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Into the Fray: How Tom Ricks Joined the Debate Over Military Policy
Tom Ricks used to report on wars for The Washington Post. Now he’s one of the most influential voices arguing over how they should be fought. By Shane Harris
Tom Ricks, shown near the Victory Arch in Baghdad, argued for using counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq. Photograph courtesy of Tom Ricks.
Comments () | Published October 31, 2012

Tom Ricks arrived in a parking lot outside Najaf, Iraq, at the end of a 36-hour road trip that should have taken a third of that time. The Washington Post reporter was riding along in a Humvee with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, reporting on the movement of thousands of troops into the central Iraqi city, where Shiite militias had clashed several times with US forces in previous weeks. It was April 2004, one year into a war that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had doubted would last more than five months.

During the journey to Najaf, the convoy was shot at with rocket-propelled grenades and nearly blown up by a roadside bomb. “Don’t be alarmed,” a 23-year-old sergeant told Ricks, then 48, as the soldier calmly lit a cigarette, “but somebody here is trying to kill us.”

The harrowing trek was part of the biggest Army operation in central Iraq up to that point, and to Ricks it felt portentous. “The US military operation in Iraq began to feel less like a troubled occupation and more like a small war,” he wrote in the Post two days later. Along with some other reporters, he was sensing what military leaders refused to acknowledge: US forces were facing an insurgency, a campaign of guerrilla warfare for which the military hadn’t trained and that the American public hadn’t been told to expect.

“I had really known and admired the US military,” says Ricks, who has worked the national-defense beat for a quarter century and whose fifth book, a sweeping review of wartime leadership called The Generals, comes out this month. “But what was going on in Iraq was not what I expected.”

The mightiest military in the world found itself literally mired in mud, stuck in traffic during interminable convoys, shot at by insurgents hiding in palm groves, and unable to cross bridges that had been blown up in their advance.

“Jesus,” Ricks remembers thinking. “I’m going to be chained to Iraq for the remainder of my life in journalism.”

From Najaf, Ricks called his wife. “I just thought you should know we were bombed tonight,” he told her.

There was something he needed to know, too, she said. That night, at the same moment the missiles and the rockets were flying, Ricks’s father had died of a heart attack.

“It was a moment of departure for me,” Ricks says, a confluence of life-rattling events that permanently altered his perception of the war and his role in it.

Ricks sat down and wrote, something he does every day, but with a new urgency. He tapped out an e-mail to Scott Moyers, the editor who was working with Ricks on a yet-unnamed book about the spiraling Iraq War. “Scott,” he wrote, “I have a title: Fiasco.”

• • •

Published 27 months later, in July 2006, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq arrived at an opportune moment. A battle-weary public was primed to hear Ricks’s unsettling message that the United States was in danger of losing the war.

“The title of this devastating new book . . . says it all,” the New York Times wrote in its review. Ricks “serves up his portrait of [the Iraq] war as a misguided exercise in hubris, incompetence and folly with a wealth of detail and evidence that is both staggeringly vivid and persuasive.”

Fiasco shook the military and political establishments. Word went out among some top officials that they should avoid talking to Ricks lest they end up a character in an unflattering sequel. It was a blistering indictment, perhaps the strongest of a short list of books published around the same time that offered grim assessments of the war.

But Ricks also pointed to solutions, even saviors. He praised General David Petraeus, then in charge of the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for requiring that the long-overlooked military theory of counterinsurgency be taught to all midcareer officers. COIN, as it’s often called, prizes civic engagement and street-level diplomacy over violent fighting to control territory. The key to victory is to protect and win over the population, defeating insurgents not by killing them but by making them irrelevant.

More than any other chronicler of the Iraq War, Ricks brought COIN to its zenith of influence and credibility in Washington, where policymakers were desperate for some antidote to the blood-filled slog in Iraq. Ricks’s book, and later his blog, the Best Defense, became prominent showcases for COIN theory.

COIN was a gateway for Ricks, the crossover between dispassionate reporting and writing with a clear point of view. He was leaving the ostensibly neutral terrain of journalism for a realm in which he began influencing the same policies and people he’d spent his career writing about.

“He joined the community he once covered,” says Michèle Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official who cofounded the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that became the COIN brain trust and where Ricks is now a senior fellow.

On his blog and in newspaper op-eds, Ricks has launched a frontal assault on cherished pillars of military culture. He has called on the services to close their prestigious academies and use the savings to fund college ROTC programs. He has argued in favor of reinstating the draft.

“The whole Pentagon reads his blog,” says Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of State and former Pentagon official. Ricks has invited guest posts from experts. Petraeus has been among the blog’s commenters.

In all Ricks’s work, there is both a writerly verve and an empathy for the grunt, the human being inside the boots on the ground. When senior Pentagon officials read Ricks, it may be at least in part because he’s more in touch with the troops than they are.

• • •

Ricks was introduced to COIN by a retired intelligence officer named Terry Daly, who suggested that he pick up a copy of the movement’s seminal text, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula, a retired French colonel who fought in the Algerian War. It’s the most concise explication of COIN’s core values, based on Galula’s own battles with insurgents. But it was nearly forgotten by military historians after its publication in 1964, three years before Galula died.

Ricks was deeply impressed by the book; he compared Galula to the revered Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. Ricks began recommending the book to an exclusive, off-the-record listserv of academics, policymakers, and military journalists called the Warlord Loop. His posts caught the attention of John Nagl, a young Army officer who would go on to be one of COIN’s most visible proponents.

“I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t read Galula until 2005, when Tom mentioned it,” Nagl says. Daly was also encouraging members of the Warlord Loop to study Galula’s work.

In 2006, Nagl joined a committee of experts and scholars convened by Petraeus to write a new edition of The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. The updated document was infused with Galula’s principles.

In Washington, President George W. Bush and Pentagon leaders were searching for a new plan of attack. They turned to Petraeus, who had already held two commands in Iraq, and his dusted-off theories about how to win a war. In January 2007, Bush announced a “surge” of 20,000 additional troops. Petraeus was put in charge of all US forces, leading them in battle under the COIN banner.

The field manual made momentary celebrities of its coauthors, dubbed COIN-dinistas in the press. In August, Nagl appeared in uniform on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart to discuss the book and the new way forward in Iraq. A few months later, some of his fellow writers, until then mostly unknown outside the rarefied zone of military policy, appeared on Charlie Rose. Petraeus’s followers had a rare combination of combat experience and doctoral degrees, and they lent immediate credibility to the new strategy. The manual was posted to the Internet, and more than 2 million copies were downloaded in two months.

It was remarkable enough that a complex military text based on an overlooked treatise by a dead French officer sparked a national conversation about war-fighting on late-night talk shows. But more important, COIN became the idea upon which hopes for an honorable American exit from Iraq were pinned. If not for Ricks, it might never have caught on.

“Ricks brought Galula to a mainstream audience,” says Nagl. “Repopularizing Galula really was a key idea that underlay the counterinsurgency insurgency.”


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  • Plynch

    I'm not entirely sure honorable exit from Iraq was achieved. Iraq booted out the US force, did not agree to a new status of forces agreement, and it allowed no public victory or farewell displays. And when I write "Iraq," I mean the democratic government that the US had helped to establish at the cost of about 4500 American lives -- and a few hundred thousand Iraqis.

  • Page two was better. Don't bury the lede. Flip it!

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