I had to lay off "Fiasco" for a few days to catch up on getting out the paper and the end-of-the-year billing, but I invested a couple of more hours in it this morning.
The most remarkable thing about the book is the hard look it takes at the military's failures during the war. All but the most rabid war supporters have conceded that civilian mistakes made the war much harder than it had to be, but Ricks is the first I have read who holds the military's feet so close to the fire.
His basic critique: The military was so traumatized by Vietnam that instead of learning that war's lessons about how to fight counterinsurgency it simply ignored those lessons. Hard-won wisdom about waging war on insurgents gathered in Southeast Asia, as well as by the French in Algeria and the British in colonial wars, simply was unknown in much of the U.S. military, Ricks said.
The result was that tactical successes have not translated into strategic gains. The real battle is not between U.S. soldiers and insurgents; the real battle is for the support of the Iraqi people. U.S. ignorance about Iraqi language and customs, and its insistence on using overwhelming force to minimize casualties, have helped fuel civil war.
Ricks quotes one commander who in unapologetically defending his unit's ruthless tactics pointed out that he had lost no soldiers in combat. But Ricks argues that commanders must place their highest priority on winning the war, not just on avoiding casualties. If the only goal is to keep soldiers from getting hurt, then everybody could have just stayed home.
It's a bit bracing to read such a stern critique from someone who obviously knows his stuff. I've always been amazed at right wingers who readily assume that every single government employee, from the Cabinet down through Congress to the lowliest clerk in the Social Security office, is lazy and incompetent -- with one huge exception: the military. There every soldier is a hardworking hero and every officer is fearless and wise.
The reality, of course, is that the military is plagued by many of the same obstacles that make other aspects of government function so inefficiently. It's refreshing to hear from a journalist who has the guts to say so openly.