Small Wars Journal

Fight Club Book Reviews

Excessive force nearly lost us the Iraq War. The brass who gave the orders still don't get it.

Fight Club by Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Monthly book reviews

In the latest Washington Monthly - Washington Post military correspondent Tom Ricks (Fiasco) reviews two recent additions to the war in Iraq library - Warrior King: The Triumph and Betrayal of an American Commander in Iraq by Nathan Sassaman, with Joe Layden and Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story by Ricardo S. Sanchez, with Donald T. Phillips.

On Warrior King:

About eighteen months ago, the US Army produced an important new manual on counterinsurgency that, when implemented last year in Iraq, helped American troops greatly improve the security situation there. Retired lieutenant colonel Nathan Sassaman's recent memoir, Warrior King, is the mirror opposite of that document - it is, effectively, the anti-manual. And it should be required reading for anyone who is deploying to the war in Iraq, or who wants to know how we dug so deep a hole there in 2003 and 2004.

Warrior King is a blueprint for how to lose in Iraq. Of course, that's not how it is presented by Sassaman, who commanded a battalion of the 4th Infantry Division in the Sunni Triangle during the war's first year. (Full disclosure: I am mentioned, neutrally, in the book.) In Sassaman's mind, he's a winner who understood that prevailing in Iraq meant breaking some furniture. A former West Point quarterback, he tended to see the civilian population not as the prize in the war, but as the playing field on which to pound the enemy...

On Wiser in Battle:

A companion volume to Sassaman's is retired Army lieutenant general Ricardo Sanchez's Wiser in Battle, a defense of his time as the US commander in Iraq in 2003--04. He is scathing in his criticism of the Bush administration, but about two years too late to be newsworthy, since it is now widely accepted that the handling of the war from 2003 through 2005 was a fiasco.

Sanchez's volume is another report from the old, pre-"surge" US Army that never really understood what it was doing in Iraq and believed that whatever the problem, the answer probably was more firepower. (I'm also mentioned in Sanchez's book - negatively, as supposedly emblematic of an incompetent and biased media in Iraq.) Sanchez is, however, more self-aware than Sassaman. He has a clearer understanding of what went wrong during his time in Iraq. Most notably, he doesn't just blame civilian leaders, and sees that his army was part of the problem.

Even so, he doesn't really get it either. Sassaman writes, "Force was the only thing that seemed to work ... the only thing the Iraqis seemed to understand." Sanchez comes to a similarly wrongheaded conclusion: "Force seemed to be one of the few things that Iraqi insurgents clearly understood." But these are the voices of ignorance. Neither man seems to understand that when force is the only way American forces can communicate, it will be the only thing Iraqis will hear...

Much more on both books at Washington Monthly.



Wed, 10/15/2008 - 7:41pm


Tom does not have a TypeKey account but responded via e-mail and gave permission to share it here.



I have it on good authority that Tom Ricks doesn't hate the U.S. Army, but rather that Tom Ricks thinks it is a large, important and interesting organization.

With respect,
Tom Ricks

Gian P Gentile

Wed, 10/15/2008 - 2:41pm

Why does Tom Ricks hate the US Army?

This is the question that I just can not get out of my head especially after reading his "Washington Post" Review of the Sassaman and Sanchez books.

To be Up front, my comments here are directed at Ricks the writer; at Ricks the Iraq and Counterinsurgency expert; at Ricks the advocate for a so-called new way for the American Army; and at Ricks as one of the leaders of the "gets it" club.

My comments are not in contradiction with the many valid criticisms that Ricks directs at Sassamans deeply troubling, and at Sanchezs whiney, memoirs but at Rickss himself and the sweeping conclusions that he makes about the American Army in this review.

So again, why does Tom Ricks hate the US Army?

This hatred seems to have started with his earlier book from 1998 on the US Marine Corps titled "Making the Corps." In this book Ricks sees the Marines as the model for the future of war and suggests that the US Army needs to "get it" like the Marines and become more like them. It seems that his hatred with the Army started with his affinity for the marines in the writing of "Making the Corps."

But Rickss hatred of the US Army really comes to the fore in this specific review, "Fight Club," of the Sassaman and Sanchez books. In fact it seems that Ricks hates the Army so much that he in effect, through his words, has created a new one.

Ricks refers to the Sanchez and Sassaman memoirs as "reports" that are representative of the "pre-Surge" army. And the "pre-Surge" Army, according to Ricks (except for the usual batch of the "gets it"club like HR McMaster, etc) were a bunch of "losers," of which Sassaman and Sanchez through their memoirs represent. So for Ricks, not only does the "pre-Surge" Army not get it but we were a bunch of losers. Rickss bigger point (if there can be a bigger point) is that there is now a Surge-Army that apparently he can finally not hate but like, and like a lot, maybe even love. This new Army is led, using his words, by "General Petraeus."

The title of Rickss review is "Fight Club" which is an implied caricature by him of the "pre-Surge" Army writ large; the Army that didnt get it, the Army that wanted to fight the Fulda Gap in the sunni triangle and the rest of Iraq until rescued by the Surge in February 2007. One wonders, though, what opposite caricature Ricks might use to describe his new American Surge Army?

Perhaps the:

"Non-fighting Club,"
"Build-the-Nation Club"
"Change-Entire-Societies Club"

So how does it feel out there you soldiers who are in Rickss newly pronounced Surge Army? If you are puzzled by such stark distinctions within our Army that he has made, if you dont see things so simply in such black and white contrasts, then watch out because you have ingested the red pill and are starting to slip out of the matrix, a matrix at least partially created by the writings of Tom Ricks.