The Real War

What led to so many post-9/11 fumbles? A group of intrepid authors gives us answers

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RICKS Because I think in the fall of 2003, when it was clear there was an insurgency emerging, the U.S. military did what it knew how to do, which is battalion- or brigade-size operations, and because there was no strategic oversight. Division commanders sort of operated on their own, and they were told, Get your area of operations quiet. Well, what's the fastest way to get your area of operations quiet? It's to ship out military-age males and get them off your area of operations. If they're at Abu Ghraib, they're not your problem anymore. They are somebody else's problem.

SUSKIND Does anyone here have any specific evidence of the President being involved directly, being presented with choices and consequences about the disbanding of the Iraqi army?

WOODWARD No, it didn't happen. In fact, what they did is contrary to the briefings [Bush] received before the war.

RICKS That's actually one of the things in the books--I was struck by the absence of the President. He should be a central figure in decision making. And again and again, there's never any one key meeting. For example, the actual decision to go to war doesn't seem to ever have been [made at] a meeting in which people formally sat down and said, "Do we all agree?"

SUSKIND Often the briefing ends with the Vice President--the let's-get-down-to-brass-tacks briefing. How can a President not be involved in decisions upon which so many lives depend? That's an enormous question here. At day's end, history will point to the character of the President. That's the way it boils down.

WOODWARD But there's an intervening moment, which is the moment we are living in now. And that is the question of his moral authority as a leader. And he teeters on the edge, quite frankly, of losing that moral authority. I've discussed this with him, years back, about a President being the voice of realism. And in this whole story, he's been the cheerleader.

I think there's something important we haven't talked about, which is, What about the troops over there in Iraq? What about the people who are executing this policy? They really are not being told what they are doing. There is this resilience on one hand and at the same time a kind of despair that is very haunting when you hear it from somebody on the ground. As a country, we owe them everything, but they have not got it. It is almost a war without a home front. Taxes are down, everyone's buying, Christmas is coming. There is a sense almost that we're not at war. I can't explain that phenomenon, but I find it deeply troubling.

TRAINOR I think your use of the term despair is much too strong. I think what they are sensing out there is a sense of frustration. They are all very well trained and very well motivated. I mean, it's amazing that the morale is as high as it is.

WOODWARD Sometimes despair is private.

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