John Keegan: What went wrong in Iraq--and how to make it right.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Keegan is the author of "The Face of Battle," "The Iraq War" and many other books.]

The mystery of the Iraq War is to explain how a brilliantly executed invasion turned into a messy counterinsurgency struggle. Part of the explanation, at least, is a lack of troops, a fault for which the Defense Department has been responsible. The current policy has its roots in the desire of Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, to wean the Army away from its decades of indulgence, when it routinely planned to win conflicts by confronting enemies with mass--masses of soldiers, masses of equipment (particularly tanks and armored vehicles) and masses of ground-attack aircraft.

Mr. Rumsfeld disliked the concept of mass because it carried huge financial costs but also because it locked the Army into a style of war-making that sought victory through firepower rather than through speedy maneuver. He had supporters in the civilian side of the Pentagon, notably his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and a man the rank below, Douglas Feith. Both also wanted to slim the Army down.

The result of their efforts to do so led to the expeditionary force sent to Iraq in 2003 being considerably weaker than that which had fought the Gulf War of 1991. The initial outcome, though, was similar: the rapid collapse of Iraqi resistance at only slight cost in American lives, a result that seemed to justify Mr. Rumsfeld's force policies and his belief that "speed kills."

For several months the second Iraq War seemed a triumph. Then the American army of occupation, whose continuing presence was dedicated to the political transformation of the country, began to come under low-grade attack by Iraqi guerrillas. American soldiers began to die, and attempts to create a successor regime, organized on democratic principles, failed to take root. Political instability was accompanied by rising military difficulty, until by 2005 a full-scale insurgency was in swing, with dozens of American soldiers dying every month and the numbers of insurgents growing proportionately.

In "Fiasco," Thomas Ricks traces this familiar history and attempts to explain its reasons, interviewing various military experts and reporting from the fighting in Iraq itself. He has severely critical views of Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Wolfowitz and Mr. Feith, but he does not heap all the blame on their preinvasion policy. He also points to the mistakes made by American leaders of the postwar administration in Iraq, notably Paul Bremer, who became head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2003....

All that can be hoped is that the U.S. Army will prevail in its counterinsurgency and, as Mr. Ricks's gripping accounts of the troops in action suggest, it may still. His description of Marines "attacking into an ambush" leaves one in no doubt that American soldiers know combat secrets that their enemies do not and cannot match. Whether pure military skills will win the war, however, cannot be predicted.

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