Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review 294: Fiasco

FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks. 482 pages, illustrated. Penguin, $27.95

Ordinarily, if a book is titled “Fiasco,” you could not accuse it of understating its point. But as brutally condemnatory as Thomas Ricks is, he leaves out plenty of the bad.

The premise is easily stated. It was obvious before the war began in 2003. In fact, it was obvious when Bush I declined in 1991 to push on to Baghdad: The United States does not have enough infantry to conduct a moderate-size occupation. It would not have mattered that much if even most of the other assumptions and decisions had been better grounded. We would still have lost.

In fact, as Ricks relates in infinite detail, hardly any of those assumptions and decisions were based in reality. It was hardly a surprise when Bush II and his Texas yahoos displayed zero understanding of the place they had decided to interfere in. The Old Testament is a lousy guide, but that is the only guide Texas Christians know, and they firmly accept it.

One might perhaps have hoped that the prophets of invasion, like Paul Wolfowitz, with their Ivy League backgrounds, would have had a somewhat broader experience. But they didn’t; the neoconservative filter was perfect.

Anyway, the idea that the United States, or anybody else, could midwife a modern nation state in Iraq was  pure delusion. The people who live there do not have a common history, language, religion, customs, food habits, education or anything else that could unite them. The only thing they share is a fondness for soccer.

Besides, if the United States were standing for what used to be its own principles, it would not have wanted a unified Iraq. It would have supported a free and independent Great Kurdistan. That would have required breaking up Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, which will have to come if peace ever is to come to southwest Asia, but that has never been a policy of any American administration.

Both the civilian and the military high commands were (and are) incompetent, and the military is widely corrupt. The disastrous performance of all arms in the previous pinprick escapades in Lebanon, Panama, Grenada and Somalia ought to have given the civilian leadership doubts.

Doubt was never in the makeup of Incurious George and his crew. Hicks relates in detail, using tens of thousands of pages of internal documents, how incompetent the military was.

To take only the most obvious example: there was no attempt either to seal the borders or to sequester the thousands of munitions dumps around Iraq. When the factions caught their breath, they had at hand millions of tons of free explosives to blow up Americans and each other.

Every single American casualty of the post-invasion era is attributable to the criminal irresponsibility of the high command.

Ricks wrote in 2006. Since then the war has been definitively lost, although the American political public does not care, because we cut and ran. But that nothing was learned is clear enough. Of all the fools and screwups in “Fiasco,” none gets a colder shoulder from Ricks than Ray Odierno. He is as I write the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Ricks is a reporter with long experience covering the military. The only thing I really fault him for in this excellent book is a sometimes Pollyannaish attitude. For example, at one or two points he comments that the Army had forgotten what it learned in Vietnam. I do not believe the Army did learn anything in Vietnam.

I also note that Ricks almost entirely ignores the derelictions of supply. He does quote Rumsfeld’s lame “you fight with the army you have” remark, but there is nothing in “Fiasco” to indicate how awful the failure to supply the troops was -- nothing about the wives who purchased flak vests for their men because the commanders -- mainly Bush and Rumsfeld -- refused to do so.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Harry:

    What do you mean when you say the war was lost?

    The geopolitical reasons for invading Iraq were not in many ways accomplished?

  3. What geopolitical reasons do you think Bush was after? Leaving Iran stronger?

    That's what we have now,

    Saddam was not an existential threat to other states. He was not going to cross any more borders with an army.

    The international terrorism that he sponsored has its other sponsors.

    We also destroyed whatever chance there may have been (small in any case) of modernizing and popularizing an Iraqi government.

  4. Harry,

    To tell you the truth, I've never understood very well the rationale of the Iraq (second) war.

    I've assumed in the begin that some smart heads very carefully calculated that the geopolitical changes it would induce, plus the revenues of the oil fields, would make it a good investment. Hence they did not care to justify the war with all that non sense about Iraq's WMD and throw away a lot of US credibility - it would pay.

    As far as I know, the economic side never worked (the US spent way more than it will get back in near or medium future from the oil companies).

    But I guess that the geopolitical side did work in some ways. You have a very strong presence in a country where you had none before. It is a base from where it is possible to exercise more power in the region.

    If you ask me, the relationship of cost/benefits is really bad - I do no see how the advantages compensate all the effort, given that the huge technological superiority of your army was already more than enough to exercise the levers around Middle East, with no need of land invasion.

    Of course, if we get more cynical, one may argue that the whole thing was just a good excuse to give money to all that companies and industries with very good connections and lobbies in Washington. It may play a role too, but I have not how to judge the weights of each factor.

  5. Ricks believes, and I think he is correct, that Bush really did believe garbage about weapons and Saddam's links to al Queda. Just another example of his incompetence, because the intelligence was awful.

    Yes, they did expect the oil to pay the bill. They were wrong about that, too.

    I don't know what you mean by an American presence. We are not in Iraq any more. And we cannot project power as well as before, because the two wars we lost ruined our army.

    We are far weaker than we were. Our opponents learned 3 things from our defeat:

    1. We do not have patience to follow long-term goals.
    2. Our military can be countered by cheap tactics and weapons.
    3. We can be induced to bankrupt ourselves by stupid reactions to threats/attacks.

    If the US does not return to its real principles and get some competent leadership, it is going to face genuine difficulties, not the pretend ones we went to war about.

  6. Harry,

    That it news for me. It is hard to believe that someone leading the most advanced spying apparatus in the world (as the NSA is now clearly remembering us) could be that misinformed. I believe that, at the very least, US inteligence, hence its President, was well aware of the real risks Iraq posed, and it knew for real that WMD was not one.

    I also think that you overestimate the bad results of the war. American presence in Iraq is still very strong - you have bases and much control over its aerial military space. And also huge influence in every other aspect of the country. (How valuable all that is, well, is another matter.)

    There again, I do not understand what you mean by defeat. If you mean the military sense, there was no defeat of your army at all. If in terms of nation building, only history will tell, but I agree that things do not look promising right now.

    On your three points above:

    1) To stay 10 years in any country is quite some commitment.

    2) You military countered much of the cheap tactics with high technology, which meant a slow start but a huge final power achieved in the form of Drones. Which is truly sad, this is a pandora box that will render many future atrocities (as it is already doing) from many different hands (this kind of technology won't stay confined).

    3) I can not disagree with this one. The overreaction was clear. It is amazing how much was spent for so scarce results.

    But I have better hopes for the future. There is no reason to worry about how prepared for war you are - if you stop to take a good look, you'll see that most of the world is just forgetting war and you are in an arms race only with yourself.

  7. Drones have the same problem as manned planes and indeed all standoff weapons -- target acquisition. How do you know who you are shooting at?

    Much of the world is forgetting war, or at least the old motives. Europe, notably. But I don't see places like Africa moving away from war.

    Any place where tribalism remains strong is a candidate for war.

    Our army was organized for one purpose -- to counter an armored assault over the north European plain. That has never happened and is not likely ever to happen.

    Our infantryless army has proven pretty much useless elsewhere. Infantry is very expensive to us, less so to poorer countries.

    I do not think it is widely realized that the US adopted its nuclear deterrent, which was very costly, because it was cheaper than a big army. In the '50s, when the US was hungry for labor, it did not think it could tie up large numbers of men in an army.

    Conditions changed but a sclerotic military caste did not change. We now could perhaps afford to keep infantry, and we certainly have needed infantry we did not have several times over the past 40 years.

    One lesson I took away from Ricks's book (and the facts sof the Iraq and Afghanistan wars) is that David Hackworth was right -- a voluntary army is a bad idea.

    I doubt it is politically possible to return to conscription, but that is likely the correct course.

    Hackworth was also right on about what he called the "no-fault army." It is not possible to screw up badly enough to get fired, as Odierno proves.