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Book Decries 'Fiasco' in Iraq

Thomas Ricks, senior Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post, talks about his new book, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Ricks, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, takes a hard look at the American military invasion and occupation of Iraq.



TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Thomas Ricks of The Washington Post talks about his
book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," taking a
hard look at US military invasion and occupation of Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In his new book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," my guest
Thomas Ricks writes, quote, "The US-led invasion was launched recklessly with
a flawed plan for war and a worse approach to occupation. Spooked by its own
false conclusions about the threat, the Bush administration hurried its
diplomacy, short-circuited its war planning and assembled an agonizingly
incompetent occupation," unquote. Ricks' books examines how false conclusions
were used to lead us into war and how the occupation was mishandled. The book
is based on several hundred interviews, his own coverage of events in
Washington, DC, and Iraq, and a vast number of documents. Ricks is the senior
Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. He was a member of two teams
that won Pulitzer Prizes for national reporting.

Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You write in your new book, "Fiasco,"
that one of the reasons for all the problems that we face in Iraq is that "we
used intellectual acrobatics by simultaneously worst-casing the threat
presented by Iraq while best-casing the subsequent cost and difficulty of
occupying the county." What do you think have been the consequences of that?

Mr. THOMAS RICKS: I think we went into Iraq with an unrealistic idea of the
difficulty of occupying the place, without due consideration of what the
military tasks might be without integration of military operation and a
civilian operation. We basically--we're kind of reckless in how this country
conducted the first-ever occupation of an Arab nation by US forces.

GROSS: Was this bad accounting, you know, the fact that we overestimated how
easy it was going to be and underestimated what the cost was? Was this bad
accounting or was this deceitful?

Mr. RICKS: I don't know. That kind of goes to intent, and I really have not
been able to get inside the mind of either Vice President Cheney or President
Bush, but it does indicate to me that it wasn't simply pessimism. The Bush
administration can't say, `Oh we were just really grim in our outlook about
the Middle East.' No. They were very grim about the threat presented by
Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons, but very cheerful and optimistic about the
ease of being in Iraq once we were there. And that really, I think, is the
result of an awareness that this was not going to be a popular war. That
there wasn't going to be a lot of support. And so they really had to pull it
off very quickly., They treated it almost like a political campaign. Play up
the threat, downplay the difficulty, get it through Congress, ram it past them
and make it a fait accompli. And once you've done it, it really didn't matter
that there weren't weapons of mass destruction because, guess what? You're

GROSS: One more thing about how we got into Iraq before we get to the
reconstruction, you write that the "National Intelligence estimate of October
2002 succeeded brilliantly as a political document, but as a professional
intelligence product, it was shameful." But you say it did its job, which
wasn't really to assess Iraq's weapons programs but to sell a war. What
finally was most misleading about that report?

Mr. RICKS: Fundamentally, it was a public relations document rather than a
sober, careful summary of the best thinking in the intelligence community
about the situation with Iraq. And it kind of stuns me even now that this was
accepted because a year or two earlier, you had people like Colin Powell
saying publicly, `No, they don't have weapons of mass destruction. They're
not a threat. Saddam Hussein is contained.' And without any additional
evidence emerging, the US government characterization of all that changed
radically. Suddenly, we heard talk of mushroom clouds, of threats on the
horizon, about the need for pre-emption with no new facts, but simply a change
in the rhetorical approach to Iraq.

GROSS: Was the intelligence community misled? Did it have bad information?
Was it doing a favor for the president?

Mr. RICKS: You had a process, I think, where the top of the intelligence
community, George Tenet, really, I think didn't do well where he didn't seek
out the best thinking and where dissents were either neglected or suppressed
or ignored or minimized. So all the bias, as the information moved upward,
was in one direction. It wasn't like all the doubts were eliminated. It was
just all the doubts on one side of the argument were eliminated. And so all
the evidence that said `Yes, he has WMD' moved upwards. All the people saying
no were suddenly not heard from. And so the National Intelligence estimate
that was presented in the fall of 2002 fundamentally did not accurately
reflect what we had spent billions of dollars trying to gather the data
information about Iraq.

GROSS: Are you saying it was Tenet who was responsible for headlining the bad
news and burying--you know, for headlining, `Oh, bad news! They have weapons
of mass destruction,' and burying the fact that we don't really know that?

Mr. RICKS: Yes. I am. The moment in the book that really captured it for
me was when Anthony Zinni, a recently retired Marine was sitting behind Dick
Cheney at the VFW convention in Nashville in August 2002, and Cheney got up
and gave a speech that I really think was the declaration of war in Iraq. He
said, `There is no doubt that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.' General
Zinni was standing behind Cheney on the stage because he was there to receive
his own award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and he looked at Cheney and
thought, `My God! I still have all my clearances. I know all the
intelligences. I'm out at CIA all the time, and there's no evidence to back
up that statement he just made.' And then the second thought General Zinni
had--remember he was--had been the commander of Central Command, the US
headquarters for operations in the Middle East, the second thought that Zinni
had was `My God, these guys are going to war in Iraq.'

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks, senior Pentagon
correspondent for The Washington Post. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner and
author of the new book "Fiasco," which is about the US invasion, occupation
and reconstruction attempts in Iraq.

Since there wasn't really a reconstruction plan for Iraq or an occupation
plan, you write that the military was in the position of having to come up
with plans virtually over night. Can you give us an example of that?

Mr. RICKS: The problem going into Iraq was twofold in the lack of a plan.
One is how do you conduct a military occupation? The second is things like
how do you run this country?. In neither case was there anything really
ready. Colonel Alan King is quoted in my book as being told `You have 24
hours to come up with a plan for what this division, the 3rd Infantry
Division, is doing here in the occupation.' He'd been asking for months for a
plan and been told, `Don't worry. You'll have it when you need it.'

The effect of this was that we sent in troops that had not been trained,
equipped or mentally prepared for what they had to do, and it was quite tragic
and my heart goes out to troops who are put in this impossible situation.
Nineteen, 20, 21-year-old American troops are told `You now need to occupy
this huge Arab country where you don't know the language and we don't have
enough interpreters for you and we don't have enough troops.' And you have
tragic situations occurring.

For example, where some troops in the 1st Armored Division were told to stop
looting. And they decided that the best way to deter looters was to make them
cry. And so at one point, the soldiers have a father and his two teenage
sons, and they tell the father, `We're going to shoot one of your sons. Which
one is it going to be?' And the father said, as most fathers would, `No, shoot
me instead.' But they took one of the sons around to the other side of the
truck and then conducted a mock execution, firing a weapon next to his head
and then let them go because they had cried. That's a bad situation to put
soldiers in. They improvise. Their answers weren't good. But I don't blame
the soldiers for that, even though what they did was wrong. I blame the
leaders who put them in that situation.

GROSS: Now you said, by describing ourselves as liberators instead of
occupiers, the military planned the wrong strategy in some ways. What's the
difference between a liberation strategy and an occupation strategy?

Mr. RICKS: The liberation does a couple of things. First, it is--it kind of
sends the message, `We're not going to run this place. We're going to come
in, free you and leave.' It's kind of just like, `We'll just open up the jail
doors and leave.' The second thing though, if you think of yourself as a
liberator, then anybody who opposes you must be bad, must be someone who is
against liberation. And there was a real confusion on the ground among troops
about who the enemy was.

I have a story in the book about the 4th Infantry Division, and leaders in
that unit saying, `These people are terrorists and they will be treated as
such.' They began to think of anybody opposing them as terrorists. Troops
weren't sure whether the Geneva Convention applied because if you're fighting
terrorists, they had been told by their leaders, the civilian leadership, that
Geneva Conventions no longer applied. So what rules did apply in handling
Iraqis? Troops looked around and they saw CIA officers and their local Iraqi
hires beating people and torturing them, and they thought, `Well, those guys
are the professionals. That must be how you do it.'

GROSS: And you write that there are certain things that you can do as an
occupying force that could help keep control and keep order that you wouldn't
do as liberators. Like curfews. What else?

Mr. RICKS: Well, you essentially are responsible as an occupier for
enforcing the rule of law, and you take over the mechanism of the country.
One area where this really became very damaging for us was the lack of an
Iraqi prison system. It became evident in the late summer of 2003 that there
really was no working Iraqi prison system, and so if you were going to detain
Iraqis, that the American military would have to do it. That nothing was
being stood up by the civilian authority, called the CPA. And so the military
said, `OK, we'll do it.' But they weren't prepared. They weren't trained.
And they didn't have enough people to do it. And you wind up with a situation
like Abu Ghraib prison where undertrained, demoralized reservist troops felt
overwhelmed by the situation, really didn't know what they were doing,
deferred to a couple of sadistic soldiers who in civilian life were prison
guards and created an enormous strategic setback for the United States

GROSS: Now you write "because we underestimated the task at hand"--something
that we already talked about--that "because we underestimated the task at
hand, we didn't send a well-trained coherent team of professionals to Iraq."
Who did we send?

Mr. RICKS: Well, the people who went out initially for the Coalition
Provisional Authority tended to be young Republicans, people who had worked in
campaigns, who really didn't have a lot of credentials except loyalty to the
Republican Party, and they kind of had a very ideological approach, which is,
`We're not just going to come to this country and get rid of Saddam Hussein,
we're going to give them a free market. We're going to have a flat tax even.
We're going to do things like shut down inefficient government-owned factories
and let the thousand flowers of the free market bloom.' It really was quite a
radical approach. One of the thoughts that occurred to me as I was writing
the book was that George Bush and his team had much more in common with Jerry
Rubin, the 1960s radical, than they had with Winston Churchill, the classic
conservative icon. They really were going to, kind of, `groove on the
rubble,' as Jerry Rubin used to say. They were going to tear it down and see
what happened. And that's kind of what they were doing in Iraq, which is kind
of making it up as you go along.

GROSS: So what problems do you think this caused?

Mr. RICKS: Well, with this radical approach they brought in, which is `Let's
just tear down Saddam's system and let a new system emerge,' the first two
steps that Ambassador Bremer took when he went into Iraq, I think, went a long
way toward fueling the insurgency. The first step was the de-Baathification
order, which basically said anybody who had been a fairly seasoned member of
the Baathist Party no longer had a place in Iraqi society, across the board.
And it's striking that when the CIA station chief in Baghdad was shown the
order in a draft form, he looked at and he told Bremer, `You can sign this but
if you do, you'll have 50,000 people driven underground by tonight, and six
months from now, you're going to regret it.' Now that's not some CIA guy
second-guessing later on. That's a guy predicting accurately at the moment on
a policy issue.

The second thing is, not long after that, Ambassador Bremer dissolved the
Iraqi military and with it the minister of the interior police. Those two
steps, de-Baathification and dissolution of the military put out on the street
tens of thousands of disaffected Iraqis who were leaders, many of them, and
also had access to financing. And so, between those policy changes and US
military tactics, the three basic problems of any insurgency were solved. And
any insurgency as it's emerging has to deal with recruiting, financing and
arming itself, and between our policies and tactics, we basically solved all
three problems.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, The Washington Post senior Pentagon
correspondent. His new book about Iraq is called "Fiasco."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is The Washington Post senior
Pentagon correspondent Tom Ricks. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner. His new book
is called "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

You know, you were talking about how we inadvertently fueled the insurgency by
helping them inadvertently with arming, financing and recruiting by disbanding
the Iraqi military. And another problem that you talk about in terms of
dealing with the insurgency is that the insurgents became more and more
seasoned but new troops were constantly being rotated into Iraq. So you had
insurgents that were more and more seasoned facing new soldiers who weren't
seasoned at all.

Mr. RICKS: It's one of the odd lessons of Vietnam. The US military came out
of Vietnam and said, you know, `We had this individual replacement system
where soldiers came in individually into units and then left after one year.'
So there was constant turnover in units and it got a lot of turmoil and people
feeling alienated and not having cohesion with their comrades. So they said,
`We know what we'll do. No longer individual rotation. Now we'll have unit
rotation.' But that has its own very negative effects. So you have units come
in, they spend a year in Iraq, and then they leave. So they're a very
cohesive unit. They all know each other, there's a sense of comradeship, but
what happens when you take one unit out and put a new one in is you're back to
almost zero in understanding Iraq and dealing with the locals. And Iraq is an
intensely relational society. It doesn't matter what your job title is there.
It matters whether somebody knows you. So if the Iraqi sheikh knows a young
lieutenant, he'll deal with him, rather than deal with the older commander,
the guy who's really in charge, the colonel. And so you put people in for a
year, and then they leave. And you lose all that accumulated knowledge, and
we've been doing this now for several years in Iraq. I'm not sure it's
possible to win with a rotational military in a relational society.

GROSS: Is that another example of how we didn't prepare for an occupation?
Would--if we had been prepared for an occupation, would we not have had people
rotating in and out like that?

Mr. RICKS: I think it's an example more of a US military establishment that
really isn't fully mobilized for victory in Iraq, that is not thinking
innovatively and originally about how to win in Iraq. I sometimes worry that
the US Army would rather preserve its personnel system than win in Iraq. I
think winning in Iraq is not only still possible, I think it's hugely
important. But I think in order to win in Iraq, you'd have to change the
approach. You'd have to change how we train our troops, how we think about
it, how we conceive of the operation. One commander in Iraq complained to me
that we have a force in Iraq that would rather protect itself than protect
Iraqis. You still have a force that largely sees Iraqis as the playing field
in this war, rather than the prize.

The best thing to do with an insurgent is not to kill him. The best thing is
to make him irrelevant. Maybe get him to desert. Maybe put down the gun and
go into politics. But, basically, the fight is about the people. It's not
about the enemy. And that's a real huge shift for the US military, and I
think there have been changes in the military. But the military establishment
as a whole, I think, really has not thought seriously about how much it would
need to change in order to win there. One example would be, you might say,
you know, there is a problem you hear about with relationships. We do need to
maintain them. So what we can do is keep all brigade and division
commanders--that is to say, senior commanders and their staff--in Iraq for two
or three years. Now people would say that would break up their families. It
would abuse them, result in divorces.

I could design a system, anybody could in those military, or maybe you put
people in for two months and then have then come out for one month, which is
what a lot of reporters do in Iraq. A two-month in, one-month out policy.
You can give them extra staff. You can give them senior executive officers
who can run the unit when they're not there. And you can make it worth their
while. You can say, `When you finish here, Colonel, you will automatically
get a one-grade promotion to brigadier general,' and so on. You could say,
`When you come out of here, you will automatically get any military education
that you missed, like going to the Army War College. You will go to the front
of the line.' You'd have to be innovative. You'd have to really depart from
kind of the industrial-era model of military personnel management. But I
think it would be worth thinking about because I think it could lead to
victory in Iraq.

GROSS: You write, "While the nation was a war and American soldiers were
dying, the Pentagon top civilians were estranged from the Army's leadership."
What were the disagreements between the Pentagon and the Army during the

Mr. RICKS: Well, the background was there is a kind of running feud almost
between Donald Rumsfeld and the Army's leadership, especially General Eric
Shinseki. And it's a bad situation to go into a war with in which there
simply is a fundamental misunderstanding between the Army, the most importance
service in this war, and the civilians leading it. So the point was
immediately after the invasion, Rumsfeld fired Tommy White, the secretary of
the Army. A couple of months later, General Shinseki stepped down in a very
bitter retirement ceremony to which he would not invite Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz.

Then they're on the ground in Iraq and again and again, commanders would say
they needed more troops. And the word came back again and again, `You're not
going to get them.' So for example, early on, the top US military headquarters
in Iraq did what they call a troops-to-task analysis, in which they looked at
the missions they've been given and then look at how many troops it would take
to do that. And they came to the conclusion that they needed about twice as
many troops as they had on hand. So there was a kind of resentment that the
people at the top weren't listening to them, weren't paying attention and were
simply making decisions based on beliefs in Washington rather than the
realities of the ground in Iraq.

GROSS: Tom Ricks is The Washington Post senior Pentagon correspondent. His
new book is called "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.' He'll
be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Tom Ricks thinks there's only a 5 percent chance of a stable democracy
emerging in Iraq. Coming up, he tells us why and we continue our discussion
of his new book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Ricks, the senior
Pentagon correspondent for The Washington Post. We're talking about his new
book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." It examines how the
Bush administration used false conclusions to lead us to pre-emptive war in

Iraq and how the administration, the Coalition Provisional Authority and the
military mishandled the occupation.

You describe a kind of inconsistent sense of leadership in Iraq that, you
know, for example, you write that Jay Garner, when he was the head of the
Coalition Provisional Authority wanted to retrain the Iraqi military to do
low-tech reconstruction work. But then the CPA under Bremer's leadership
ended up disbanding the Iraqi army. So did the members of the Iraq army
consider this a broken promise?

Mr. RICKS: Very much. And it wasn't just that Jay Garner had said, `We're
going to hold on to the Iraqi military for reconstruction. These soldiers in
the Iraqi army had been leafleted for years by American airplanes dropping
leaflets over Iraq during the no-fly zone and especially during the run-up to
the war, and they'd been told, `Go home, don't fight us, we'll take care of
you.' And then when the Americans showed up, it was kind of like Charlie
Brown, you know, had the football pulled away, and they said, `No, you people
have no role in the society, get lost.' That occurred in the context also of
the looting, which I think many Iraqis were shaken by when they saw this
widespread looting and Donald Rumsfeld saying, `Well, stuff
happens...(unintelligible)...untidy.' It sent the message that either the
Americans couldn't stop the looting, which meant that they really weren't
competent, or wouldn't stop the looting, which meant that the Americans may
not have the best interest of the average Iraqi at heart.

Iraqi--I'm not saying that's true. I'm saying that's how Iraqis interpreted
that. So to have that looting occur, the sense that, `Boy, these people
aren't taking responsibility,' and then have this sense of a broken promise
that many Iraqi military men felt, those throw people, I think, towards the

GROSS: So how does something so inconsistent as this happen? Did Paul Bremer
not know that the Iraqis had been leafleted and that the Iraqi military was
promised that we would take care of them?

Mr. RICKS: Well, it's kind of the opposite of what John F. Kennedy said.
Didn't he say that `Success has a thousand fathers. Failure's an orphan'? I
think, in this sense actually, failure had a thousand fathers. I think there
wasn't one root cause. It was again and again, decisions made with the kind
of careless attitude, a certain recklessness in the approach and a kind of
ideological approach which is `Let's not talk about Plan B because Plan A's
going to work, and we're certain it's going to work.' Well, you should always
have a Plan B handy in case despite your assumptions Plan A doesn't work.

But here, having any sort of alternative approach and saying, you know, `That
might not be the way Iraqis see it,' was kind of seen as disloyal, and I think
that goes to one of the themes of the Bush administration that I perceive,
which is dissent, honest dissent, is seen as disloyalty. And you see this in
the prosecution of the war generally. Most times when you fight a war, you
want to have a bipartisan basis. Here, people like Representative Ike
Skelton, who I write about in the book, a conservative Democrat. When he
brings up criticism to the Bush administration, he really gets the back of the
hand from the administration. His letters to the president are ignored. When
he tells a White House official that he has some real concerns about going to
war, rather than have those concerns addressed, the official said to him,
`Well, congressman, we don't need your vote.' So you have this very narrow
approach to the handling of the war.

The other thing that I think really caused a lot of these problems is what I
think of as the dog that didn't bark and all this. Most of the problems in
the war are sins of commission, whether it's the Bush administration, the
military establishment, the intelligence community or the media screwing up in
its stories. But the Congress is the fifth big problem, and I think in many
ways the biggest.

The Congress wasn't carrying through its responsibility to conduct oversight.
And so it wasn't quizzing the administration about what was going on in Iraq.
It wasn't getting solid information. It wasn't demanding that it get the
facts. Even now, it's very difficult to separate out Iraq from Afghanistan
because the Pentagon releases data that combines the two, the cost of the
operations and so on. Had you had the Congress more active, conducting
oversight, saying, `Mr. Rumsfeld, we need to have this information' or `We
want you to send your division commanders from Iraq to testify in front of
us,' I think that would have given the entire operation more rigor. It would
have given it the oxygen of information, and it would have addressed some of
these longstanding contradictions, the friction, for example, that was created
by having this hazy chain of command.

Nobody was in charge in Iraq. Bremer was in charge of the civilians. General
Sanchez and then General Casey were in charge of the military. But neither
reported to each other. Both reported to people on the other side of the
planet, 7,000 miles away, and because of this, it's a violation, by the way,
of classic doctrine, which is that you must have unity of command. You must
have one person in charge. Instead, you constantly, in Iraq, had the civilian
effort and the military effort at odds.

GROSS: And you write that over time the CPA, the Coalition Provisional
Authority, and the military acted less like partners and more like

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. One general said to me, he considered the CPA the biggest
asset the enemy had. It's quite a bitter assessment. But it was very odd in
Iraq during the CPA's time, that first year of the occupation from the summer
of '03 to the summer of '04. I'd be out in some base in Baquba or northern
Iraq. And it's dusty and it's hard and it's 120 degrees, and the wind blows,
and you constantly feel gravel and gritty. And, really, the biggest treat you
could have in life was having a shower and then going to sleep. And then you
go down to Baghdad and go inside the Green Zone, and it was party time.
People who were living in this old Saddam palaces. There were, I think, seven
bars in the Green Zone. You couldn't get alcohol in the US military and the
rest of the country. There was disco night. They were showing movies. It
really felt like another planet.

I used to think occasionally--if you remember your Superman comics--the
bottled city of Kandor which Superman kept in his cave up in the Arctic. And
I kind of feel in the Green Zone like I was in the bottled city of Kandor. It
didn't feel right for me. I didn't like being in the Green Zone, and I'd get
out of it, generally as fast as I could. It's a myth, by the way, that
reporters live in the Green Zone. Last I looked, there may be two or three
there, but most reporters actually live out in what the military calls the Red
Zone, which is the rest of Iraq.

GROSS: Getting back to the difference in goals between what the military
wanted to accomplish in Iraq and what the CPA wanted to accomplish, you know,
it was the military's job to keep the population quiet and to try to keep
things under control, to get some structure, and you were saying that the CPA
was trying to like radically change things, which would stir things up as
opposed to keeping things quiet and controlled.

Mr. RICKS: Exactly, and to see this in towns. I'd go into some town and I'd
be talking to the local American commander and the ones that were successful,
I'd say, `Well, who's the mayor?' `Oh, he's a former army general.' `Oh, he's
an old Baathist, but he's an OK guy.' They basically found the
upper...(unintelligible)...of the old system and would quietly install them
and kind of hide them sometimes from CPA. And they were really in some ways
out to subvert CPA policies, and they'd cut deals that kind of ignored
directives coming down from the CPA. Up in Mosul, for example, the 101st
Division under General Petraeus actually got a dispensation to ignore some of
the de-Baathification partly because the city was relatively quiet, and they
wanted to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the 101st left, and then the new
unit came in, as we were talking about rotation policies earlier. It was a
smaller unit, and it lost touch with the leaders in Mosul, and pretty soon
Mosul erupted.

GROSS: How did the Bush administration decide to end the CPA?

Mr. RICKS: Well, the CPA kind of never really got off the ground. It
reminded me of those old newsreels of US rocket launches in the '50s where
they kind of go up 15 feet and then go sideways. The CPA died a slow death.
It first had its ambitions curtailed in the fall of 2003, and then it was
announced, `No, the occupation is not going to last for years. In fact, we're
going to try to toss the ball of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government by
June of '04,' which is what they did. And Paul Bremer had a very quick, quiet
announcement, scooted out to the airport, hopped on one plane, and then as
soon as the observers left, hopped on another plane and got out of Iraq.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, The Washington Post's senior Pentagon
correspondent. His new book is called "Fiasco."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Ricks, senior Pentagon
correspondent for The Washington Post. He's a Pulitzer Prize winner and
author of the new book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

Private military contractors have played a very large role in Iraq. Where has
it worked best and where has it worked worst?

Mr. RICKS: The use of private military contractors, which is really
basically a polite term for mercenaries, has worked best when it's closest to
kind of a security role, a policing role, and I have no objection--I think
probably nobody does--to using people as bodyguards, civilians as bodyguards
for Paul Bremer or even for senior generals or for Iraqi officials who need
protection. Where it's most worrisome is when you have military-style units
that are not subject to military discipline or the military chain of command
and may not even be covered by any rule of law. And you get them out on the
streets of Baghdad and they are a law unto themselves. They are the law of
the gun. And their job is simply to protect some guy. They don't care about
the strategic goals of the United States. They don't care about making the
Iraqi population feel comfortable with the American presence. Their job is to
keep someone alive, so they drive up on the sidewalks. They point their
weapons to anybody who comes close to them. And they're doing--their mission
was just to keep some high authority, some leader alive, but, in the process,
they're undercutting the larger purpose of the Americans being there, and I
think that gets very dangerous. The lack of discipline is especially
worrisome when you get alcohol or drugs involved, and US troops, while they
occasionally sneak some alcohol, generally don't. And the private contractors
are not subject to those rules, and that's very dangerous.

The other thing that worries me is when they come home. The US military has a
very good mental health-care system that watches people, that pays attention
to people who have problems and acts on them and gets them counseling. You
take a private military contractor who's been through some very difficult,
violent times in Iraq, maybe abused alcohol to get him through the
posttraumatic stress disorder while he was there, and then he comes home and
he's on his own. And I worry about just letting those people out in society
and worry about their own personal safety as they try to deal with these
problems totally alone and isolated.

GROSS: You have written about disagreements within the civilian and military
leadership in Iraq and how there wasn't a clear chain of command. Are there
disagreements now between the military and Iraq and the Pentagon?

Mr. RICKS: Where I really see the divide these days is inside the military
itself. There's a lot of pessimism about Iraq at this point, inside the
military, especially among senior officers, I'd--you know, the majors,
lieutenant colonels, colonels and brigadier generals. The divide I see is
between the people who say, `This--we have just messed this up too much. This
can't work,' and another group that says, `No, we can do it. We just have to
tough it out.' And maybe in the third group that says, `We can still win, but
we'd have to be radically different.' So I think there's three very different
approaches there, and you see this also in the troops in Iraq. One commander
when I was there earlier this year said that one third of his commanders
understood the need to operate differently and conduct counterinsurgency
operations, which is very counterintuitive for most US commanders. Everything
they've been taught in their whole life as commanders is really turned upside
down when you're doing counterinsurgency. You don't want to use maximum
firepower, which is what you've been taught all your life. You want to use
the minimum amount of firepower necessary to get the job done. You treat your
prisoners well. Because today's prisoner might be the mayor tomorrow if
you're able to bring them into the political system. You really operate and
think very different. One third of his commanders, he said, got that.
Another third kind of understood it intellectually but didn't have the ability
to implement it. And then he said, the last third doesn't care, doesn't want
to know and is simply here to kick it over the...(unintelligible). And he
said those guys are just undercutting the operation.

GROSS: Give us a sense of what you think the possible outcomes are now in

Mr. RICKS: I'm pretty pessimistic, but I still think there's a chance. I
think there's a 5 percent chance that we'll wind up with a stable,
pro-American democracy. But I think it's a pretty small chance. I think it's
more likely that we'll simply stay there for another 15 or 20 years, kind of
keeping a lid on a low-level civil war, trying to prevent it from spreading
over the borders, and that's not unlike the French in Algeria or the Israelis
in Lebanon. Ultimately, they didn't prevail, but in some ways, a defeat
deferred is a form of victory. Neither the loss of Algeria for the French or
the end of the Lebanese occupation for the Israelis threatened the national
survival of the country.

But a worse scenario would be the war in Iraq spreading, and this is, I think,
a really worrisome possibility, and that could lead to spiraling oil prices
and global economic depression and terrorist acts, and I think that's a real
problem that we need to all pay attention to. That's not the nightmare
scenario, though. I think the worst-case scenario would be after years of
bloodshed and chaos, the Iraqi people get fed up and kind of turn to a new
strong man, who's probably anti-American, maybe a former military officer who
unites the country under a kind of Pan-Arab Iraqi banner, maybe Islamic
extremists, maybe some mix of nationalism and religious extremism, and takes
the oil that country has, takes the water that country has, the people it has,
the only Arab country that has all three, and unites them and harnesses them
and creates a new really anti-Western power, takes that oil money and goes out
and buys himself a nuclear weapon and starts attacking the West. And I think
that would be a real nightmare for us as well.

GROSS: But you think that's a real possibility, too?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I'd say it's out there at the far end of the spectrum as a
possibility, but there is a precedent for it. It's not unlike what happened
during the Crusades when Crusaders out of western Europe attacked a fractured
Arab world and were quite successful at first until a new Arab leader emerged.
His name was Saladin. He was an Iraqi Kurd from, of all places, Tikrit, Iraq,
hometown of Saddam Hussein. He united the Arab world and ousted the Crusaders
from most of the Middle East. So there is a precedent there.

GROSS: You've been writing about the military for a long time. You have a
lot of close contacts in the military, a lot of soldiers and former soldiers.
I think it's fair to say that you're friends because you've communicated with
them for so long. Is the result that you found in the book--are the results
that you found in your book about the invasion and occupation of Iraq
different from what you were expecting to find when you started?

Mr. RICKS: Yes, it was very different, in many ways dismaying to me. As you
say, a lot of these people are my friends. I've known these guys. I like and
admire people in the military. I spend a lot of time around them. I enjoy
them. And as I did my research and as I read these tens of thousands of pages
of documents, patterns began to emerge that were very disturbing to me. It
was a little bit like having a photograph develop in front of your eyes, one
of those old Polaroids or something, and you expect it'll be a photograph of
your daughter's birthday party or something, and instead, as the photograph
develops, you see an ax murderer standing in the background.

One of the things that really stunned me, and it was a hard chapter to write,
was the extent of abuse by US troops in Iraq. I had gone into writing the
book thinking that Abu Ghraib was a relatively small, unimportant part of the
Iraq story, and the more I read documents, the more interviews I did and the
more I talked to commanders about what went wrong out there, the more I
realized, no, this was a major problem and really helped turn a big chunk of
the Iraqi population against us. That Abu Ghraib was a misnomer. It wasn't
just a few troops in one place. It happened repeatedly in different units
across the country. It was not just some military police reservist. It was

the 4th Infantry Division. It was the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. It was
the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. I'm not saying it was universal in each of
those units. But in some units, there was an atmosphere that allowed a lot of
abuse to happen, and the commanders sometimes looked the other way when they
were notified about it. So that was a really unhappy surprise for me and
actually made writing that part of the book on the descent into abuse quite

GROSS: And do you think the extent of that abuse was because it was policy or
because there was a lack of leadership saying, `You can't do that.'

Mr. RICKS: I think that very much it was a lack of leadership and a lack of
preparation. But even if the troops were unprepared, if the commanders were
aware and sensitive to the issue and realized that it was a militarily
ineffective approach to allow abuse, it could get shut down pretty quickly.
One of the heroes in my book is Major General David Petraeus who commanded the
101st Airborne Division up in Mosul in northern Iraq. And the first time that
Petraeus heard about abuse in his division, he basically stopped the division.
He put it on hold and said not only `What happened there and who did wrong?'
he looked at himself in the mirror and said, `What are we doing wrong? What
has my approach been wrong hereabout?' Now Petraeus is striking because he's a
very well-educated man. He has a PhD from Princeton in international
relations, and he's studied the Vietnam War as part of his dissertation. He
knew that was not the right approach. So when he heard about abuse in his
division, he addressed the issue. He changed the procedures and made sure it
didn't happen again. He even went so far as to go to Iraqi leaders, clerics,
professors, political leaders and asked them to visit his detention facility
once a week to talk to detainees and make sure that they felt they were
treated all right. The effect of this was that abuse in his division stopped.
Even after they lost about 35 guys in one month, they were able to maintain
leadership. And when I asked him about this, he said, `It's the general who
sets the tone for the division.'

Another example I saw of this was the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which I
mentioned. On its first tour in Iraq, it was quite mediocre and had a lot of
instances of abuse and hitting Iraqis with baseball bats. And one prisoner
was beaten to death. Its second tour was led by a man named H.R. McMaster, a
colonel, and McMaster retrained that unit. He went to every soldier in that
unit and spoke to them in groups, and he told them, `Every time you disrespect
an Iraqi, you're working for the enemy.' It was a great phrase to use. It was
said in a way that soldiers could understand. Eighteen-year-old and
nineteen-year-old soldiers could say, `OK, I get that. We want to win here so
let's not disrespect Iraqis.' And they could remind each other, which is part
of discipline, is everybody taking responsibility for the unit.

McMaster did brilliant things also like setting up a program they called `Ask
the Customer.' When detainees were released, they were asked, `How were you
treated?' And the soldiers knew they'd be asked, and it was a way of saying,
`We will abide by the rule of law. We do carry out in our acts, as well as
our words, this intention to treat Iraqis differently and to show how a
military acts decently.'

The other thing that McMaster did that I was quite struck by when I was up
there earlier this year in Tal Afar, northwest
Iraq...(unintelligible)...operation, is he went to local insurgent leaders and
he said, `When the Americans first came to Iraq, we were like blind men
stumbling around a room. But now this new Iraqi government has turned on the
lights, and the time for honorable resistance is over.' It's the most
brilliant way I've ever heard of threatening to kill someone. It's an
apology, saying, you know, `We're sorry for our behavior here.' But he's also
saying, `You have to stop now. I know who you are, I know what you're doing,
and the time for honorable resistance is over.' It's such a way of respecting
Iraqi at the same time that you threaten to kill them. I think it was very

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, The Washington Post senior Pentagon
correspondent. His new book about Iraq is called "Fiasco."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, author of the new book, "Fiasco: The American
Military Adventure in Iraq." Ricks is The Washington Post senior Pentagon

Do you think that the American military has changed its methods of operation
sufficiently in Iraq to say--to be able to say we've learned from the mistakes
and things are different now?

Mr. RICKS: Parts of the military have learned from mistakes, and I think
people going back for a second tour are trying to do it very differently. I
was struck talking to soldiers early this year who are on their second tour
how different it felt to them and how they're being told to operate. But as I
said, this rule of one third--one third gets it, one third is trying, and one
third doesn't care--indicates to me that two thirds are probably still pretty
ineffective. So while there are changes, I think it's probably--it could be
too little too late.

GROSS: Do your sources include a lot of people in the military who have been
unhappy at how the Bush administration or the leadership of the military has
handled the war?

Mr. RICKS: Yes. I was really struck by the extent of unhappiness. I knew
that there were a lot of officers unhappy with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul
Wolfowitz. I hadn't quite appreciated the rage that some officers felt, a
real sense of betrayal that they felt in how this thing has been handled. The
sense they had that soldiers have died unnecessarily under their command and
that they will carry it with them the rest of their lives. Yes. So there are
people who are really upset.

There's also a sense that if we can get out an accurate account of what's
happened here, if we can do away with this rosy scenario look at Iraq and
honestly and soberly and coldly assess our operations, we could still win out
there. But there's a sense, I think, inside the Army, the Army has really
undergone a thorough self-examination that critically judges what they do.
For example, this is the first war I can think of in which no generals have
been relieved. Contrast that to General George Marshall at the outset of
World War II, relieved 250 officers, told them they were good men but they
were simply not what he needed. Dozens of generals were removed during World
War II. This is the first war I can think of, also, in which the Congress has
not held a single, significant hearing on the conduct of the war. In the
Civil War, Congress was intrusive and antagonized Lincoln, they looked into
the war so much. World War II, Harry Truman made his name by conducting
hearings on defense contracting. This Congress, as I say in the book, is
basically silent. In other wars, we had hawks and doves. In this war, we
have the silence of the lambs.

GROSS: Tom Ricks, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you.

GROSS: Tom Ricks is The Washington Post senior Pentagon correspondent. His

new book is called "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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