Ricks’s break with traditional journalism was probably inevitable. For most of his career, which included 17 years at the Wall Street Journal and earned him two shared Pulitzer Prizes, he felt hemmed in by what he calls the “bloodless” style of newspaper writing. A disapproving editor, he says, once admonished him about proper form in an article.
“Tom, your story doesn’t have a Washington Post lead.”
Ricks replied, “Thank you.”
Ricks's War Chronicles
Ricks paints a bleak picture of the Iraq War. The book is published as public support for the war is beginning to wane.
The author praises General David Petraeus and argues for the use of counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq.
Ricks studies nearly 80 years of Army decision-making to explore the theme of accountability of leadership.
Ricks was born in Massachusetts in 1955 and grew up in New York and Afghanistan, where his father, a professor, worked for two years in Kabul. Ricks spent his early teenage years riding buses from town to town, learning enough Farsi to hold a conversation and trying to visit every Afghan city with a population over 5,000. He says he made it to all but one.
Ricks and his wife, Mary Kay—also an author—have two adult children and split their time between a home on Capitol Hill and one on an island off the coast of Maine. Ricks says that when he was writing Fiasco, he rented a house in Maine for three weeks and found that in the remote setting he was especially prolific: “I was writing like a monkey.” He rented a house again while writing another book. His wife told him that for the money they were spending on vacation rentals, they might as well buy a house there.
Ricks left the Washington Post at the end of 2008 after eight years. He’d been thinking of quitting to write books full-time, and when the paper offered buyouts, he says, “I leapt at it. Going to the Post was one of the best decisions I ever made. Leaving it when I did was another good decision.”
Ricks had chafed at the newspaper bureaucracy, and he was disappointed by editors who resisted embracing the Internet as a new opportunity for publishing. “The newspaper business model was optimized for 1920,” Ricks says. “My frustration with the utter failure of newspapers to really recognize how the world was changing sensitized me to failures in the military.”
He started blogging soon after he left. His former editor, Susan Glasser, had taken over as editor-in-chief at Foreign Policy magazine, which the Post had bought. She asked Ricks if he’d like to reprise a feature she had overseen for the paper’s Outlook section, called Tom Ricks’s Inbox, which gave readers snippets of e-mail conversations Ricks was having with sources and experts about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ricks’s blog, the Best Defense, drew an audience of high-level officials and influential thinkers and won a National Magazine Award in 2010.
In 2009, Ricks came out with his follow-up to Fiasco. With The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, he started making predictions. In speeches and on TV and radio, he said that American troops would be in Iraq for another ten years. And he took sides. Petraeus was cast as a hero of the war effort, aided by his COINdinista acolytes.
Ricks sometimes hands his blog over to guest posters who are critical of his work and of COIN. Others have faulted him for giving inordinate weight to the strategy, which they say hadn’t been sufficiently studied or tested in war. Recently, new figures that weren’t available during the Iraq surge have raised doubts about whether an influx of troops and COIN principles was what caused the drop in violence in 2007 that paved the road to an American exit. Scholars now question whether other events, such as Sunni tribal leaders’ siding with US forces in a mutual struggle against al-Qaeda, had a bigger effect.
Critics also argue that COIN theory, as described by its proponents, was never actually implemented in Iraq, nor has it been in Afghanistan. The military strategy in those countries has drawn on some core counterinsurgency principles, but US troop levels have been too low to sustain the kind of broad civil pacification that Galula saw as key to winning hearts and minds. The US military strategy also didn’t eschew violence; many of the significant strategic victories against insurgents were the result of targeted operations to kill key members.
Ricks has said the Iraq surge failed to change the political dynamics in that country, and now he says the increase in troops was the “least important” military factor in Iraq. As for COIN, he looks back with a remarkably different view.
“I think it became a convenient handle for everyone to pile on about how we should change what we’re doing in Iraq,” Ricks says, not exempting himself or anything he wrote. “I think COIN was a very good tactic for what Petraeus was trying to do in Iraq, which was to extract us with dignity, which he did. Now COIN isn’t the flavor of the month, but it worked for the time.”
Blogs such as Ricks’s have provided a forum for hashing out competing theories of war-fighting. That has been a vital exercise, but it has also produced some half-baked theories.
“The Internet has opened the door for vacuous but cute, concise ideas to lead the debate,” says Celeste Ward Gventer, a former senior Pentagon official who served two tours in Iraq and provided policy advice on reconstruction and counterinsurgency to defense policymakers. “[Ricks is] part of that story because he was one of the people who pushed these ideas that hadn’t been sufficiently vetted and explored by scholars.” Washington shares the blame, too, she says. “It’s an unbelievably faddish town, and COIN was the fad to end all fads.”
But in Iraq in 2006, the military urgently needed to change course.
“The middle of a war is not the time to sit and wait for proper academic studies to be conducted,” Ricks says. “I know of no evidence that academics were studying whether counterinsurgency could be applied in Iraq until outsiders began urging people to do it. Can you imagine someone saying that we needed to do an academic study of whether D-Day would work?”
Ricks doesn’t call himself a historian. Although his latest book, The Generals, scrutinizes nearly eight decades of Army decision-making, it’s not precisely a work of scholarship. He uses the tools of reporting and storytelling to explore a theme that infuses much of his writing: accountability of leadership. Who’s in charge of a war matters. But mistakes shouldn’t spell the end of a career. The best generals learn from them.
Writers are no different.
“I was wrong about the troops in Iraq,” Ricks says. “I thought we’d have them there for many years to come.” In 2009, when President Obama was announcing his plans to withdraw US forces, Ricks was one of the most prominent skeptics; he said American servicemembers would be in Iraq at least another five years, possibly ten. The last troops left on December 18, 2011.
“I think I was also overly pessimistic about what would happen in Iraq when we left,” he says. In 2009, he warned that the country would fall apart absent an occupying US force. Today he thinks Iraq still hasn’t solved its long-term problems, but it’s more stable than he had predicted.
“It has chastened me, being wrong,” he says. “But there’s a responsibility to make predictions, to say, ‘Here’s where I think things could lead.’ ” It’s as though, for Ricks, the price of dropping the mask of journalistic objectivity is never again to hide his true face.
It turns out that the 25 years he spent working for newspapers were a prelude to the job he really wanted all along. “I was a writer trying to be a journalist,” Ricks says. “But now I’m a writer. It feels like I’m home, like I’ve come into port.”
Senior writer Shane Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org) is winner of the 2010 Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense.
This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.