Tom Ricks arrived in a parking lot outside Najaf, Iraq, at the end of a 36-hour road trip that should have taken a third of that time. The Washington Post reporter was riding along in a Humvee with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, reporting on the movement of thousands of troops into the central Iraqi city, where Shiite militias had clashed several times with US forces in previous weeks. It was April 2004, one year into a war that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had doubted would last more than five months.
During the journey to Najaf, the convoy was shot at with rocket-propelled grenades and nearly blown up by a roadside bomb. “Don’t be alarmed,” a 23-year-old sergeant told Ricks, then 48, as the soldier calmly lit a cigarette, “but somebody here is trying to kill us.”
The harrowing trek was part of the biggest Army operation in central Iraq up to that point, and to Ricks it felt portentous. “The US military operation in Iraq began to feel less like a troubled occupation and more like a small war,” he wrote in the Post two days later. Along with some other reporters, he was sensing what military leaders refused to acknowledge: US forces were facing an insurgency, a campaign of guerrilla warfare for which the military hadn’t trained and that the American public hadn’t been told to expect.