Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What I'm Reading: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.

Thomas E. Ricks’ Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. New York: Penguin 2006.

Thomas Ricks is the Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post (would that Canadian media allowed reporters to specialize in military affairs to develop similar expertise). Ricks’ choice of title betrays both his anger and his aim in writing this book. In his view and in the view of military men such as Marine General Anthony Zinni (p. 13), the US policy of containing Saddam Hussein was working. Iraq’s degraded economy and military posed no serious threat of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfield and Douglas Feith disagreed with the containment strategy, and after 9/11 they could make the case for a pre-emptive war to deny Saddam Hussein the use of WMD. These Bush officials blithely ignored warnings that seem quite farsighted tpday. In October of 2002, for example, a conference of US government officials was told by a panel of experts how fraught with danger an Iraqi adventure would be. Alina Romanowski, a former Pentagon official, said prophetically, “I am not clear that we have a clear idea of where we want to be the morning after an invasion. The US military will be stepping into a morass. Iraq presents as unpromising a breeding ground for democracy as any in the world. It has never really known democracy or even legitimate, centralized rule for any great duration.” She added that “a small US force sufficient to bring about Saddam’s demise might not be sufficient to stop the subsequent bloodletting” (p. 65). Likewise, in February 2003, Anthony Zinni would tell the House Foreign Relations Committee that they were paying too little attention to the administration’s lack of an exit strategy for Iraq, and too little attention to the vagueness of their goals. He said, “is it truly this transformed Irq that we’ve heard about, or are we just going to get rid of Saddam Hussein and hope for the best” (p. 87). It’s surprising to read and to be reminded that such clear concerns were raised in the run up to war. What surprises and shocks even more is Ricks’ account of how, having committed to the invasion of Iraq, America appeared to have no understanding of what it would do the day after it reached Baghdad.

First was the failure to go in with enough force to stabilize the country once it was captured. Today the integration of military, policing, stability and security operations is called “three block war” or “full spectrum” war. For the guys who were first into Baghdad, that war doesn’t appear to have been envisioned. As one officer Ricks quotes memorably puts it, “I can remember quite clearly, I was on a street corner in Baghdad, smoking a cigar, watching some guys carry a sofa by – and it never occurred to me that I was going to be the guy to go get that sofa back” (p. 152). It would take several bloody years before the US could train and trust Iraqi soldiers and police to stabilize a broken country. In the meantime the US troops had to do everything themselves, and they made their task immeasurably more difficult.

As Ricks argues it, the Bush administration and misguided US military policies and doctrines could not have done a better job of creating an effective insurgency if they had tried. The decision to disarm the Iraqi military and create a huge pool of hostile and unemployed males, led by Baath party leaders and officers who were summarily tossed out of their jobs, is perhaps the greatest mistake. Others surprise, such as the ongoing search for WMD assets in Iraq after the invasion, which prevented limited American resources from seizing and destroying conventional weapons dumps, which were legion, and which effectively supplied the insurgents. Likewise the failure to secure the Syrian border in the first year allowed the insurgency time to mobilize and import weapons, cash and foreign fighters. If there was not a terrorist connection to Iraq before 2003, there certainly was a foreign and Al Qaeda presence there afterwards. Finally, the clumsy mass detentions of Iraqi males once the shape of the insurgency began to emerge (one army division detained ten thousand men in one year, “grabbing whole villages, because combat soldiers [were] unable to figure out who was of value and who was not” p. 195).

These mass detentions swamped the limited resources of US military prisons and police, and harsh interrogation practices, made scandals such as Abu Ghraib inevitable. The damage caused by Abu Ghraib and similar abuses, as well as unit-level beatings and executions (PUC fucking, meaning the beating up of a prisoner or PUC, PUC standing for Person Under Control, emerges as a new term in the history of war and abuse) in the field, while impossible to quantify, made the US task immeasurably harder. One Marine General in the spring of 2004 remembers seeing his soldiers glued to a TV just after the Abu Ghraib story broke. “A nineteen-year-old lance corporal glanced up from the television and told the general, “Some assholes have just lost the war for us” (p. 290). This teenage soldier certainly understood what was at stake in these abuses. The long life of these abuses in the media also underminded the morale and sense of purpose of the US troops. As a Marine Corps historian puts it, “We now spend ninety-five percent of ourmtime talking about the Abu Ghraib stuff, and one percent talking about the valour of our troops” (p. 380).

As Ricks describes it, a besieged American military forgot the lessons it had learned the hard way in previous counter-insurgency campaigns such as Vietnam and had to re-learn them. Living in huge bases with every conceivable amenity while Iraqis lived around them without electricity, driving through cities at high speed with itchy trigger fingers, relying on mercenaries and private contractors while remaining and ignorant of the local culture - all these US errors enabled the insurgents to portray themselves as patriots fighting an occupation force. As one Special Forces officer wrote home in 2003, “Police, [electric] power and political process ... will fix this place, and if we give them those three then we can get the heck out of here” (p. 241). Some US commanders found clever and non-violent ways to reduce their problems. One brigadier of the 101st Airborne Division, on learning of Iraqi rumours that US night-vision goggles could see through women’s clothing, put on a demonstration of the equipment for local leaders in the Tigris Valley. This and similar meetings developed into a commission which the US commanders in the area could use for dialogue and for solving regional issues (p. 231). By 2006, this population-based approach would be the doctrine that the entire US army was trying to use.

Amidst this story of folly and tragedy, some figures emerge as heroes. Ricks describes one Army military intelligence officer who early on in 2003 took issue with interrogation practices that included hitting with closed fists and “low-voltage electrocution”. This officer wrote in an e-mail exchange on interrogation techniques that “We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there (p. 198).” Likewise, the heroism and professionalism of many US soldiers, such as the Marines who had to fight to capture the city of Fallujah in March 2004 and then do it all over in November that same year, testify to the tragedy and heroism of a military that can win battles but is put into a war that may never have served any real purpose. The grim conclusion of Ricks’ book is that years from now, if or when Iraq fractures and a regional war involving Kurds, Turks, Syrians and possibly others erupts, the US may have to send in its young men and women again, this time to face an even fiercer foe with (and Pakistan was still stable in 2006 when Ricks wrote this book) with even deadlier weapons.

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Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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