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Book Review 291: Fiasco

July 26, 2013 - Harry Eagar
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.

 
 

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