Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks Rothdas book review RSS
5.0 Stars

This was a somewhat depressing and somewhat infuriating book. One measure of its effect is that after reading it, I nearly commented on a political thread on Facebook before regaining my senses. _Fiasco_ details the errors made in the Iraq conflict from 2001-2005, and doles out portions of blame-pie to the executive branch, the legislative branch, the pentagon, and the press. It is basically a 450 page exercise in finger pointing, which is not necessarily a bad thing after a such a disaster.

Some portions of blame are rather small or at least unsurprising. For instance, congress has a long and storied history of rolling over and going along with wars, so it was kind of expected that they would do the same thing here and it is difficult to be too disappointed in them. The press comes out much worse in the lead up to the war in that so much of the mainstream press bought into and propagated the party line. On the flip side, the press come out much better after the war had started and the realities on the ground became apparent. The book gives the military a somewhat larger portion of the blame, and the details of the military operations take up most of the latter half of the book. Despite the fact that it was the military who were actually implementing the fiasco, I personally found it difficult to assign them too much of the blame. The organization was built for full scale war and not for administration or counterinsurgency, so it is difficult to fault them when the civilian leadership tries to use them in those roles and then the military messes up. This is especially so when when the civilian leaders ignore the professional advice about the required number of troops or the best way of handling a problem (e.g the initial conflicts at Fallujah or whether to disband the Iraqi military). So while there were plenty of military mistakes, they did have the hardest job, they were being employed incorrectly, and they were at least able to learn from their mistakes and improve.

And at last we come to the executive branch and their appointees, where a lion sized piece of the blame pie is laid. Everything else in the book has been understandable; legislatures typically roll over once the bloody shirt is waved, portions of the press always support the calls for war, and commanders who have been developed for all out war usually make for terrible administrators, diplomats, and counterinsurgency fighters. The executive though is something of a puzzle; how did the top positions come to be so uniformly filled by incompetents? I've been turning this over in my head for a while now. On the one hand, you have the public statements from the top appointees (consistently divorced from reality, basically just pure big lie/marketing speak) as well as their descriptions by others (as very intelligent and well educated, often friendly and likeable, who made horribly incorrect decisions about what would actually work in the world). I could think of several contributing causes (unwillingness to listen to subordinates, unpleasant information, or experts in the relevant domain). One possibility I thought might be the root cause was that we had basically let the marketing team take over decision making, i.e. these people rose to their positions 100% through the use rhetoric and the manipulation of words/images rather than through competence in dealing with the world or problems outside the human mind. However, if that was the case I'm not sure why only the US executive would be hit so hard by this phenomena, when it seems like it should be fairly endemic to any large power structure. And yes, to a certain degree politics does triumph over substance in most orgs, but typically you still see a basic core of competence. Some possible answers are that it might be that a reflection of contemporary American society (e.g. Joe Bageant's hologram, or it could just be the author's/my own liberal biases showing and making the administration out worse than they actually were. Perhaps an Azadian system would work better, where top roles are filled by competition at relevant tasks? Further study is called for.

And now for the quote of the book:
"The dumbest fucking guy on the planet" - General Franks on Feith. When you search for the phrase on google, Feith's wikipedia page is the first result, which I guess is some kind of justice.