Ricks Fiasco--review

Thomas Ricks take on the Iraq war focuses on the post major combat operations phase of the war up to early 2006. Unlike many critics of the war, his judgment is not impaired by a desire to see the US lose in Iraq, nor does he try to push an agenda against the political leadership. While he attempts to focus on the military response to the enemies attempt to recover from the loss in the major combat operations phase of the war, he does not always hit the mark.

He is very unfair to Tommy Franks and Rifle DeLong whose staff came up with the original war plane. He is much too generous to Tony Zinni whose plan was not used. Ricks is least plausible when describing the war plan as the worst plan in history. That is quite a statement for a plan that succeeded in toppling Saddam in record time.

Unlike the authors of Cobra II Ricks does not speculate that the Fedayeen that were encountered on the way to Baghdad became the insurgency. No, Ricks is persuaded that the US created them. He seems enamored by those in the military who believe that being nice to the enemy will win friends. He uses anecdotal evidence drawn from the military equivalent of a police blotter to highlight cases of alleged abuse of Iraqis. Many of the anecdotes lack perspective. They are like the snapshot that captures a reaction without the context of what prompted the reaction. They also lack the perspective of how they fit in the overall context of the war.

It is like taking the heroic action described by Michael Yon in his time with a unit in Mosul, and saying, that was a complete picture of the war. While I think Yon does a great job of describing the action he sees, he knows his perspective is limited to what he sees.

The facts are that the enemy we are now fighting in Iraq had no plan for an insurgency before Saddam was defeated and it took them awhile to get organized after Saddam's fall. The petty abuses that Ricks focuses on probably had little to do with their decision to fight. He certainly offers no definitive evidence or even any interrogations of enemy forces to support his theory beyond his police blotter approach.

There are many in the military who agree with him though. They tend to focus on the political aspects and down grade the kinetic aspects of counter insurgency warfare. The reality is more complicated. I call counter insurgency warfare, semi kinetic warfare with a political component.

When you are faced with an enemy who uses a raiding strategy, be they terrorist or more traditional guerilla warriors you have to focus on the weakness and strengths of his strategy. The raider relies on the primacy that retreat has over pursuit. Ricks correctly points out that in the early days of the insurgency there was far too much focus on pursuit.

The way you defeat an insurgency is by having an adequate force to space ratio that permits you to set up forces that can interdict the enemy at his most vulnerable, when he is moving to attack or beginning his retreat. One of the problems we faced in Iraq was that we did not have sufficient forces to achieve this objective and were constantly put in the position of having to pay for the same real estate more than once.

It would be a mistake to blame this on Gen. Franks or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. The guy making the decision on force levels was Gen. Abizaid and his decision was based on the tension between having enough US forces to do everything or getting the Iraqis to participate in their own defense against this enemy. His staff was halting in its response to this dilemma. When they found out that the Iraqi army was being disbanded, they were much too slow in training a new Iraqi force and the first crack at training was very unsuccessful.

This was at a time when the commanders in Iraq were saying that they did not have a shortage of troops but a shortage of intelligence. The fact is they had a shortage of both and did not correct the situation until they had trained Iraqis to man the check points a get information from the public that was actionable. When that happened the tip lines also started providing actionable intelligence as the use of cell phones expanded in Iraq.

The counter insurgency experts he cites completely over look the importance of the force to space ratio in cutting off the movement to contact by the enemy and focus too much on getting the backing of the people. While it make sense to get the people on your side in any conflict, what Ricks and his experts ignore is the fact that the enemy was doing a bang up job of alienating the population at the same time he accuses the US of doing that.

For much of the last two years the enemy in Iraq has focused his attacks on Iraqi non combatants. He only fights US combat units when confronted by one of our offensive operations. Besides attacking Iraqi non combatants, he has also had an increasingly ineffective campaign of booby trap attacks on US supply lines.

It should also be noted that this overemphasis on the political aspects of counterinsurgency overlooks the importance of the denial of enemy sanctuaries which usually requires kinetic action. He does have a pretty good description on the the liberation of Tal Afar from enemy terrorist, as well as the halting first attempts to clean out Fallujah and the successful second battle.

He attempts to defend the poor reporting done by the media in Iraq, overlooking their compliant following of the enemy script in the description of attacks on non combatants where the emphasis is on the failure to stop the attacks instead of the wickedness of the enemy in deliberately targeting non combatants. In fact, he makes little to no mention of the enemy's substantial violations of the Geneva Conventions while at the same time devoting too much time to the yo-yos of Abu Ghraid.

That was a story blown way out of proportion by a media that failed to recognize that the military acted properly as soon as they found out about the abuses. They also fail to point out that the prisoner porn that they media took such delight in showing for profit was provided to them because the government refused to drop charges against those responsible for the abuse.

Other critical reviews of Fiasco include Jack Kelly, Max Boot, and John Keegan. All three are good discussions of the book. I especially like Keegan's. There is much more about this book to comment on and I may have more in the future.


  1. In COIN, amateurs speak about kinetic tactics and strategies- real professionals speak about ethnographics and anthropology.

    You are an amateur

  2. Use of jargon does not imply expertise, nor does it suggest communication skills in discussing a subject with a wider audience.


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