Fiasco: The American Military’s Adventure in Iraq

I always enjoy the “reading stacks of books and taking excessive” notes stage of writing an essay more than the rest of it, and tend to keep one book from each essay with the noble intention of actually reading it cover-to-cover, and not index-reference-to-index-reference. Most of the time, this dream breaks against the reality that I don’t read books, but Thomas Rick’s Fiasco: The American Military’s Adventure in Iraq was a final-year exception. It is also a very good book.

The Iraq (2003) debate is broadly tedious, especially in the UK, where it dominates all foreign policy debates and drives them quite quickly into a dead end of “which newspaper columnists were vindicated/made fools of”. Reading Fiasco made it clear that this is unfortunate, as there’s a very interesting, very tragic tale here.

Ricks provides an excellent history of US policy on Iraq from the first Gulf War onwards, with lots I had no idea of on the continuous military operations in the country throughout the 1990s*. There is an extended discussion of the build-up to the war, with all the shambolic planning and dodgy intelligence, and Ricks pulls no punches on this front. It takes him over 100 pages to even get to the invasion.

Two things become clear from this initial section of the book. Invading Iraq was a mistake – this, we all knew. Hearing it from a military correspondent and fairly-conservative-seeming chap helps though. The second thing is that it was a really badly-handled mistake. The institutional dysfunction and petty disputes in the lead-up to the war created a poorly-conceived, under-resourced plan, and the last twelve years have been a testament to that.

One shortcoming I found with the book, which is a bit unfair, is that it’s not exactly a Military History book as I understand them, all impossible-to-follow tank manoeuvres and maps with arrows on them. This is partly down to the nature of most of the war, which didn’t really do frontlines and flanking attacks, but Ricks seems much more interested in the politics and broader strategic side, which is fair play. The invasion and state-state fighting section of the war was over brutally quickly, after all. Ricks pays most attention to Phase 4 operations (the stabilization after the battle), or lack thereof.

Here, I think Ricks is less clear. He builds a devastating critique of U.S. policy in Iraq, almost from the bottom up, though he assigns more blame the higher up in the ranks you get (unlike the courts that tried U.S. war criminals heyo). He highlights some honourable exceptions to the incompetence and heavy-handedness that characterised a lot of the occupation, but these are all temporary exceptions and are quickly undone by turnover in commanders and formations. It’s a book from 2006 so this may just be because it’s all still up in the air, but Ricks implies the war in Iraq was “lost” without ever necessarily suggesting it could have been “won”. Those “”s are essential, as the victory conditions were never clear, especially as all the lies and fabrications that were the initial case for war dissolved. Nevertheless, the implication of a lot of the book is that had those honourable exceptions been the norm, with the resources required, from the start of the war, things would have turned out a lot differently. To an extent, with David Petraeus’ appointment as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, this happened after publication, and it didn’t exactly turn out great. Fiasco seems to be one of the opening salvoes in the counterinsurgency debates that seemed to be so fierce a few years back, and in it, Ricks builds a strong foundation to the [somewhat-damaged nowadays] cult of General Petraeus. The implication of this book is that Petraeus, among others, got counterinsurgency operations, unlike most of the military for the first couple of years, and this ignorance proved fatal.

Ricks provides some possible scenarios for the ‘future’ of Iraq. While poking holes in them with the benefit of hindsight is a little pointless, it is pretty interesting how on the mark or otherwise he was. He compares them to previous insurgencies – the US in the Philippines (best), France in Algeria(!) or Israel in Lebanon (middling), what he calls “a worse scenario: civil war, partition, and regional war”, or the “nightmare”, a resurgent pan-Arab caliphate under the leadership of a modern-day Saladin at the head of the Iraqi state. Setting aside the last one, which, comparisons to ISIS aside, is daft, there are a number of things worth noting here. First, Iraq seems to have gone through the worst case scenario at least twice since the book’s publication, with partition far from off the table and no guarantees that this is the worst of regional and civil war. Second, Ricks’ arguments, if taken to their logical conclusion, do point toward it having been an error to withdraw from Iraq in 2011. But at the same time, the comparison to the 40-year war in the Philippines makes it pretty clear why the withdrawal was somewhat unavoidable. When your best case for a war is soldiers dying every week in a far-off land, just to “keep a lid” on an insurgency, it should come as no surprise that said war should become unpopular. Finally, that all of Ricks’ possible scenarios are fairly bad suggests that had the Iraq war ever been “winnable”, it was lost by 2006.

Tom Ricks’ Fiasco is a very good book. While dealing with the grand sweep of one of the most significant geopolitical events of the early 21st Century, he never fails to come back in and focus on the personal costs of the war in a very affecting manner. (and not completely in a Frankie Boyle “we’ll invade your country then feel sad about it” way) If you’re as sick as I am of neo-cons in the States advocating more war, and the dread Rentoul-Cohen-Aaronovitch axis in the UK maintaining they were right against all possible evidence, this might convince you that there is still something interesting to be said about the Iraq war.

*on the decade prior to the invasion, this is also a decent critical summary, though as all leftist foreign policy writing apparently must, it sort of fizzles a little, making less of a point than I think it wants to