- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
You’d think ARMY magazine would welcome a free piece about Iraq from a best-selling author. Apparently not — they have declined to run this response I wrote to their two articles about my new book, The Generals. I even said they could run it as a letter to the editor, but no. They didn’t say why. I am sorry to see them turn away from what might have developed into a good, vigorous debate about what the Army should learn from its time in Iraq.
Make up your own mind — below is the letter apparently too hot for them to handle.
Thank you for carrying articles about my new book, The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today, in both your January and February issues. I appreciate the attention. However, I think that Brig. Gen. John S. Brown’s commentary, "Do We Need an Iraqi Freedom Elevator Speech?", requires a response.
General Brown makes several questionable assumptions in the article.
The first is that in 2003 the Army did in fact understand unconventional warfare in Iraq. Sure, there were isolated instances of individuals, such as the one he cites. I interviewed many of these people and wrote about many of them in my 2006 book Fiasco. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer. General Sanchez and other senior leaders did not act upon such instances, and instead focused on large-scale indiscriminate roundups of "military age males." The fact that they did not take advantage of those moves underscores the point of my new book that the troops did not fail in Iraq, but that the Army’s leaders at the time did.
Also, throughout General Brown’s piece, there runs an assumption that having more troops would have made a major difference during the initial year of occupying Iraq. This is an unproven point. In my opinion, given the poor leadership of Lt. Gen. Sanchez, having twice as many troops on the ground in 2003-04 might well have resulted in having twice as many angry Iraqis driven to support the insurgency. Given the indiscriminate roundups and associated abuses that occurred that year by the units at Abu Ghraib, by the 82nd Airborne and by the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Anbar Province, and by the 4th Infantry Division in north-central Iraq, such a result seems more likely than not. In addition, those roundups stuffed thousands of people into the detention system, overwhelming the system and clogging the interrogation of suspected terrorists, as well as helping provoke riots inside the jails.
Did the Army really give a good account of itself in Iraq, as General Brown asserts? If so, I would counter, why did it take the Army until early 2007 to begin operating effectively in that war? The preceding period of maladaptive operations, from 2003 to 2007, lasted longer than the U.S. Army fought in World War II.
General Brown depicts the Army as a surprisingly passive institution. Things just kind of happened to it. For example, in passing he mentions Lt. Gen. Sanchez. But who selected Sanchez to command in Iraq? Who thought that he was the best person for the job? Did that just happen to the Army, or was its leadership simply a group of bystanders? The Army had a responsibility to provide the very best of leadership, talent, resources, and priorities to the fight in Iraq. Did it?
Yes, I understand that the relationship between the defense secretary and the Army’s leadership was toxic in the spring of 2003, a crucial period that shaped much of what followed. But this does not excuse the failure to have an adequate Phase IV plan for Iraq, or for Army generals to say that they had all the troops they needed if they indeed believed they did not, or to insist that things were going well when it was clear to anyone on the streets of Baghdad that they were not. All this cannot be blamed on Ambassador Bremer and other civilians. At any rate, I would say that part of the duty of generals is to speak truth to power, even with it makes civilian overseers uncomfortable. It is not clear to me that the Army’s generals did this in 2004-06.
The bottom line is that General Brown’s commentary could only be written by someone who never actually witnessed our war in Iraq.
The issue here is more important than someone simply misunderstanding my book. I worry that a narrative is emerging in today’s Army that holds that the military pretty much did everything right, but that the civilians screwed things up. Certainly, the Bush administration made huge errors in invading and occupying Iraq. I’ve written more than one book that looked at those.
But the military also made mistakes, and I don’t see those being addressed. This should be a time of sober reflection, not of hunkering down and refusing to listen to reasonable criticisms. Why do we not see now reviews akin to the Army War College’s 1970 study on the state of the officer corps? Until we see such hard, probing analysis that does not spare the feelings of our generals, the accounts of the Iraq war that capture the attention of the public and the Congress are indeed likely to be written by outsiders.
Thomas E. Ricks