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.

In Ricks’s portrayal, Odierno was an unequivocal disaster during this phase of the war. Instead of trying to win over the Iraqi people, “he hammered everyone,” a retired Army general told Ricks, explaining that the soldiers in Odierno’s unit had treated Iraqi civilians in a brutal manner. Another general said: “The 4th ID—what they did was a crime.” Even before he wrote Fiasco, Ricks had become a controversial figure among high-level military officials at the Defense Department. His critical Washington Post articles, which became the basis for Fiasco, apparently infuriated then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other officials at the Pentagon—so much so that a faculty member at the Army War College told his colleagues, in an e-mail to other faculty members in 2005, not to grant Ricks interviews: “We all need to avoid Tom like the plague.” The faculty member eventually apologized, explaining that he had written the e-mail during a time when many were afraid of incurring Rumsfeld’s wrath by consorting with Ricks. Many of the officers who had served in Iraq, however, appreciated, in a quiet way, the work that Ricks was doing: “I thought the book was very balanced and realistic,” said Colonel Barry Johnson, who was at the time a military spokesman in Baghdad.

While Ricks was giving talks about Fiasco in the U.S., the situation in Iraq began to change dramatically—so much so that Ricks proceeded to write a sequel. Petraeus took over as commanding general in February 2007 and strategy in Iraq underwent a major transformation, largely in the direction that Ricks had long advocated. The U.S. sent in some 30,000 additional troops, and “essentially, early in 2007 the Bush Administration and the U.S. Army turned the war over to the dissidents, people like Petraeus who had criticized the way much of the U.S. effort in Iraq had been conducted for most of its duration,” Ricks wrote in an April 2007 postscript to the paperback edition of Fiasco.

He went back to Iraq four or five times—Ricks himself is unsure of the count—while researching the new book. He was impressed with what he saw. And by then Petraeus and others who had been his sources for Fiasco—including Peter Mansoor, a brigade commander in Baghdad, and Sean MacFarland, a commander in Ramadi—were playing key roles in the war. Ricks had extraordinary access.

In May 2007, Ricks attended a military briefing in the Green Zone. When listening to briefings in the past, he had often felt that he knew more about the situation in Iraq than the briefers did. This time, he thought, “ ‘Wow, not only does this briefing strike me as accurate, it also is better said than I could do,’ ” he explained on Amazon.com.

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.