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.

“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.

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.

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.

The conversations that Ricks had with Petraeus became a crucial part of his reporting for The Gamble. “The deal was that I would do several trips to Iraq during his time in command there, and have candid interviews with him and other officers, almost all of them not to be used until the end of 2008,” Ricks explained in an online Washington Post chat in February 2009. For Fiasco, Odierno would not talk to Ricks except at the very end of his reporting; this time, Ricks had repeated meetings with him. “To his credit, Odierno was very open and candid with me in the reporting of The Gamble,” Ricks told me. “He didn’t have to be. He was generous with his time and his thinking.” Ricks also spent a lot of time with David Kilcullen and Emma Sky, two aides to the generals, and was impressed with both.

Ricks sets up The Gamble as a drama. He explains how the war was going disastrously for years, reaching a nadir in 2005, but at the last minute a small group of smart military men, “dissidents” like Petraeus, were able to show people at the highest levels of the U.S. government what the problems in Iraq were and how they could be fixed. Soldiers, for example, must get out of their heavily fortified bases and engage with the Iraqi people. The dissidents wanted more troops, to tamp down the violence. Petraeus emerges as a courageous, determined leader who was able to impose his vision of how to fight the war on the tradition-bound Army. Thus, the book ultimately celebrated the military effort in Iraq.

And from Fiasco to The Gamble, Ricks’s portrayal of the military underwent a striking change in tone. In the first book, several of the military officers, and especially Odierno, were described as tyrannical, or at least overly aggressive, in their approach to Iraqi civilians; in The Gamble, however, Odierno is depicted as an enlightened leader with a keen sense of what needed to be done and the importance of watching out for the local population.

Meanwhile, another officer, Colonel Gian P. Gentile, now a history professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, underwent a transformation in the opposite direction. In Fiasco, Gentile comes across as a thoughtful, conscientious officer who is aware of the importance of cooperating with the Iraqi people and ensuring that the soldiers in his unit are respectful of them. He told his convoy drivers to travel slowly, at fifteen miles per hour, for example, because that was “less disruptive to Iraqis and sends a message of calm control,” Ricks wrote. In The Gamble, however, Gentile appears to be an ineffective leader oblivious to the concerns of Iraqis, surrounded by soldiers who do not seem to care about the principles of counterinsurgency.

Yet Ricks’s portrayal of Gentile in both books was based on Ricks’s observations during the same three- to four-day period in February 2006, when he was embedded with Gentile’s unit at Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad.

In The Gamble, Ricks described hearing gunfire “between Iraqi forces and someone else” one night while staying at Falcon, and the following morning he tried to speak with some of the Americans who worked on the base about the “small firefight.” But nobody seemed to care. Their boss, Gian Gentile, was “FOB-centric,” a commanding officer explained, using the acronym for Forward Operating Base, and making it clear that Gentile seemed oblivious to the Iraqi people who lived outside of the compound. Gentile says that Ricks’s portrayal of him and the soldiers at the base was a “caricature”: “hunkered down
on FOBs, happy and content to be stuffing their faces with ice cream.” Moreover, says Gentile, the gunfire that Ricks heard happened all the time—“that was fricking Route Jackson,” he says, referring to a main highway where Iraqis manning a checkpoint often fired warning shots.

As it happened, after the publication of Fiasco, Gentile had published a series of articles that were critical of counterinsurgency. In one of Gentile’s articles, an August 2007 Washington Post op-ed titled in the middle of a civil war, he described how Iraq was being divided along sectarian lines and argued that the divisions had made it difficult, if not impossible, for the American forces to provide enough stability to allow the Iraqis to rebuild their country. The following month, Gentile argued in Armed Forces Journal that the theoretical framework of Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine, which was outlined in the military’s new Field Manual on Counterinsurgency, was simplistic and even dangerous. “The essence of war, even counterinsurgency war, is fighting,” Gentile wrote, explaining that the new field manual struck him as naïve. It placed too much emphasis on protecting the population, in his view, and not enough on shooting the insurgents. He also claimed that the surge was not providing sufficient troops to fight in Iraq. In this and other articles, Gentile was deeply pessimistic about the chances for U.S. success in Iraq.

Carl Prine, a reporter for The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—who is also a board member of a nonprofit press group, Military Reporters & Editors, as well as a friend of Gentile’s—believes that Ricks went after Gentile in part because Gentile had decided to challenge a faction that Ricks enthusiastically supported. And he is right. Ricks himself concedes that this was one of the reasons Gentile was presented negatively in The Gamble.

Ricks says his portrayal of Gentile was “like a developing photograph” that became sharper with time. Part of that developing picture: Ricks was traveling in Iraq when Gentile’s work began appearing in U.S. publications, and he heard officers talk about the articles in a disparaging way. “One of the themes that came up in those interviews was that he was judging their war without having seen it first-hand, or, in their view, even understanding what they were doing” in this new phase of the war, Ricks explained in an e-mail. He told me that he thought Gentile was not doing a good job in Baghdad in 2006, and that he and many other leaders in the military at the time were failing. But he said he also took issue with Gentile’s writing about the surge and the new counter-insurgency in Iraq, adding, “He’s presented negatively in The Gamble partly because of his op-ed.”

Over the past three years, Ricks has been an enthusiastic supporter of counterinsurgency and has engaged in robust discussions about its theoretical foundation and current tactics on his blog. He writes and researches in his office at the Center for a New American Security, which has become counterinsurgency central in Washington. The center is home to the top proponents of the doctrine, a group of one-time military dissidents who have become in many ways the core of the new military establishment. The organization was founded in 2007 and has close ties with the Obama administration, providing much of the underpinnings of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.

The center is headed up by John Nagl, the charismatic author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, who has, for example, promoted the idea of a military advisory corps as a way to enhance the military’s ability to assist government leaders in other nations. President Obama has embraced Nagl’s proposal, explaining that an advisory corps “will enable us to better build up local allies’ capacities to take on mutual threats.” Another important figure at the center is CEO Nathaniel Fick, who wrote a book, One Bullet Away, and has taught classes in counterinsurgency in Kabul. Meanwhile, Army Captain Andrew Exum, whose blog, Abu Muqawama, has been described as the “go-to for the coin set,” has also become part of the organization. And David Kilcullen, the handsome, highly-quotable Australian who was an adviser to Petraeus, is a close friend of Nagl’s and also a member of the center’s board of advisers.

President Obama has embraced the doctrine of counterinsurgency for Iraq and Afghanistan and has hired a number of people from the center, including one of its co-founders, Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, along with two former fellows, Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh, Flournoy’s advisers. Kurt Campbell, who had been the think tank’s chief executive officer, is serving as assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. In addition, James Miller, a former senior vice president at the center, is principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Defense Department, and Susan Rice, a former member of the center’s board of advisers, is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

As often happens in Washington, a number of prominent journalists have also become attached to the think tank, and in a relatively brief period of time: Robert Kaplan, who writes for The Atlantic, is a senior fellow. David Cloud, a former New York Times and Politico journalist; David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times; and Greg Jaffe, Ricks’s replacement at The Washington Post, all spent time with the center as writers-in-residence. Ricks fits easily into this world, giving interviews, working on policy papers, blogging, researching a new book on the history of American
generalship, and attending events at which journalists and the new military establishment seamlessly mix, from panel discussions to softball games.

Perhaps not surprisingly then, a few critics have dismissed Ricks as a counterinsurgency advocate. “The reality, Tom, is that you’re no longer the traditional reporter we once counted on to deliver objective analyses of defense issues,” Military Reporters & Editors’ Carl Prine posted recently on the blog Abu Muqawama. “Over the past year, you’ve hawked a controversial book on the Iraq war, fired up your own blog and cashed paychecks from a partisan think tank.” (In fact, the center is an independent and nonpartisan research institution.) People who work at the Defense Department have also wondered about Ricks’s public role. “Is Tom a reporter, or is Tom an op-ed guy?” asks Colonel David Lapan, director of the Defense Department’s press office. “At some point, he became more of an author than a reporter, I think.” Similar questions have been raised on Ricks’s blog. Ricks pays attention to the criticism, but he believes it is misguided. “I’m trying to provide the honest comment,” he says. “I don’t really care how you label it.”

Counterinsurgency may turn out to be the right choice, and, in its newer, more humane version, the right approach for our dangerous times. But history shows that success in such warfare is difficult to come by. Algeria and Vietnam, in particular, stand as hard lessons. And even when counterinsurgency is handled in a more sophisticated way, and emphasizes the protection of the local civilians, it remains bloody and expensive to fight an enemy on his own terrain over an extended period of time. A successful strategy requires language and cultural skills. And usually the enemy can play the game better, settling disputes, building schools, and providing other social services. An invading force may have more equipment and money, but the insurgents will always have the advantage of place. As some insurgents have put it: you
have the watches, but we have the time.

When journalists place too much emphasis on how to fight an insurgency, their work can obscure the larger question of whether to fight one. One hopes that the journalists assigned to monitor the doctrine’s progress are able to report on it, as well as on the larger question of America’s role in the world, judiciously and maintain their distance from its proponents.

At the moment, they aren’t. Instead, many journalists have been sold on counterinsurgency and are simply reporting on the doctrine’s repercussions, such as President Obama’s efforts this summer to scale back on F-22 fighter jets, a symbol of the cold war military, or his plans to put additional resources into low-intensity warfare in South Asia and other regions. Concerns about the fact that counterinsurgencies last for decades, incur tremendous costs, and yet rarely work have been set aside. Granted, there never was much debate over counterinsurgency in the media, but at this point the discussion, however sporadic it was, seems to have ended.

 

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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.