks has captured the elements of a political and military debate that should have occurred years ago. That it did not is one of the misfortunes that makes Ricks' book all the more important today.

Fiasco is most certainly a criticism of the war and its aftermath. Some of Ricks' assessments are such an assault on the White House and the Pentagon - reference to the "incompetence and arrogance" of President Bush, for instance, or descriptions of "perhaps the worst war plan in American history" - they could seemingly make his job as senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post a bit uncomfortable.

But those who would dismiss the book for that must also ignore the impressive depth of reporting that imbues it with a tone of honesty, not just raw condemnation. His criticism is selective, not scattershot. And within it is a command of military doctrine and history, and an obvious respect for the uniformed and civilian figures who rise above the failings that he sees.

Much of the story has already been told, of course, particularly by Ricks' own newspaper. The paucity of valid prewar intelligence, the inattention to postwar planning, the inadequate troop levels, the questionable decisions to "de-Baathify" Iraq and disband its military, have all been well established and digested by other works, and are developed little here. What makes Fiasco most worthy is its informed perspective on these events.

The book suggests quite convincingly, for example, that the Clinton administration's four-day "Desert Fox" bombing campaign in 1998 actually achieved most of what today's war initially sought, despite being largely dismissed at the time as an election-year stunt aimed at distracting the electorate from the president's sex life.

It also shows, with the benefit of hindsight and good sources, how then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's testimony before the United Nations' Security Council in early 2003 was not only a near-total fabrication, but that seemingly everyone in the global intelligence community knew about it except Powell.

And Ricks continues the literary world's recent assault on the tenure of former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, whose combination of intelligence, deep conviction and gross miscalculation seems already to be gelling into one of the great tragedies of the history of the war in Iraq.

Fiasco is based on interviews, most of them attributed, with hundreds of military and civilian employees of the government who planned and prosecuted the war. Lengthy contributions from retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni and retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner provide particular insight. It is among the few accounts with the precision to draw fine distinctions about the military campaign, like contrasting the deft street-level diplomacy of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul with the harsh, door-kicking attitude of the 4th Infantry Division inside the Sunni Triangle.

Yet at its most damning the book does little more than simply allow the government's actors to speak, letting the context of time reveal how spectacularly wrong they sometimes were. Memorable is a news conference in September 2003, during which Coalition Provisional Authority administrator Paul Bremer declared: "Democracy is on the march in this country."

"And if you think about it, it happened in four or five months," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added. "Not four or five years. Four or five months.

" ... It dwarfs any other experience that I'm aware of."

Fiasco is not an enjoyable book. Ricks uses a somewhat Woodward-ian writing style, relying on chronology and brief anecdotes, that sometimes reads like a work of academia. It is almost entirely lacking in the voice and personality that make Iraq-war books such as George Packer's The Assassins' Gate or Michael M. Phillips' The Gift of Valor more haunting, and in some ways more memorable.

But the power of Fiasco is not found in its storytelling but rather in its persistent, even relentless attention to the particulars of a war that has not transpired as the United States' leaders said it would, or indeed continue to say that it has. The book's jacket calls Ricks' work a "reckoning," and in this instance the promotional hype seems to have hit the mark.

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