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An Army Betrayed

'Fiasco' is the story of US armed forces done in by civilian masters.

By Crawford Kilian 9 Apr 2007 |

Crawford Kilian's first piece for The Tyee was a reminiscence of his army basic training, "As Good a Shot as Oswald."

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  • Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq
  • Thomas E. Ricks
  • Penguin (2006)

I have very mixed feelings about the American military.

A pair of my black army boots, 44 years old, still sits in my closet. As a draftee I lucked out with good duty at Fort Ord, California, typing the orders that sent my fellow-draftees to Vietnam. I got to meet and respect people I'd never have met outside the service.

But when I watch the news and the Iraq documentaries, and when I read the war blogs, I usually see an army I don't know and don't like. This army's uniforms are strange. Its weapons look like props from Star Wars. Its enlisted men and women are even more ignorant of the world than we were. The major link to its past is that its spokespersons, like those of the Vietnam era, are supreme bullshit artists.

Yet I have a deep respect for the people who serve in any country's military, especially a country that considers itself democratic. They are their country's people in arms. Wise or foolish, they are not to be trifled with, and still less to be betrayed.

In his book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks demonstrates that the United States armed forces, and especially the army, have been trifled with and betrayed by their civilian masters. What he says about American soldiers has implications for our own.

The Iraq Book as news coverage

Since the Iraq War began, books about it have become a genre of their own. Such books are so easily written and published that they're actually preferable to the news stories that appear on paper and online. They appear when events are still fresh in memory, and they offer coherent narratives in place of the sound bites and fragmentary stories offered on TV and in the papers.

Thomas E. Ricks published Fiasco last summer. Yet it's not dated at all. Many of the characters in his book, like General David Petraeus, are still actively engaged in the war. Today's car bombings are much like those of two years ago.

More importantly, Ricks gives us a useful perspective on the war -- that of the soldiers and Marines actually fighting it. While civilians certainly play an important role in the book, it's the officers and enlisted personnel who dominate the story -- especially the generals.

The U.S. military is a culture Ricks clearly likes and understands, without becoming a war groupie like so many embedded reporters. He knows the military's history and sociology. He knows it includes good ole boys who love bass fishing, and warrior-scholars whom Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz would have respected.

Winning the war only to lose it

But Ricks maintains some detachment from the remarkable people who fight America's wars, and this makes his book all the more devastating an indictment of their moral failures and strategic incompetence. The American military won the Iraq War, and then set about losing it.

It's a truism that armies always want to fight the last war and get it right the next time. As a basic trainee in 1963, I learned how to fight Korea again.

Not now. Ricks shows that after Vietnam, the U.S. military deliberately forgot everything it had painfully learned about counterinsurgency warfare. Instead it focused on big, set-piece battles in which overwhelming force would smash any conceivable enemy...and then provide the victors with a great meal and email access to the folks back home.

The Gulf War of 1991 seemed to vindicate that doctrine, but it failed abysmally in Iraq. Bizarrely, it failed in part because Donald Rumsfeld thought the modern U.S. military too conservative, too concerned about the number of boots on the ground. He wanted to teach the generals a lesson: You can win a war cheaply, with a small force.

The generals who disagreed were soon gone, notably Eric Shinseki. When other generals saw that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff could be hung out to dry, they fell into line.

Triumph of incompetence

What followed was a triumph of incompetence. The neoconservative promoters of the Iraq War deliberately crowded out the professionals who were planning for the postwar Iraq. They chose a tactician, Tommy Franks, to run the war, rather than a strategist who could think beyond the day the tanks rolled into Baghdad on a "thunder run."

Ricks documents in depressing detail the disastrous year that followed that day. Scholar-warriors like David Petraeus ran their patches of Iraq with intelligence and civility. Bullies like Raymond Odierno served as recruiters for the insurgents, alienating ordinary Iraqis. Meanwhile Paul Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority committed one folly after another, including the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the blacklisting of all Baath Party members. Most U.S. generals hated him more than they hated the insurgents.

Here and there, officers like Petraeus and Marine general James Mattis made real but temporary progress. Colonel H. R. McMaster planned and executed a brilliant campaign to regain control of the town of Tall Afar without needless carnage.

But it says something that he did so by drilling his troops in what should have been self-evident: "Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy." That was in June 2004, when the war was effectively lost already.

How lost? According to the Saudi agency Arab News, on March 27 some 85 people were killed in Tall Afar when a suicide truck bomb exploded in a Shiite part of town. That led to a revenge massacre of Sunni men.

Ricks is a fine writer and a perceptive observer of military politics. He lays blame where it is clearly deserved: on Bush, on Rumsfeld, on Wolfowitz and the other neocons who stampeded their country into disaster. He writes sympathetically of the officers who knew better, and who tried within the system to mitigate the disaster. He argues plausibly that a hurried U.S. withdrawal would indeed lead to a still greater bloodbath.

Wars of necessity and wars of choice

Yet he never really questions the U.S.'s right to throw its weight around as it has. Afghanistan, he says, was a war of necessity; Iraq, a war of choice. The problem with Iraq, in his view, is that it drew resources away from the first fight and was badly planned-not that it was legally and morally wrong. Like Tacitus, Ricks sees the errors that empires commit. And like Tacitus, he doesn't see that empires are errors by definition; they will always make a desert and call it peace.

It's easy to root for Ricks's heroes, the scholar-warriors who have thought deeply about counter-insurgency. But they too have not thought about why people rebel against empires. Petraeus is now running the American "surge" in Baghdad, while the truck bombs keep exploding.

Meanwhile, our own troops in Afghanistan are doing a slow-motion reprise of Iraq 2004: trying to rebuild a shattered country while fighting the Taliban insurgency. Our prime minister promises not to cut and run. CBC runs a stupid radio soap opera called Afghanada. Various Canadian academics are pimping the war as a good reason to get more money into our military.

Ricks shows that the Americans really didn't know what they were doing, and their professional soldiers couldn't educate their political masters. From what we see of our own efforts in Afghanistan, the same is true of our politicians and our soldiers.

This makes me sad. I would have thought that in the 44 years since I first laced on my army boots, the politicians and professional soldiers would have seen the folly of such wars. The politicians have yet again betrayed the soldiers, and the soldiers have yet again betrayed themselves.

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