Thomas E. Ricks has a photograph of a general—Ulysses S. Grant, looking haggard and defeated in Cold Harbor, Virginia—on the wall of his office. His shelves are filled with books about Dwight Eisenhower, William Westmoreland, and other generals. A husky, bearded, fifty-four-year-old with faded eyebrows, he looks a bit like a general himself, and sometimes talks like one. “I’d be wary of the media,” he says, describing how a commander might feel if a journalist wanted to embed with his unit in Iraq. “And I’d also remind my troops that the media is one of the things that we’re fighting for.” Ricks is intimately familiar with the mindset of people on both sides of the great divide that separates the military from the media, and he can speak with authority about their different perspectives.
He is not a general, of course, but a journalist, and a respected one. He has spent nearly thirty years in the field, covering violent conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan, and he has been a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams. After nearly ten years there, he remains loosely affiliated with The Washington Post as a special military correspondent (he took a buyout last year), and is also the author of a blog, The Best Defense (ricks.foreignpolicy.com), and a tireless speaker and writer. He works out of a fourth-floor office at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank on Pennsylvania Avenue, where on a recent afternoon he was fiddling with a PDA on his cluttered desk and checking his blog while trying to ignore a ringing desk phone. He had, in fact, double-booked his media engagements for the day, which meant that he was meeting with one journalist (me) in his office, while another, an Australian radio reporter, called to interview him.
Ricks is mainly known for the two big books he has written about Iraq. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, was published in 2006 and soon became a classic work on the war. It is a blistering critique of Bush administration officials and their mishandling of the war, as well as of Pentagon officials who were slow to recognize the growing insurgency in Iraq and then seemed overwhelmed by the challenge of how to counter it. Then in The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, published early this year, Ricks lauds the achievements of Petraeus and other leaders in the field of counterinsurgency.
Over the course of writing these two books, Ricks went from being harshly critical of the war in Iraq to being effusively complimentary about the U.S. efforts to turn things around there. In The Gamble he is particularly enthusiastic about counterinsurgency, an approach to small-scale war known in the military as coin, which in its most recent incarnation places less of an emphasis on killing insurgents than on protecting the civilians and attempting to win their “hearts and minds.” It’s a subject that he continues to write about at the Center for a New American Security; the institution publishes dozens of papers each year
about the doctrine and is home to many former military officers who are among coin’s leading proponents.
The dramatic change in Ricks’s writing about the military in Iraq reflects a broader shift that has taken place in the coverage of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The doctrine of counterinsurgency has received almost uniformly positive press coverage, at times making it appear to be the only possible avenue for the U.S. military, and in the process that coverage has cast it in the most positive light.
To his many fans, Ricks has deftly chronicled the monumental, long-overdue rise of counterinsurgency, a form of warfare that Americans are attempting to master in an age in which global terrorism and small-scale conflicts, rather than a cold-war enemy like the former Soviet Union, define the threats to the United States. To critics, however, he has all but become a spokesman for that doctrine—to the point that he and other journalists in his circle have lost their outsider perspective and have become difficult to distinguish
from the administration officials who are currently pushing a military approach that, in the eyes of these critics, is a huge global gamble.