Tag Archives: Thomas E. Ricks

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to those of you who are searching the web looking for something to read.

Quiet night around here.  It was my first day back at work after the unpleasantness of the previous week.  To be honest, I would have been far better off back in bed recovering.  I came home tonight in tremendous pain and I don’t think a lot was accomplished by me being at work but lessons learned.

The best part of the day was that it was over at four.  Wendy picked me up and we came home and I went to be for a while.  She ordered pizza and let me sleep until around 6:00 p.m.  We opened our stockings, inside was one of these. 

The Minnion, Kevin

Kevin is now in charge of the wifi.

Wendy gave me a new netbook (which is currently upgrading from WIndows 8.1 to 10).  I missed the entire Windows 8 experience and in the 5 minutes I played with it, I can see why so many of you hated it.  There was a new wireless mouse in there.

The boys got me a netbook bag as well as some hiking stuff.  They also gave me a bunch of books on everything from war journalism to The Generals by Thomas E. Ricks, a book I have wanted since it was released and I read this article in The Atlantic.  It will make some great early 2016 reading.  

All of them got together and gave me a Ricoh Theta S which should be a lot of fun.  If you have never heard of a Ricoh Theta S, it takes 360 degree spherical images, a kind of a virtual reality camera that is about the size of a Nintendo Wii controller.  It should be a lot of fun to explore with.

Probably the gift I needed the most was a 500 lumen lantern that Oliver gave me for camping this summer.  On a day where July seems very far away and the idea of hiking into the mountains seems even further, I really, really appreciated it.

Mark wrote about his day here.

A regional war

Thomas Ricks points out that this isn’t a war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Yemen, it’s starting to feel like a war against an entire region.

Why doesn’t anyone ever tell me these things? I knew the United States conducted drone strikes a few years ago, including one that killed an American citizen on purpose, something that I still don’t get in legal terms.

But sending in piloted aircraft is a major step. Suddenly I begin to see what several of you have been worrying about, as the U.S. conducts military operations in, let’s see: Afghanistan. Iraq. Libya. Pakistan. Yemen. Pretty soon we may be able just to refer to it as one big old war.

Ducking Responsibility

Bob Woodward takes over Thomas Rick’s blog and talks about Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir.

Rumsfeld’s memoir is one big clean-up job, a brazen effort to shift blame to others — including President Bush — distort history, ignore the record or simply avoid discussing matters that cannot be airbrushed away. It is a travesty, and I think the rewrite job won’t wash.

The Iraq War is essential to the understanding of the Bush presidency and the Rumsfeld era at the Pentagon. In the book, Rumsfeld tries to push so much off on Bush. That is fair because Bush made the ultimate decisions. But the record shows that it was Rumsfeld stoking the Iraq fires — facts he has completely left out of his memoir.

Wow Bob, tell us what you really think.

As numerous accounts have documented, the post-war planning and organization was close to a disaster. Rumsfeld blames the lack of "effective interagency coordination" and "the way the United States government is organized." (p. 487)

As secretary of defense he was responsible. Under our system, he was next in the chain of command after the president, effectively making him the deputy president for war. But he sidestepped his responsibility time and time again.

Another American War / Another Arab State

Thomas Ricks discusses six things to consider when thinking about an American no-fly zone over Libya.

Here are some of the issues that need to be examined. Anyone who advocates a no-fly zone should be required to answer them.

I wish everyone talking about imposing a no-fly zone on Libya would take a deep breath. Americans have an odd habit of backing into war . We first deployed ground combat forces into Vietnam in the spring of 1965 simply to protect American air bases, for example.

The Gamble

While at the cabin this week I finished off Chris Czajkowski’s book, Cabin at Singing River, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, and Thomas Rick’s The Gamble. It was a good day to spend with three of my favorite authors on some pretty diverse topics.

Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble Here are some thoughts that I had while reading The Gamble, some of them may be more inflammatory than others.

  • Where was the U.S. media on reporting some of the murders and rape of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers?  Part of what makes a democracy work is a rigorous and independent press and either the media in Iraq failed miserably or the controls placed upon them by the Pentagon made it impossible for them to do their jobs.  From what I remember, the deteriorating security of Iraq made it very dangerous for media during 2005 and 2006 to leave the Green Zone which would have lead to very poor reporting.
  • The book talks a lot about General David Petraeus (with good reason) but are you telling me that he was the only American general who understood that they were waging a counter insurgency, especially after the American failure in Vietnam?  It was a little unreal to read that it was Petraeus that brought all of the military historians together for discussions at Fort Leavensworth about how to fight a counter insurgency war.  The book describes a rather disorganized and poorly lead general staff that is really slow to learn from it’s mistakes and adapt to new realities.  As I type this statement, I realize it’s not the first time I have thought this and I think back to Len Deighton’s excellent book, Blood, Sweat and Folly where he describes both Germany, Italy, and England in the first couple of years of World War II seemingly both wanting to lose WWII.  So maybe the American generals are just following in the proud traditions of generals for centuries.
  • Leopard II tank Watching some media reports the last couple of weeks about the Canadian efforts in Kandahar sound a lot like Fiasco and the early part of Fiasco.  Canadian troops riding around on Leopard tanks while heading back to their base at night doesn’t sound like a counter insurgency campaign.  It’s times like this where I would love to hear Scott Taylor’s insights on how the Canadian military strategy is working there.  (he has some good thoughts here).  This paper states that Canada has taken a combative rather than a counter insurgency role in Afghanistan.
  • I am always amazed by the U.S. Army’s leadership to learn from best practices from other units.  Here was Petraeus leading the 101st Airborne Division and having a lot of success with insurgents by not using tanks and artillery while you have other units suffering increasing casualties while using heavy equipment.  Once locked into a strategy, American commanders only seemed to be capable of escalating their strategy.
  • Why does America (and other countries) promote generals who were not successful.  As Lt. Col. Paul Yingling says "A private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war."

So I am left with the idea that despite a very highly educated general corps, institutions like West Point, the Command and General Staff College, the National Defense University, National War College, U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, and the War College, which have all increased the professionalism in the military but I also wonder if it has contributed to an over reliance on what they know about past wars rather than adapting to present ones.  Of course another issue is that like a lot of institutions that demand conformity, free thinking is probably bad for your career in the Army and other services so by the time one was able to make a difference in strategy and tactics, perhaps the ability to do so has been lost.

The book also left with the uncomfortable question of what would happen if someone else had been promoted in Petraeus’ place to Fort Leavensworth and instead of re-evaluating and reimagining what needed to be done in Iraq, they had stayed the course of withdrawing and handling the conflict with big weapons and increased violence. 

This was kind of an open ended post.  Leave me your thoughts in the comments below.

Christmas Gift Ideas for the Emotionally Distant Father

A friend of mine/arch-nemesis has drawn her father and father-in-law for this year’s Christmas celebration and demanded a Christmas gift guide for them.  While I am generally compliant towards requests from friends who have incriminating stories about me, this one is a hard one as I don’t have a relationship with my dad * and I don’t have a lot of use for my father-in-law so I am at a bit of a loss.  While I had to laugh at the label emotionally distant father, the problem with too many dads out there is that they don’t exactly excel at communicating what they want for Christmas.  If you have to shop for one, we feel for you.

Lucky for all of us, we do buy Christmas gifts for some hard to buy for people who are fathers and here are some of the ideas that I have come up with over the last couple of years.


  • Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics by Warren Kinsella :: If you dad talks about politics all of the time and thinks he knows more than Mike Duffy but in reality has the same leadership instincts as Stephane Dion, maybe it is time to help your dad sound more knowledgeable.  This is awesome on a couple of levels.  First of all it will raise the level of political discussion in your house but if you dad lives in rural Alberta, he will have to explain to his friends why he has a book prominently displayed by the Prince of Darkness and how he is worried his child has become a liberal.
  • Jean Chretien: My Years as Prime Minister While we are talking politics and tweaking dad a bit, I suggest you pick up either a copy of Brian Mulroney’s autobiography or Jean Chretien’s autobiography.  Which one you give him, depends on how he votes.  If he votes Conservative and has a Joe Clark tattoo, give him Jean Chretien’s autobiography.  If he has campaign photos of him and Pierre Trudeau from 1968, you get him the Mulroney autobiography but you do it with a straight face… and then when all of the gifts are given out, pull out the book he wanted from beneath the tree.  If you are American, substitute the book Sarah Palin paid someone else to write for her or something about the Kennedy’s.
  • The War by Ken Burns on DVD and The War: An Intimate History.  The DVD is a masterpiece and I enjoy it every time it comes on television but the book is special in it’s own way.  It moves between the big picture of the war and the intimate details of the conflict with ease and despite telling the same story as the the mini series, has a much different feel.
  • Some books on the War in Iraq.  I recommend Fiasco or the Gamble by Thomas E. Ricks or The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army by Greg Jaffe.  All three books are great.
  • Band of Brothers (book) by Stephen Ambrose :: The men of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, volunteered for this elite fighting force because they wanted to be the best in the army–and avoid fighting alongside unmotivated, out-of-shape draftees. The price they paid for that desire was long, arduous, and sometimes sadistic training, followed by some of the most horrific battles of World War II.  Yes the mini-series is great but this book is even better and is one of the best books on World War II that I have ever read.   If he already has Band of Brothers, he may also like Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany by Ambrose as well.  A skillful blending of eyewitness accounts (gathered mostly from the oral history collection at the Univ. of New Orleans’s Eisenhower Center and from personal interviews) gives the reader an intimate feel of what war was like for infantrymen in the European theater of operations–from the beaches of France to victory at the Elbe River.
  • Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes.  While Rhodes won the Pullitzer for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I found this book to be even better.  Both of these books are epic endeavors of research and writing telling the story of how America started the nuclear arms race, the concerns of the scientists (and why they did it), how the Russians were desperate to find out, and the politics behind it.  All of those topics could be books by themselves and once put together, form the foundation of a couple of truly remarkable books.
  • The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson :: You can read my review of it here.  If your dad in an inventor or just loves to read an engaging story of history, this is an excellent choice for your dad as he takes a break from puttering around in the shop while working on his doomsday device and avoiding the to-do list your mother made for him.

Gadgets for Dad

  • Red AA battery magliteMagLite :: Every man needs their own flashlight.  At the cabin we have a million flashlights, some headlights and battery powered lanterns but everyone wants to use mine.  Mark got me a Maglite for my birthday last year and I can finally say, “Hands off, go drain the battery on someone else’s flashlight.”  Dads enjoy being territorial and petty once in a while, especially with a cool flashlight.
  • Olivetti Manual Typewriter :: The last manual typewriter in production and the perfect tool for dad to write out his autobiography, love notes to your mother or he could just set it up in the living room to pound out a couple of notes to the grandkids who will totally miss out on the fact that their note was written on a manual typewriter.  The other positive that unlike his laptop, DVD player, and home theatre system, he won’t need you to come over and fix this when it breaks.
  •  Numark TTi USB Turntable with iPod Dock Numark TTi USB Turntable with iPod Dock :: There is a good chance that your dad has some old school music sitting in his closet that he lovingly looks at but has no idea how to play his Best of Olivia Newton John records let alone get them on the iPod that you gave him last Christmas.  This should kill two birds at once.  The bad news is that his old records have found a second life and we aren’t sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing but that’s your problem, not mine.
  • Sony Noise Cancelling Headphones Since we are talking about your dad’s bad taste in music, why not give him a nice set of headphones.  Not just any set of headphones but some noise cancelling headphones.  They have long been a must have for frequent fliers but even for those of you whose dad isn’t flying to Toronto every week, they reduces unwanted ambient noise by 87.4%, providing a quieter environment to enhance his listening experience.
  • 23 and Me :: They send you a kit, you spit into a tube and send it back.  They analyze the DNA in your saliva, then tell you about your genetic ancestry, and your susceptibility to genetically linked medical conditions.  If you have a genetically linked condition, you also will know who to blame.
  • Atari 2600 Flashback 2 :: Okay, so your dad’s gaming skills started to fall behind when the Colecovision came out but don’t hold that against him and let him reconnect with the games of yesteryear and get him a vintage game system. It features the same wood grain paneling and look of the Atari 2600, and will capture the feel through two classic joysticks for multi-player competition and vintage controls. The system comes pre-loaded with over 30 classic games. No new purchases are required, just connect it to your TV and play! The system that brought you hits like Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Lunar Lander, Millipede, Missile Command, Combat and Pong now has them all collected on one handy system.


  • The Blue Pod The Pod :: If dad has a camera, he probably has a tripod or two.  If he likes to take photographs out of the house and doesn’t like the hassle of finding the perfect place for his mount, the Pod could be a great option.  Basically it is what happens when you combine a camera mount with a bean bag.  While you are at it, why not get dad a new digital camera?
  • Your dad probably has an old camcorder kicking around but new camcorders like the Kodak Zi8 are so much easier to use.  If you have grandkids, give one of these to dad, set him up on YouTube and let him go crazy or let him film himself out in the wilderness as a Les Stroud wanna be.  He will be amazed at how easy and how high quality Kodak’s camera is.
  • Leatherman :: While most men want one, it is a lot of money to shell out for a multi tool but a the same time it is a iconic brand and tool that your dad will appreciate it as a gift.  While you are at it, toss in a copy of Les Stroud’s book, Survive!: Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere or the SAS Survival Handbook.  If dad isn’t likely to read, pick up all three seasons of Survivorman instead.
  • Labatt Stubby Beer Bottle Weber Go Anywhere Grill :: Dad probably already has a kick butt grill at home but this is perfect for bringing to the beach or over to your place when you don’t feel like firing up the grill yourself.  It’s also charcoal which will bring back good memories for your father of a time when he could afford to go to NHL games, drank stubby beers, and his sideburns were a fashion statement rather than the foundation for his comb-over.  While you are at it, toss in a cookbook or two about cooking with charcoal to refresh his memory on how to do it.

* The last time I bought a Christmas gift for my dad, I called his wife and asked what she was getting him.  The answer was a Dodge Viper.  I seriously said, “Err, a model one?”  It wasn’t.  So we had my $40.00 gift and her $100,000.00 gift.  I felt like a tool.

You can find more Christmas gift ideas here.  If you have any other suggestions or comments, let me know in the comments.

10 Most Common Strategic Blunders

Since I mentioned Thomas Ricks the other day, I thought I would post a link to his 10 most common strategic blunders from his blog at Foreign Policy

1. Failure to recognize or take seriously the scarcity of resources.

2. Mistaking strategic goals for strategy.

3. Failure to recognize or state the strategic problem.

4. Choosing poor or unattainable strategic goals.

5. Not defining the strategic challenge competitively.

6. Making false presumptions about one’s own competence or the likely causal linkages between one’s strategy and one’s goals.

7. Insufficient focus on strategy due to such things as trying to satisfy too many different stakeholders or bureaucratic processes.

8. Inaccurately determining one’s areas of comparative advantage relative to the opposition.

9. Failure to realize that few individuals possess the cognitive skills and mindset to be competent strategists.

10. Failure to understand the adversary.

There is a whole book of military history to be written just finding good illustrations of each of those mistakes. I think the United States was guilty of No. 2 and No. 10 in Iraq from 2003 through 2006. I’d say the British tripped on No. 3 during the American Revolution. I think Hitler committed No. 4 when he tackled Russia. No. 10 is probably the most common error.

My personal observations is that No. 1 sunk Rommel in North Africa (I believe his logistics officer was only a Major) and Robert McNamara said in Fog of War that No. 10 was their big problem is Vietnam, it wasn’t Communist expansion so much as it was a war of liberation.  The U.N. mission to Rwanda probably fell victim to No. 7.

Tories fight back on Kinsella lawsuit

The Canadian Press is reporting that the Tories are fighting back against Warren Kinsella’s lawsuit.

The Conservatives sued the Liberals last year to silence allegations relating to an alleged $1-million life insurance offer for the vote of Independent MP Chuck Cadman.

But the party now says the cut and thrust of political discourse shouldn’t be silenced by lawsuits.

I am not a judge but when I read the press release, I saw them trying to link Kinsella to the ad-scam scandal and apparently Warren and his lawyers agreed.  I am not a big lawsuit kind of guy but if I was in his situation, I think I would sue as well.

For me the article is interesting because no matter what the outcome, the Tories lose.

If the Tories win the lawsuit and even if they humiliate Warren Kinsella so badly, his wife and family all take out Conservative Party membership cards, they are still seen as mean spirited against someone who has a personal relationship with the Prime Minister.  Plus, if they had read his book, Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics, they should have realized that Warren Kinsella is not the target politically (see 2000 General Election – The Canadian Alliance ran a website attacking Warren Kinsella but forgot that he wasn’t running for elected office) but Michael Ignatieff and to a lesser extent, Jack Layton is.

If Warren Kinsella wins, the Tories are still seen as trying to smear a Liberal strategist and taking a shot at a Chretien loyalist.  On top of that, they are out some money that is now going to be spent keeping a VW Beatle on the road (another example of the Economic Action Plan at work) or taking W@AL on a Western Canadian road trip. The other thing that those in the that bunker could learn, many us across Canada like Jean Chretien (who had a pretty good record in both general elections and with the economy).  I am not sure if they want to keep attacking him on the basis of his service to him.

If you have read Thomas E. Ricks‘ excellent book Fiasco, he makes the compelling point that many top American generals don’t know the difference between tactical thinking and strategic thinking which is why Iraq turned so badly so quickly.  Ricks uses the illustration of taking out a sniper with tanks and heavy artillery.  It was a clear tactical victory as you would need DNA samples to identify the body.  Yet at the same time there was all of the collateral damage to the community and neighborhood around them.  In winning each tactical battle, they were losing the war.  Politics is a lot like that.  I know Carville says that you have to respond to each charge made against you but you also have to keep your eyes on the big picture and that is winning the hearts and minds of Canadians.

The Conservatives risk doing the same thing.  They have a reputation for being mean spirited and partisan and you can’t be really partisan without coming across as being small minded.  That may be fine in some election campaigns but look around, people really suffered during this recession.  I want my government to take care of the economy, not call Warren Kinsella names.  If they do let a young staffer too close to the fax machine (it happens), then I want them to apologize, not try to spin things in more bizarre ways.  When you govern (and you want to continue to govern), you need to cut back on the Amp Energy Drink, take some time off from the Conservative War Room and maybe read, take up photography, walk the dog, and maybe take a road trip to the places in Ontario which have been hit hardest by the recession and listen to their stories.  Then decide if you need to be attacking Warren Kinsella, fighting him in court, or settling and then taking care of more important business.

Update: Apparently the Tories aren’t taking my advice and are planning to run ads attacking the Ignatieff family summer home in France.  Lay off small family cabins already!

Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks

Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks While in Chapters in Regina, I picked up a copy of Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks.  It is a mesmerizing read if for just the amount of incompetence within the White House, the Pentagon, and the provisional government in Iraq (Paul Bremer comes across as an incompetent idiot).  Basically it tells the story of intelligence that was discredited within the CIA even before Colin Powell tried to sell it at the United Nations and about how despite a chorus of concerned experts both inside and outside the Pentagon that the occupation could go very bad, very quickly, the office of the Secretary of Defense ignored it.

Those warnings existed in the war plans since 1991 and were made not only by senior military leadership but from a wide variety of partisan and non-partisan think tanks.  Republicans and Democrats saw that the invasion of Iraq could go bad without enough troops and the office of the Secretary of Defense just ignored them.  Senior military leaders were told to expect a plan on the occupation of Iraq but then in one instance were told to produce one themselves in just 24 hours.  It would read like a comedy of errors if not so many lives were being lost.

While Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks were right that you could win a military battle with speed and airpower, winning a war and keeping order takes a lot of troops.  On top of that the early plans all relied on the Iraqi military to help rebuild until Bremer surprised everyone by dissolving the Iraqi military which made 400,000 skilled troops suddenly unemployed and gave them an axe to grind.  He followed that up by dissolving the Ministry of the Interior which put all of the police out of work.  "De-Ba’thification" worked just about as well.  While the military was relying on the Iraqi’s themselves to do this (they would kill the partisan Ba’th member themselves), Bremer put most of Iraq’s skilled workforce out of jobs on the basis that they may be Ba’th members despite strong reservations from the military and his own advisors.

The book does leave one question unanswered.  Why senior military and political leaders refused to listen to those around them?  Leaders become isolated but in this case a lot of people were able to make their case to them.  It almost seems as if they were overwhelmed by the task at hand and chose to ignore it which forced them into defaulting back to their original assumptions as if they couldn’t handle the complexity on hand.  This happens in many organizations but generally near the top, you have people who can focus both on the task at hand and on the larger picture.  Within the Pentagon and the White House, they seemed to be focused on too small of a picture (winning the war) and too large of a picture (transforming the middle east in to a pro-American democracy) which was the wrong thing to be focusing on.

As the U.S. Army War College study pointed out, the war “was not integral” to the global war on terrorism but was a costly “detour from it.”

For me the question that the book kept bringing back to me was how do leaders who rise to senior leadership positions in politics and the military manage to ignore their advisors at such a key time.   This isn’t just a military question either.  I have seen church leaders tune everyone else out and Wall Street is littered with companies that made moves everyone else saw as a probable train wreck (Corel going into competition against Microsoft and Adobe at the same time comes to mind).  Just recently Stephane Dion campaigned on a Green Shift even those closest to him thought was a horrible idea.  Ignoring those around you isn’t new but what amazes me is that those that can’t or won’t are weeded out more effectively by complex systems like the Pentagon.  As for how it happened in the White House, that’s Bob Woodward’s specialty.

The book is a good one and is a required read at the Army War College.  You can find it in hardcover, paperback or Google Books.  The New York Times has a good review of the book here.