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September 24, 2006

Chasing Ghosts: Review

Paul Reickoff's Iraq war memoir Chasing Ghosts is worth reading just for his breathtakingly frank assessment of the credibility of embedded journalists:

We struggled constantly to deal with the meddlesome and judgmental press. They infested Baghdad like roaches. We almost universally despised them. As far as I was concerned, any journalist who agreed to be imbedded with the military surrendered all claims to professional impartiality. There's a good reason people called them "in-bedded" journalists. How could they possibly report freely and accurately when we guarded their asses? They were mobbed up. As the violence escalated and independent reporting became more dangerous, reporters were entirely dependent upon the Pentagon for access to the war--and to their story. They saw only what the military brass let them see. Their every step was guided by military chaperones. They depended on the military to protect their skins if a situation ever got dicey. And we grunts were not allowed to speak freely to them. Our Commanders censored and monitored us constantly. Speaking out, complaining, telling the truth could get a soldier into a whole world of trouble with his superiors. It was no wonder so much of the coverage of the war on the Internet or in articles my friends mailed me from home, was so weak and inaccurate. (p 216)*

The great thing about Chasing Ghosts is that the author is equally blunt about everything. He's not afraid to excoriate the government for fighting the war on the cheap, or senior officers for being callous and lazy, or civilians for being complacent and out of touch with the military.

Rieckhoff nearly dies riding into Baghdad when a rotted crossbeam on an ancient truck splinters under his weight. Every man has high-tech night vision goggles that fill Iraqis with awe, but the Army won't keep them in batteries. When Rieckhoff's team ran out of plastic handcuffs, he wrote his dad, a electrical worker, for a case of plastic ties used to bundle cables.

Rieckhoff doesn't romanticize his men, despite his affection and respect for them. He admits that many of his soldiers are shockingly ignorant. At one point, he observes that he's trying to fight an urban war with guys who've never lived in a city.

Despite their best intentions, many of Rieckhoff's men aren't the most culturally sensitive ambassadors. Some guys become enraged when they see Iraqi men holding hands on the street. A continual shortage of interpreters doesn't help.

Rieckhoff's platoon has a dual mission: To destroy the insurgency and to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. Unfortunately, the two objectives are mutually exclusive. Rieckoff is acutely aware of the absurdity of trying to make friends with people after you kick down their doors and search their homes at gunpoint. But that's literally what he and his men do, day in and day out.

Rieckhoff and his men depend on local knowledge to differentiate between terrorists and civilians, but they are so isolated that they can't trust the information they get. Every time they search the wrong house and terrorize the wrong family, they lose a little more good will, and their intelligence gets a little worse. The terrorists kill more people, the civilians blame the troops, so the troops step up the hunt, but they alienate more Iraqis.

Rieckhoff discussion of his subsequent activism is disappointing. He doesn't argue for any particular policy. His main point is that veterans have to be involved in the decision-making process, because they're the only ones who really understand what it's like over there. Rieckhoff hopes for some some compromise between immediate withdrawal and indefinite commitment, but doesn't really explain what that might be, or why this intermediate stance would be better than immediate withdrawal.

Nevertheless, the story of one infantry platoon in Baghdad says more about why the US can't win than a thousand editorials.

Chasing Ghosts is an important addition to the literature on the Iraq war.

*I'm not as bitter as Rieckhoff about imbedded reporters. Some good ethical journalists are reluctantly agreeing to embedding because there's no other way to cover this war.


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I just finished reading it this week too. There were two things he said in the book that stood out beyond all else.

"If we stay it will be bad; if we leave it will be bad."
"it's like we're pouring water on Gizmo."

The amount of enemies that they're making in there is making it impossible to leave, and even worse to stay. However, the book was entirely based on complaints with little to no solution... (I suppose I shouldn't expect him to come up with any solutions though...) It was probably the best book I've read on the war, which could be entirely because it was the first time I had seen Al Qaeda and jihadists being compared to Gremlins. I've also never read anything that articulates so well the terrifying and hard position that the soldiers find themselves in.

I agree, Kian. It's not so much that the book doesn't offer solutions, because there aren't any. I just think it would have been stronger if it had devoted less space to implying that there's a solution that's not immediate withdrawal. Because when you read the book, it seems utterly hopeless. So, it's a little frustrating to have him gesture at some vague third way when he's spent 200 pages convincing you that the mission is hopeless.

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