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Review of Timothy Ricks' Fiasco
Fiasco, by Timothy Ricks, 2006, The Penguin Press, NY, 482 pages.
Timothy Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist specializing in the US military. Fiasco is his best-seller book
on the war in Iraq. Per his specialty, the books spends almost all its pages dealing with the military aspect of the war.
However, what I most got out of this book is that the military was the least responsible for the fiasco
that was the US war in Iraq. Much more to blame were politicians, journalists and the companies they work for, and most of all, United States' voters. Of all these entities, the easiest to write about is the military.
I was surprised to learn in this book how open the US military was in examining its own faults in the war. They actually have institutions in place to study "Lessons Learned" in all their military endeavors. These introspections
even occurred, amazingly, during the conflict.
In every case that received mention in this work, the military's conclusions and recommendations for improvement were spot on and sometimes (to me at least) rather obvious. Among
the most important findings were that the military had no strategy for what to do after the successful invasion, that they fought the resulting insurgency with regular war tactics instead of counter-insurgency measures, and that they went into the conflict
with no working knowledge of Iraq and its people. There was an absolute dearth of counter-insurgency experts, Arabic language speakers and personnel knowledgeable in the culture.
While recommendations to change these deficits were made as early as within the first few months of the military's occupation of Iraq, the necessary adjustments were only made sporatically. In some cases, the recommendations were nixed by the politicians
in charge, most notably by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield and the Coaliltion Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer. Others that should have been singled out more, in my opinion, include Vice President Dick Cheney, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Richard Myers and all the politicians and journalists who believed con-man Ahmed Chalabi.
There are a few individuals singled out in this book whose failures are overblown and are blamed for the mess by the author much more
than they should be. Perhaps the most obvious is everyone's favorite whipping-boy in the aftermath of discovering there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMD's), Secretary of State Colin Powell. All that Powell is guilty of is being made the fall guy.
Most black Americans have learned not to trust white folk, but not General Powell. As the only black Republican for miles around, he lived most of his political life as a showcase, a figurehead for racial tolerance by the right
that doesn't really exist. As such, he'd grown used to being treated as white folks' darling. His statements since his time in the W. Bush administration show that he has, belatedly, learned his lesson.
But T. Ricks' favorite
bad guy is Deputy Defense Director Paul Wolfowitz. It's true that Wolfowitz mad a wide number of wild speculations about Ira that were taken as fact by his boss, Rumsfield, by various Congressional committees and by the press. However, like Chalabi, Wolfowitz
was taken seriously for no other reason than he told people what they wanted to hear. His comparison of Hussein to Hitler and Arabs in general to Nazis should have been seen as a poor analogy at best, as racist rantings by most.
are not that simple and straightforward. Unless you're simple-minded, like President W. Bush. The President's goal and strategy seem to have escaped our Mr. Ricks.
Forever sealed into many of our memories is the image of the
President, looking lost and like a deer caught in headlights, as he first learned about the attack on the World Trade Center. For others, the main image they've carried forward is of W. standing on that aircraft carrier with the banner "Mission Accomplished"
behind him. For most voters, the second image seems to have blotted out the first.
For all too many politicians, gaining and holding on to power seems to be the end game, all that they strategize and work for. For way too many
voters, what they seem mainly concerned with on election evening is whether their "horse" won. Only in retrospect does either group care about what was or wasn't accomplished.
Let me put it more bluntly. There are people inside
every presidential administration who believe their primary goal is the re-election of their President. After 9/11, anyone would have been hard-pressed to see that happen to the George W. Bush Presidency. Who had the idea that invading Iraq would turn that
narrative completely around? Probably no one at first.
The knee-jerk reaction was to invade Afghanistan. Like trying to attack Moscow, history clearly has shown time and again how useless this idea was. Not only have the United
States and the Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan, but the British before them. Hell, the Afghani people themselves haven't ever really fully brought their people together as one country, one nation.
If I wanted to make relatively easy money, I might want to be a military journalist. In most cases, their actions are out there in the open, for all to see. They have an obvious chain of command and have learned through trial and
error to put everything in writing. Perhaps most importantly, the public loves to read about killing and dying, explosions and attacks.
Journalists seem to either forget or pretend to forget that they are in the business of
giving the public what they want. The public wants to see everything explained in black and white terms, in language that presents them with clear and obvious good guys and bad guys. They love hearing about battles for the same reason they love sporting events:
because there's always a winner and a loser.
None of this line of thinking is ever approached in Fiasco. There is a good reason for this. You'll never get rich if you attack your public. In fact, as a journalist,
I'm guessing that would be a real good way to lose your job.
The closest the author comes to a gestalt on this issue is when he writes about his fellow journalists. Like other people who try putting all the blame on one "bad
guy," Saddam Hussein, Ricks only writes about one journalist in any particular depth, giving the impression that she and only she was to blame. Is this a matter of simplification, because he doesn't think his readership can handle anything more complicated?
The book's complex study of the military suggests otherwise.
The journalist in question is Judith Miller, later of the New York Times. Unfortunately, she was not fired for her biased reporting and fabrication
of facts until years after the damage was done. Why? Basically because she was telling her New York audience what they wanted to hear.
By the time the George W. administration thought up the invasion of Iraq, not only Saddam
Hussein but Arabs and Muslims in general had become "boogeymen" in the minds of far too many US citizens. They were the "black hat" guys we loved to hate, the scape goats for all that was wrong with the world. This was true not only of conservatives and Republicans
but among too many progressives and Democrats.
We were all too ready to believe anything bad about them. When this administration told us that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, just about everyone believed them
without question. The case was flimsy, to say the least, but otherwise intelligent people like Hillary Clinton jumped on board with no hesitation. It is likely that he support of this invasion was one of the main reasons she lost the 2008 Democratic primary
to Barrack Obama.
It is all too easy to blame the military for the fiasco in Iraq. Although Ricks makes the case that most of the fault lies with the Secretary
of Defense and his President, the fact that the overwhelming majority of his book deals with the military gives the impression that the military, the US Army, its leaders and soldiers made a mess of things. This is a great book in covering the fact that the
lessons learned in Vietnam had been long forgotten by this generation of officers, but this is symptomatic of a larger problem.
The heart of the failure can be summed up in the results of the 2004 presidential election. The
voters had the facts before them by then: that the invasion was not a success, that no exit strategy had been planned that the Bush administration had badly over-estimated the Iraqi response to the take-down of Saddam and that there had been no weapons of
mass destruction. They re-elected Bush anyway.
Some folks are fond of saying wars should be left up to generals, not politicians. This ignores the fact that all wars are started for political purposes, not military ones. And
politics don't start with politicians in this country, they start with voters.