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.
“The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened,” Ricks writes in The Gamble, and it is indeed too early to say whether the media’s assessments of the surge and the military’s new counterinsurgency strategy have been prescient or misguided. But it is clear that journalists have been much more optimistic in their assessments of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in
recent months and years, and it is worth trying to figure out how this shift occurred. To what extent did the wars change, and to what extent did Tom Ricks and other journalists themselves change?
Ricks hardly seemed destined for a career as a military reporter. He wrote poetry in high school and studied it at Yale, where he was an English major and from which he graduated in 1977. He grew up outside of New York City and in Kabul, where his father taught at university. After college, he moved to Washington and began to write for The Wilson Quarterly, The New Republic, and other magazines. He was hired by The Wall Street Journal in 1982 and served as its Pentagon correspondent, traveling to Somalia a decade later to write about U.S. troops in Mogadishu, his first assignment to cover the military overseas. In 1997, he wrote Making the Corps, a book with a somewhat romantic view of military service (“as gung-ho yet sensitive a treatment of the Marines as any Devildog could hope for,” wrote a Christian Science Monitor reviewer; CJR was kind to the book in a March/April 2007 Second Read feature). Ricks traced the lives of several dozen new recruits and followed them through an eleven-week boot camp on Parris Island, South Carolina, and into their first year of service. The book helped convince Nathaniel Fick, who has served in Iraq and who was named CEO of the Center for a New American Security in June, to enlist.
While Ricks was at the Journal, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for a ten-part series about military spending. He moved to The Washington Post that same year, and in 2001 he and a group of reporters wrote a series about the U.S. response to the attacks of September 11 that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
In 2003, Ricks went to Iraq, where he embedded with various military units and saw firsthand how the troops were operating in that country, and he continued to report there over the next several years. In many ways, he was appalled. The soldiers seemed to be going about it all wrong, he thought, and there seemed to be little hope of defeating the insurgency.