Fighting talk

NO ONE BOTHERS to ask Washington Post journalist Thomas E. Ricks why he has called his first book Fiasco. An unflinching investigation into the US military's disastrous 'Adventure in Iraq', the title speaks for itself. This reticence is a shame, if only because the story behind Ricks' choice is so sombrely appropriate.

In 2004, Ricks was embedded with the 1st Infantry and heading for Najaf, where Moqtada al-Sadr and his militias were fighting. 'Just as we crossed the Euphrates, we ran into a prepared ambush,' Ricks says when we meet in London. 'We were bombed. There were machine guns. A soldier was killed and a couple more wounded. The next morning, I e-mailed my editor: 'I have the title for my book.' People said, 'Are you sure you want to call it that? Bush has just had a successful election. Isn't this thing really over?' I replied, 'I don't think so'.'

Ricks' forensic denunciation of the Bush administration, the US Congress and the leadership of the US military has divided readers. A best-seller in America, the book has gained friends in unexpected places. 'The number of soldiers writing to thank me is really surprising,' he says. 'A battalion commander thanked me for saying publicly what they had been saying privately. People who work for [Secretary of Defence Donald] Rumsfeld have said thank you. One wrote, 'You have really captured the conversation that has been building for the last several years'.'

The feedback hasn't been entirely positive, however. 'The US is very polarised right now,' Ricks says, calmly. 'So I have not been surprised by the number of death threats I've received. It's a pretty rough environment to be a journalist right now.' Fortunately, as the Washington Post's senior Pentagon correspondent, Ricks is used to dealing with more daunting adversaries than psychotic readers.

His globetrotting began early. Born in Massachusetts, he moved to Kabul as a teenager when his father's academic job took him to Afghanistan.

'It was really formative,' Ricks says. 'I was in the Afghan Junior Ski Patrol. Skied up in the Salong Pass. Had a hoot of a time, loved the country, the people, the history. It's astonishingly beautiful, especially up in the mountain valleys.'


Twenty-five years later, Ricks returned to Kabul to cover 2002's Anaconda Battle. 'My old neighbourhood was badly hit by the three-way civil war before the Taleban took over. My old house was occupied, it seemed, by Shi'ite militia. But I'd go back to Afghanistan in a heartbeat. I don't much like Iraq as a country, but I love Afghanistan.'

If Afghanistan helped foster a taste for global affairs, it was Hong Kong where Ricks took his first steps in journalism. 'After university, I went to Hong Kong on the Yale-China programme and taught at Lingnan College. All my American friends there were journalists. They were having more fun than me. I just drifted into journalism from that. The first article I wrote was a travel piece for The Asian Wall Street Journal.'

In 2000, Ricks won a Pulitzer Prize at the Wall Street Journal proper, and another two years later at the Washington Post. Both were for his writing about the modern US military.

'Covering the military in America is like covering wine and cheese in France - it goes to the heart of the culture,' he says. 'It's a great way of writing about national security, and of looking internally. The other great thing is that it's about real people doing real things. If you cover the White House, you cover talk. If you cover the military, you're out in Humvees, sitting in battles, riding in airplanes, flying off aircraft carriers.'


These experiences have inspired respect for the front-line soldier. 'No one in the world is more honest than a 19-year-old American soldier. I interviewed one in Baghdad and said, 'Are those comments on the record?' He replied, 'Sure. What are they going to do? Cut off my hair and send me to Iraq?''

This admiration has been sorely tested by recent events - especially the conduct of soldiers at Abu Ghraib and Haditha. 'I thought Abu Ghraib had been hyped by the media,' Ricks says. 'But the more I researched it, the more shocked I was. I came away thinking that the abuse was far more pervasive than originally thought. It's like you took a Polaroid photo at a birthday party, and as it developed in front of your eyes, you see an axe murderer in the background. These were people I know, like and admire.'


Appalling as these revelations were, Ricks refuses to blame the soldiers involved, pointing to negligence at the highest levels - in Congress and the military. 'The generals, for reasons that I'm not clear about, are off limits for criticism. But the failures that really created Abu Ghraib belonged to the generals. They put those soldiers in impossible situations without adequately preparing them, training them, equipping them and, most of all, leading them.

'The generals reacted inappropriately to the rise of the insurgency - rounding up tens of thousands of military-aged males, tossing them in prison, humiliating them, holding them for months, sometimes without notifying their families, cheek by jowl with hardcore al-Qaeda types,' he says. 'Now, a lot of those people were bad guys, but a lot of them knew how to run electrical generators. That's no way to take care of an insurgency. It's recruiting for an insurgency.'

Ricks describes Iraq's current status as 'low-level civil war', but says there are worse outcomes than that - a full-blown civil war, for one.


'One lesson I have learned about Iraq is that, as bad as it may seem, it can get worse. I have been there five times and every trip has been worse than the previous one. You could easily have a situation with tens of thousands of Iraqis dying, unleashing a tidal wave of blood that flows over the borders and becomes a regional war.

'A regional war could easily interrupt global oil supplies, driving the price of gasoline through the roof, and leading to a global economic shock.'

Circumstances are already dangerous enough for Ricks' wife to ask him not to return - a request he has granted with few regrets. 'I actually think that if Iraq in 2006 dropped out of the sky, people would not put reporters in that situation. Last time, I was handed an AK-47. I said, 'I'm a reporter. I don't do this sort of thing'. Security forces said, 'We know, but if you hear them coming up the stairs, that means we're all dead downstairs. Just fire through your bedroom door and you might buy yourself half an hour for the Quick Reaction Team to arrive.' It's a discussion reporters regularly have: 'Should I keep one bullet for myself?' These are terrible things to have to think through.'


Ricks may have chosen to leave, but he knows this is an option denied the millions of Iraqis subjected to daily terror, grief and humiliation. His fear is that their anger will only increase.

'In 2003, I was in an American patrol with my Post colleague, Anthony Shadid, a fluent Arabic speaker. I talked to the patrol. Anthony talked to the Iraqis. The troops were saying, 'The Iraqis love us'. Anthony was saying, 'They want to kill you'. That was the first time I thought, there's a real problem here that the Americans aren't grasping.'

The chances of American withdrawal are little better. 'This is a Shakespearean tragedy. Shakespearean tragedies are five acts. We are only in act three,' Ricks says. 'This was probably one of the most profligate decisions in the history of US foreign policy. America could walk away from Vietnam; I don't think it can walk away from Iraq.

'The US military is changing, it's doing better. But, as Colonel Joe Rice says in the last chapter of Fiasco, it's probably too little too late.'

author's bookshelf

Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid

'Especially the second half, which is a terrific portrayal of how the American occupation looks to the Iraqis. In the book there's an expression the Iraqis used to say as the insurgency was emerging, 'The mud is getting wetter'.'

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula

'What the American army should have read before going to Iraq - and finally everybody is reading it. Galula was born in Iraq, raised in Tunisia, fought in the second world war, went to China for the revolution, was captured by the communists, fought in Algeria, went to Harvard and wrote this book.'

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

'A great history of the French war in Algeria. The French fought colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria, and we seem determined to replicate both.'

The Battle of Algiers (1966) directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

'A little too sympathetic to the rebels, but nonetheless a great portrayal of this sort of war. A western military fighting an Arab insurgency in an urban, Arab area.'

The War Tapes (2006) directed by Deborah Scranton

'A new American film - the Iraq war as seen through the eyes of US soldiers.'


Genres Military and foreign affairs

Latest book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Penguin, 2006)

Age 51

Born Massachusetts, US

Lives Washington, DC

Family Married to author Mary Kay Ricks, with two children

Other jobs Journalist at The Washington Post, previously at The Wall Street Journal; teacher.

What the papers say

'... possibly the most powerful indictment of Anglo-American security and foreign policy of our time.' - The Scotsman

'A scrupulous account of the disaster in Iraq.' - The Sunday Times

'Essential reading for anyone interested in understanding how the US came to go to war in Iraq ... and how these events will affect the future of the American military.' - The New York Times