REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
Some six months ago, the Bush administration decided to send several thousand more troops to Iraq, to Baghdad and al-Anbar province, to try to calm sectarian violence there. Since then, analysts have argued over how effective this so-called surge has been. We've heard from many of them on this program. But today, we want to hear from soldiers who have fought in the Iraq war. We want to know what you think about the Bush administration's New Way Forward, about General David Petraeus, about the mood among your platoon or company. Join the conversation.
Our numbers here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can also comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Later in the hour, the Political Junkie is here. We'll give you the latest on the corruption probe into Senator Ted Stevens. If you have any questions for Ken Rudin, you can send us your e-mails now for him, email@example.com.
But now, we're joined by the Washington Post's Tom Ricks whose book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," is now available in paperback with a new postscript. Since the book came out last year, Rick's inbox has been crammed with e-mails from service men and women serving in Iraq, which gives Rick unique insight into what American troops on the ground in Iraq think about the war there. Tom Ricks joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Tom Ricks, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. TOM RICKS (Author, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq; Military Correspondent, The Washington Post): Thank you.
ROBERTS: You post some of the e-mails from service members in your Tom Ricks' Inbox feature. Give us a sense of who is writing to you. What - and what are they writing about right now?
Mr. RICKS: The U.S. military is extraordinarily diverse. So it's everything from generals to privates, active duty gung ho infantrymen to laidback reserve civil affairs guys. And their views of the war, I think, are as diverse as - is mixed up in many ways as the American population in general. I was really struck. I wrote an earlier book, "Making the Corps" that also was reissued in paperback this week, as a new edition.
And for it I went back and interviewed Marines that I had known 10 years ago in boot camp. And I was struck that they disagreed with each other as vigorously on Iraq. It were always all over the place in Iraq as Americans are, as you see, in the political debate these days.
ROBERTS: Well, you know, you take some justifiable pride in the fact that so many members of the service have said you got it right in "Fiasco." Do you think you have brought something to that coverage that people in uniform are responding to?
Mr. RICKS: I think what I did was give voice to what a lot of people in the military were thinking and told them, first of all, you're not alone. There's a lot of other people in the military who have this view, and gave them a coherent narrative and gave them the documentation that what you saw in your little corner of Iraq was not unique, that these problems were generalized, that you, indeed, did have poor generalship under General Sanchez, that Tommy Franks probably did put on the table the worst war plan in American history.
One battalion commander wrote to me, thank you for finally saying publicly what we've been saying privately. And so, I was kind of struck by how quickly the book has been endorsed by the U.S. military. When I was out in Iraq in May, I'd see the copies of my book with underlining on the shelves, bookshelves behind generals' offices and so on. And I was told also that the Army War College where they send their colonels to learn how to be generals has made the book required reading this fall.
ROBERTS: That's a pretty heavy responsibility. I mean, do you feel like you need to keep updating it and make sure that it doesn't become an agrestic(ph)?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I mean, Iraq is the biggest story of the world. And I think it's likely to be the most important story on my beat, national security, for the rest of my life - or at least the rest of my working life. And so, it's a natural thing for me to keep on paying attention to it. The important thing for me is to kind of, I think, remain open to possibility.
And so, one thing, when I do online chats with readers of the Washington Post is mention we have to be aware of the possibility of a turnaround in this war - of turning the tide. At the same time, we can't rush to optimism and come to overly optimistic conclusions in the way that the U.S. military and the Bush administration has done repeatedly for the last five years. So it's kind of trying to walk a tight rope between seeing accurately what is happening without getting too entrenched.
And so one thing I expressly don't want to do is have people say, well, he wrote the book, "Fiasco" so he wants it to be a fiasco. First four years of the year - the first four years of the war, absolutely a fiasco in my mind. Where it goes from now? It could change. And I'm open to that possibility. I don't think it's going to change. I think it's going to be a mess for many, many years to come.
ROBERTS: Well, even acknowledging, you know, the diversity of viewpoints and the e-mails you're getting, have you seen over the past year and a half or even in the last six months since the troop buildup, a change in attitude among the soldiers there?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think I'm seeing two trends, neither of them particularly good. The first is real worries about - among soldiers, an awareness that they have now been fighting this war longer than the U.S. participated in World War II. And on top of that, the nation isn't engaged in the war as it was in the World War II. We've always had the alienation of the returning veteran. You go back to Vietnam, go back to the great movie, the best years of our lives after World War II, go back to the "Odyssey" with Odysseus coming home.
ROBERTS: Right. Right.
Mr. RICKS: But the difference is, when the soldier comes home now and finds society disengaged and not paying attention, it's a bit more painful, I think, because he's cautious he's going back in 12 months. And he's going back into a war that he now knows that the majority of the American people don't like, don't support, and want to get out of.
Yet he's going back into this cauldron, an extremely difficult environment where there is nowhere - area where you're safe, where the climate is horrific, where the main killer of American troops is roadside bombs, basically an invisible enemy that may be in any dead animal or any garbage pile or box along the side of the roads, the entire environment threatening. And he's going to go back with the knowledge, the certain knowledge that if he is a frontline troop, he is going to lose some of his closest friends in the world.
So, on the one hand, this kind of gnawing sense that we're stuck in a war out there, they're busting their hearts for, they're bleeding and sweating for, yet, America doesn't seem to be really engaged in the war.
The second trend, which worries me even more, is what I think of as the emerging stab in the back narrative. This is the view that the U.S. military did everything right out there. We really, you know, fought well. We did what we needed to do, but we were stabbed in the backs by American society and specifically, by weasley) politicians that didn't support us, by media who undercut us by focusing on the negative, and by the general impatience of the American people. And I worry about that because if that's the lesson the U.S. military takes away from this war, it's going to be very bitter and demoralized for many years to come.
ROBERTS: When General Petraeus took over in Iraq two big, sort of, changes and emphasis for him were to protect Iraqis and to, sort of, get away from big operational bases, to get out into society more. Have you heard from troops about the sort of day-to-day effects of that? Is that being lived on the ground?
Mr. RICKS: It is being very much lived on the ground. What you hear from troops is that their lives are tougher and harder. They're not back on those big FOBs as they call them, the Forward Operating Bases, you know, where there's a Baskin-Robins stand that has - give you all the free ice cream you can eat as you walk out of the mess hall. They're out in this little combat outpost with very few amenities, and suddenly showers are something you get maybe every couple of weeks or maybe once a week if you're lucky.
I think the soldiers think, generally, it's the right thing to do, and get out there, and it really is in theoretical terms. It took us four years to get to the right strategy and the problem is that it maybe too little too late. At the same time, the purpose of this counteroffensive, as popularly called the surge - the purpose of it is not just to improve security in Baghdad, its stated purpose, its stated strategic goal, was to create a political breathing space, an opening in which Iraqi political leaders could achieve reconciliation.
And here we are, seven months into this new stated strategy, and there are absolutely no sign of that affect occurring, of that strategic goal being realized and soldiers know that. And so, they're looking around and saying, okay, you know, what are we going to do now? The Iraqis aren't showing up politically, and this whole purpose of, you know, and for which we've suffered and suffered increased casualties, may not have the payoff that we hoped for.
ROBERTS: Is it possible that that is another narrative, as you called the sort of, you know, the, we did our work but the will of the American people wasn't there, is there also a sort of blame-the-Iraqis narrative going on?
Mr. RICKS: Well, there is, and that's actually, you know, freaking Iraqis, it sort of been my subtitle for part of this war for quite a while - let's blame the Iraqis. One thing that I think Americans really don't get is that Iraqis don't share our agenda. Iraqis have different goals in this and we're kind of asking them to do things that they basically don't want to do, can't do, or both. And Iraqis are in a very difficult position. And one of the things that General Petraeus has tried to do, by getting the troops our there, is really to get America back into the Iraqi conversation.
In 2006, United States was basically becoming irrelevant in Iraq. A civil war, chronic low-level civil war, broke out in 2006, and we were having very little effect on it. And one of the purposes of this new strategy has been to simply get the United States back in the conversation. Now we're back in the conversation, but it doesn't appear that Iraqi leaders are listening to us.
ROBERTS: Let's try to squeeze in a call before the break. This is Joe(ph) in New York. Joe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JOE (Caller): Hello. I just want to call in with a comment. I just completed a tour in Iraq. We were just north of Baghdad. I was serving on what was a called a PRT, Provincial Reconstruction Team. We were civil affairs soldiers, and as civil affairs soldiers, we fell under a command that was called USACAPOC, are you familiar with that term?
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I think so. The (unintelligible) flow heavy.
JOE (Caller): Okay, that's United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. We were so stretched that they had to basically resort to the backdoor draft to get enough soldiers to be able to staff the positions that they needed. We were, being a PRT, a Provisional Reconstruction Team, we were actually and probably one of the most critical positions over there. It was our job to interface with the provincial governments, the governors, the deputy governors, the director generals, the provincial counsels, et cetera, and to get them actually functioning, up and running.
ROBERTS: Joe, I'm going to ask you to hold on, because we need to take a quick break.
ROBERTS: We're talking with Washington Post military reporter Tom Ricks. Coming up, we'll hear more about what soldiers think of the so-called surge. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington.
ROBERTS: Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks has been to Iraq seven times since the start of the war. Today, we're talking to him about what soldiers on the ground think about how the war is going. We particularly want to hear from soldiers in our audience. Give us your report on Iraq. The number is 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.
Still on the line is Joe from New York, who returned from Iraq two months ago. And Joe, I know your phone line's breaking up there a little bit, but I want to give you a chance to finish.
JOE: Okay. I'm moving a little a far more so I hope you hear me. Again, we were in a particularly crucial and sensitive position in that we were responsible for standing up the local and national government over there. The problem that we experienced is that since the USACAPOC had to resort to the backdoor draft to stand up the PRTs, is that the vast majority of the people who were backdoor drafted and at the Reserve activated in, did not want to be there. They had no interest in being there. They had civilian lives, they had been, for all intents and purposes, civilianized, and in a lot of cases they undermined the mission. They did subtle things and, in times, active things to undermine the things that were going on there. And in my particular PRT, the problem was these - some of them were the senior ranking, and they often conflicted with the mission to the point that our work will come to a halt. And our mission was just conflicted (unintelligible).
Mr. RICKS: When you say conflicted with the mission they didn't believe in the mission? Are you saying they didn't believe in the mission or what?
JOE: They totally did not believe in the mission. They just believe that we should just spread out to the (unintelligible) with the Iraqis, go for themselves and, you know, just let the country go. And, you know, that was there.
Mr. RICKS: I've been hearing that opinion - I've been hearing that opinion a lot lately over the last year among officers, and I think you're right, especially among reservists. These people want to have a civil war, let's stand back and let them have it. Are you finding that more often now in your turf?
ROBERTS: I actually let Joe go just because his phone line was breaking up so badly. But I think we're here - I mean, Carl Levin on the Senate floor said we can't save the Iraqis from themselves. Do you think that as, you know, a growing point of view, Tom Ricks?
Mr. RICKS: Oh, I think it is. You're hearing soldiers say, if these people have been (unintelligible) of us of a war let them have it, or the other opinion you hear is, is a civil war is inevitable, and all we're doing is staving that off and bleeding and killing American troops. And that's probably the best argument for simply getting out. The problem with it is it condemns tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians to death and raises the possibility of genocide, and that's going to be really hard to live with.
ROBERTS: We have an e-mail from Claire(ph) in Saint Louis asking for some clarifications. She says, did General Petraeus develop the surge strategy? I thought the President picked that strategy and then found someone willing to implement it.
Mr. RICKS: No, I don't think that's the case, but I think that General Petraeus really came along when a bunch of lieutenant colonels and colonels, with some advice from people in Washington, had put together a surge plan. And by the time General Petraeus showed up, they had not only had the plan written, they were beginning to implement it. So, it is a bit of a misnomer to call it the Petraeus plan, but I don't think it was something thrust on a military by the White House.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Chris in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Chris, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
CHRIS (Caller): Hello?
ROBERTS: Hi, Chris. You're on the air.
CHRIS: Oh, hi. What's going on?
ROBERTS: How are you?
CHRIS: Pretty good. How are you?
CHRIS: I don't know, I mean, my honest opinion is that, if we're going to go over there and do it, you know, we need to go over there and we need to do it. You know, we can't go over there, you know, with just some, you know, with a small manner with, you know, whether they want to say, if we're going to go over there, we need to use, you know, our entire force.
ROBERTS: Have you been there, Chris?
CHRIS: Yes, I have.
ROBERTS: And are you heading back?
CHRIS: I won't be going back, no.
ROBERTS: What if - go ahead.
Mr. RICKS: But - I want to say to Chris, we have used our entire force. When you ask the Pentagon about additional troops, they'll tell you they're - we're out of switch(ph). There's no more troops on the shelf. So what do you want them to do that they're not doing now?
CHRIS: They can activate inactive reservists, I mean…
Mr. RICKS: They'd done that.
CHRIS: I mean, they just - they need to extend the cycle than just mess around with how our deployment cycles are right now, really, just to keep more people on there. Because I was - all we're doing is we're just, you know, we're just playing a game of cat and mouse. Yeah, we go out, we clear out an area, we push them out, then we have to go, we move to another area, they just come right back in.
Mr. RICKS: Well, this is the point of the surge, is they say we're going to clear, hold and build, and the holdings cannot be done by Iraqi forces. Now, as you and I both know, the problem is, repeatedly, Iraqi forces have failed to hold areas. What they're counting on now is Iraqi forces are going to perform better than they have in the past. Do you think that's going to happen?
CHRIS: Yeah, from my experience, I mean, I've, you know - two actually different units of Iraqi. And one of them was real bad, but the other was actually really good, they're really well trained. I mean - so, I think that they're capable of doing it, it's just, you just have to keep training them. And if we pull out, then they'll just - I'll tell you right now, they're probably going to quit, because the conversation I had was that is, that once the U.S. pulls out, that they're done, they're just going to go back to their normal lives.
ROBERTS: Chris, thanks for you call.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah, I see that worry again and again among American troops. That if we just leave, all we've done is trained up Iraqis to fight in a civil war. They think the Iraqi military will fall apart along Sunni-Shiite lines, and all we've done is pour gasoline on that fire. Maybe the problem we have in Iraq right now is not training or equipment of Iraqi forces. They have better training in equipment than anybody else. The problem is the guy who's fighting in a Sunni insurgency or is a member of Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, he knows what he's fighting for. He's motivated. The guy in Iraqi Army isn't -frequently isn't as motivated because he's not even sure there's going to be an Iraqi Army next year.
ROBERTS: Do you think that military has a communication problem? I mean, if someone like Chris feels that not enough people have been deployed, do you think they have not necessarily communicated to their own troops how far that's gone in trying to get more people on the ground?
Mr. RICKS: Well, I think what you're hearing from Chris is a frustration. That man, there must be something we could do better here. And I think they actually are doing better now, four years into this war. The problem was, we fought in Iraq longer than we fought in World War II, before we started getting our strategy basically right. The U.S. military went into Iraq ignorant of how to maintain and wade through a counterinsurgency campaign. And it took them four years, it took - finally, General Petraeus says, here's the basic facts that everybody knows who studied this, this is how you do it. And the U.S. military, effectively, threw the ball to the dissidents, guys like Petraeus who, back in `03, `04 were saying, this, you guys aren't doing it right. It's kind of hey, you're smart, you do it, but it may be too little too late.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Tim(ph) in Lodi. Tim, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
TIM (Caller): Hello. Yeah, I retired in '04, in September, after I got back from Iraq in February of '04. I was in the first Gulf War and I was in the first go around with the current insanity, and I spent four months in Kuwait. I was the executive officer of Camp New York, which was one of the northern staging bases, and…
Mr. RICKS: A place I knew and hated. Yes.
TIM: Yes, same here. Then I spent four months in Baghdad as the special(ph) officer for the C4 section of what they used to call Combined Joint Task Force Seven. And, I guess, my comment would be that, having been there for one and having been there for second one, the first one was run like a well-oiled machine, the second one made me lose all my faith in the ability of the people that were in charge to do something effectively and confidently. And I think that many of the higher level generals and people in the Defense Department that knew better didn't speak out soon enough and loudly enough. And I saw a lot of insane directives come down from on high. Just one, for example, is I think it was in July of '03, they said we're going to train 30,000 Iraqi soldiers in 30 days, and we're going to get them vetted and trained and equipped. And I remember thinking myself, we can't even do that with our own people. You know, I mean, it was just a mess. It was…
Mr. RICKS: Well, Tim, you're right, but remember also, the U.S. - the generals were assigned to do plan back then that hand us down to 30,000 troops by September 2003.
TIM: Yeah, I know. Anyway…
Mr. RICKS: Here we are, four years later, with our 60,000 troops. It was a unrealistic approach.
TIM: There was a time there when they said that my unit was going to be going back and then they sent the entire unit forward to Balad, and they ran logistics up in Balad. And that's why I (unintelligible)…
Mr. RICKS: So, I think you're putting your finger on something that has struck me in this war. This war is so different from a lot of other American wars in a variety of ways. The first ever American occupation of an Arab country. The first war of preemption. A war we went to on false premises. The first all-volunteer force war of a sustained ground war overseas. But another anomaly here is the lack of accountability for generals and I think you put your finger on that. I was struck that during World War II, 17 division commanders were relieved. Four corps commanders were relieved. In this war, not a single general has been relieved. Except maybe with an asterisk for Janis Karpinski, the Abu Ghraib commander. It's not clear why she was relieved.
ROBERTS: Well, I think he also brings up not only is it different from many other wars, it's substantially different from the firs Gulf War, which seemed counterintuitive. I mean, couldn't we have learned something?
Mr. RICKS: Well, the first Gulf War also - I almost hesitate to call it a war. It was a four-day ground campaign. You know, it was a blip. And I think probably 100 years from now, it'll be remembered not as a separate war, but as the beginning of a 25-year American war in Iraq, which begun with that ground campaign, and then we had 12 or so years of this no-fly zone stuff with, sort of, operations on the periphery, some special operations inside Iraq and CIA inside Iraq. And now, we're stuck in Iraq. I don't think we're going to get out for a long time. We may be there for another 12 or 15 years.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Nelson(ph) in Pennsylvania. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
NELSON (Caller): Yes.
ROBERTS: Hi, Nelson.
NELSON: Am I on the air now?
ROBERTS: Yes, you are.
ROBERTS: Yes, Nelson, you're on the air.
NELSON: Okay. Good. Yes. I was over with the Marines in the beginning of the war and the special operation troops. And we were sent over to reestablish government like civil affairs usually do, usually in permissive environment. What happened over there and why this is going to be going on for years is because when he put Bremer in office, the guy essentially knew nothing about the Middle East. I think he had a two-week, you know, training on the Middle East, you know, a brief op, essentially. And then he goes and fires the whole Baath party. And I questioned that at that time. I said, he did what? I mean, who are we supposed to work with? The Baath party were the only people in Iraq that had the skills to get the country moving again. They're the only people that had jobs.
ROBERTS: And we should just clarify, you're talking about Paul Bremer who implemented this deBaathification policy in 2003?
NELSON: Exactly. So, currently, our special forces troops, which are the best trained troops in the Army, they're working with 10th, what's equivalent to 10th string rejects that have not - all the good people left Iraq, including the national, I mean, the Royal Guard. And people that ran the hospitals, people that ran the public facilities, offices, essentially anyone that had a job in Iraq has left.
ROBERTS: Nelson, thanks for your call.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Tom Ricks, what do you think of Nelson's criticizing the dissolution of the Baathist?
Mr. RICKS: I agree with it, but I think it's part of the larger problem. I have a chapter about this in "Fiasco" called "How to Create Insurgency." And Ambassador Bremer did three things back in '03 that helped to create the insurgency. He had deBaathification, basically anybody who'd held a position of authority in Iraq was told they were banned from participating in the future of the society.
Second, he dissolved Iraqi military. After we had leafleted(ph) at the Iraqi military for months saying, don't fight us, we'll take care of you. And then he implemented free market policies and they shut down inefficient government on factories. So a Fallujah brick factory is shut down, and suddenly you have a bunch of young men out there looking for work and you have people saying, I'll pay you to plant bombs.
And so, Bremer basically solved three problems facing the insurgency as it emerged. Any group of rebels has three basic problems, recruiting, arming and financing. And through American mistakes, Bremer's and the US military's, we solved those three problems for the insurgency.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Tom(ph) in San Francisco. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
TOM (Caller): Hello.
ROBERTS: Hi, Tom. You're on the air.
TOM: Yeah. I have a question now before I have time for a comment. But about Bremer, his excuse was that the Saddam's army was primarily Sunni, and they've been oppressing Shia elites this times, so that the only thing to do is to dissolve them and then reconstitute them on a more democratic basis. What do you have to say about that, Tom?
Mr. RICKS: Well, it's right, and that there was a Sunni leadership out there. But there were a lot of Shiite officers and you had many, many Shiites in the enlisted ranks - that is to say privates, corporals and sergeants and so on. You didn't need to massively dissolve the entire army. And you - even you've probably shouldn't have kicked out the Sunnis because, suddenly these guys were out of work and they knew how to operate weapons. And that wound up killing American troops. So a little bit of sophistication might have said let's keep these guys on the payroll. Ease them out in the long term, but don't give them an excuse to take up arms against us.
TOM: Okay. Now, my comment is I served with Petraeus in the 101st during the invasion, which if there was a happy time that was it. I mean, we were actually being waved at as we run overhead in helicopters and some goodwill was there. Now, the thing that's not brought up about him is what a remarkable cynical person he is. I mean, he was both the distinguished and honored graduate at Ranger school. I'm a Ranger myself. And you're competing with 20-year-old Marines, the best the corps has to send. And that kind of determination is just remarkable.
Mr. RICKS: I agree with you. Petraeus is kind of a force of nature. He's famous, for example, his one-armed push-up contest against privates. You know, challenging a guy half his age, let's do one-arm push-ups. And basically Petraeus' determination is he'll d one more that the other guy will no matter how many the other guy does. And also remember, Petraeus, in addition to being this - having this real will, is also quite bright. He has a PhD from Princeton in international relations. So he really is a unique leader. My worry is just, I wish we'd done in 2004 what we finally did in 2007.
ROBERTS: Yeah, there seems to be a fair amount of, if anyone can do it, Petraeus can, but no one can do it.
Mr. RICKS: Yeah. I think that's a very good summary of the general feeling I hear among lieutenant colonels and colonels these days.
ROBERTS: Tom Ricks, thanks so much for joining us today.
Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.
ROBERTS: Tom Ricks is a senior military correspondent for the Washington Post. His book, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," just came out in paperback with a new postscript yesterday.
Coming up, Senator Ted Stevens is facing some unpleasant scrutiny. Fred Thompson is in need of some cash. And the Iowa straw poll is just around the corner.
Political junkie Ken Rudin is here to take your questions. E-mail us at email@example.com.
I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.