Over time, officers he met described incidents of abuse and mistreatment of Iraqis. Soldiers sent him copies of e-mail, investigations, and reports about military actions in Iraq; he ultimately collected 37,000 pages of documents for his research. A significant number of Ricks’s sources were advocates of counterinsurgency, and Petraeus himself, then a major general who had served as commander of the 101st Airborne Division in the early part of the war and also helped to develop Iraq’s new military, was among them. Ricks interviewed Petraeus and even his wife, Holly, as the war was unfolding, and he paid close attention to the doctrine of counterinsurgency that Petraeus was developing for the military. Petraeus and many of the other officers who spoke with Ricks had studied the mistakes of Vietnam. They had come to the conclusion that the military had been slow to respond to the insurgency in Southeast Asia, and that top officers had failed to understand that protecting the local population, rather than going after the insurgents, should have been their primary focus.

A voracious reader of military history, Ricks had absorbed such classics of counterinsurgency as T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which recounted the Arab revolt against the Turks. In Iraq, he got a real-life taste of its lessons. After a military convoy he was traveling with in April 2004 was attacked, for example, he recalled Lawrence’s description of how insurgents had gone after the supply lines of an occupying army. While Ricks was working out of the Post’s Baghdad bureau, he watched The Battle of Algiers, the controversial 1966 film about the French counterinsurgency in Algeria. “A few nights later I was out on a 4th Infantry raid in Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood, an area generally hostile to the U.S. presence,” he wrote on Amazon.com in a Q&A about how The Gamble came to be. “The troops hustling down sidewalks, the cordon set up around a suspect’s house, the difficulty in understanding what locals were saying and thinking, the helicopter clattering overhead—all could have been taken from this movie.”

He included material that he collected from his sources in Iraq in articles for the Post, but felt that he could not really do justice to what he had seen in standard news articles. He stepped back from daily journalism and in one frenetic year produced Fiasco. It is a damning story of how and why things went so badly for the United States in Iraq, and a harsh denunciation of the military. In his book, Ricks showed that
the problems in Iraq came from the highest levels of command—including the president himself—who had failed to adequately explain why the United States had invaded Iraq or what it intended to achieve there. The U.S. military went into Iraq without a coherent strategy and, shortly afterward, ran into immense problems. The principles of counterinsurgency, such as protecting the local population and winning their hearts and minds, had not been the conventional wisdom in Washington or among top military leaders in Iraq, and Ricks argued that this was a fundamental flaw.

As Ricks tells it, during the early phase of the war, from 2003 to 2006, American troops raided the homes of villagers and rounded up large numbers of Iraqi men, many of whom were innocent, and placed them in detention facilities. Arguing that this violated basic principles of counterinsurgency, Ricks singled out one officer in particular for censure: General Raymond Odierno, who was commander of the 4th Infantry Division, deployed mostly in the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. Odierno has argued that the high level of enemy activity there inhibited a “hearts and minds” approach.

Tara McKelvey is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War and is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. Research assistance was provided by Jed Bickman of the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, which also provided financial support for preparation of this article.