To any moderately aware person, the world inhabited by many of our political leaders appears to be one of moral anarchy.
Revelations of deception, deceit, disconnection and venal intransigence leap out at us daily.
Though disoriented by the glut of distressing info bits, we bravely continue to try to vote for some stability.
How do we weed out the untrustworthy promise makers from the promise keepers?
How do we sort out the selfless prophets from the self-serving?
Fortunately, there’s an old-fashioned storage and retrieval system that serves us well in this regard: a book is roomy enough for a reporter to employ philosophy, history, anthropology and political science, among other tools.
This is especially well illustrated by journalist Thomas E. Ricks’ recent study of a military disaster, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.
Ricks, The Washington Post’s senior Pentagon correspondent, and author of Making the Corps and A Soldier’s Duty, manages a juggling act that requires nearly 500 pages, and so accomplishes a level of clarification that defeats short-form columnists.
He places what was said next to what was done, and what was promised beside what was delivered. It’s very effective tactic, contained as it is in one set of covers rather than scattered across webpages or issues of newspapers, or briefly focused on by a TV camera.
Ricks begins Fiasco with this pronouncement: “President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 ultimately may come to be seen as one of the most profligate actions in the history of American foreign policy.”
Over the ensuing pages he makes his convincing case.
America’s soul had been severely wounded by the 9/11. Something had to be done, all agreed.
‘You are with us or you are against us,’ the post-9/11 neoconservative rhetoric went, and so some great untruths went largely unchallenged.
Of course Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction were never found.
But a more pernicious falsehood was that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were pals, linked in terrorism.
The truth is, they hated each other. Bin Laden feared Hussein as the greatest threat to his beloved Saudi Arabia (see The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright).
“In previous wars, Congress had been populated by hawks and doves. But as war in Iraq loomed it seemed to consist mainly of lambs who hardly made a peep,” Ricks recalls.
This time around, congresspeople eagerly swallowed anything they were fed.
Even the so-called ‘liberal’ press was supine.
But there were — let the record via Ricks show — some brave people speaking out back in 2002, including battle-forged US Marines.
“Those officers and their staffs were coming back to — Marine Lt. General Gregory Newbold, director of operations on joint staff — and saying, “Why Iraq? Why now?”
Their justified fear, Newbold later recalled, was that an Iraq would undermine the war on terrorism and deflect resources from the counteroffensive against bin Laden and al Qaida.
Marine Corps. General Anthony Zinni appears to have been especially prescient.
He said, just as the fiasco against Saddam was getting underway: “I think a weakened, fragmented, chaotic Iraq, which could happen if this isn’t done carefully, is more dangerous in the long run than a contained Saddam is now.”
The Bush administration would later call critics of the war, “Monday morning quarterbacks.”
But Zinni was only one of many brave warriors who dared to speak out well before the conflict was so grievously mishandled.
Saddam Hussein is dead and Osama bin Laden — mastermind of 9/11 — is still out there somewhere plotting more evil, and garnering more support for, and from, occupied Iraq.
When the Bush administration was trumpeting the capture of Saddam Hussein, it was all too easy to forget what was said in the foggy early days of the fiasco.
“The issue between you, the Bush administration and Iraq is not weapons of mass destruction. It is for you to get rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime,” an Al Jazeera reporter said to then secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld.
“Well, wrong,” answered Rumsfeld. “It is about weapons of mass destruction. It is unquestionably about that.”
The problem with conflating bin Laden and Saddam went far beyond just a dubious pretext for squandering resources in Iraq when Afghanistan demanded so much more attention.
It meant that the subsequent strategy and ensuing tactics would be wrongheaded.
Many rank-and-file American soldiers believed the false information that the Iraqis were linked to al-Qaida terrorists, or at least supportive of them, and 9/11 still fresh in their minds, treated them accordingly.
The grave error would come back on the US occupation forces repeatedly, as brutalized and humiliated innocents turned against Americans they were willing to at least tolerate.
The hideous abuses of prisoners by exhausted, poorly trained troops at Abu Ghraib were the inevitable outcome of misdirection from the highest levels.
In 2004 Maj. Gen. James Mattis encountered a group of marines outside a mess hall who were watching breaking news about the Abu Ghraib prison.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“A nineteen-year-old lance corporal looked up from the television and told the general, ‘Some assholes have just lost the war for us.’”
That young marine realized something that has eluded Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld throughout.
Deep in denial about the reception they would get from ‘liberated’ Iraqis, they were not prepared to fight a counter-insurgency, a war that requires as much empathy as clout, maybe more.
Few will now deny that Iraq is a mess. Any conflagration the size of the Iraq war, one that increasingly spills beyond borders, defies easy description — or ascription.
But it appears now that the early warnings went unheeded by those at the very top back in Washington. Critics were intimidated into acquiescence by charges of being unsupportive of the troops and soft and terrorism.
Angry optimism became a policy.
One of the few courageous politicians in Washington, one who risked being tarnished with dismissive labels after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq, was Rep. Ike Skelton.
He had the audacity to write to President Bush and quote Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz who warned against taking “the first step without considering the last.”
Skelton also referred to the words of military philosopher Sun Tzu: “To win victory is easy; to preserve its fruits, difficult.”
Being able to say “I told you so” must have come as very cold comfort to Congressman Skelton.
Always within the failure of diplomacy that is war there is some redemption in the form of men and women who defy the pressure to act in haste, or to allow themselves to be lured into degrading acts by anger or fear.
That redemption is also very much part of Ricks’ book.
For one instance, a reader will be less inclined to question the humanity of the military mind after reading about the courage, common sense and compassion with which Major General David Petraeus approached his occupation duties in Masul.
Had there been more like Petraeus, the US would have won more hearts and minds.
Had Rumsfeld and his cronies not aggressively sold the war through a “cloud of cognitive dissonance” more soldiers might have realized just what sort of war they were being asked to fight, and sealed borders, stopped looters, confiscated conventional weapon stockpiles…
Heck, if the Bush administration had been willing to call the Iraq war an actual war back when the first mistakes were being made, many ensuing sorrows could have prevented.
It is possible to see where the US went wrong, but the West may be in worse shape than when it started the adventure — with more skilled, better armed, more numerous and more bitter foes.
Now, in all the Western democracies, there will be those who will try to sell us easy solutions and quick fixes, “slam dunks” and “cake walks.” ‘Pull out now!’ Some will say. ‘Hit Iran and Syria,’ others will counter.
The time when the Iraq fiasco could have been prevented has passed. It distracted from, then fuelled, terrorism: Afghanistan is demanding more of the US and Canada than ever.
The only way out appears to be through.
At any rate, we must read the books, process the data, absorb the painful lessons, then ask informed, tough and unwelcome questions of our leaders and of ourselves. We must be prepared to abandon or modify our left- or right-wing, fall-back positions.
Well-written, exhaustively researched and well-argued, Fiasco is a good place for that demanding process to begin.
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks, Penguin, 482 pages, $36.50, hard cover