War Stories

Home Thoughts From Abroad

Some U.S. soldiers have spent so much time in Iraq, it feels like home.

A U.S. soldier plays the oud for some Iraqi children

One night earlier this fall, a string of detonations shook the walls of a company-sized U.S. Army outpost south of Baghdad. It was the middle of the night, but outside, behind a nearby palm grove, reports echoed and the horizon glowed. The sound and light show—courtesy, it turned out, of another American unit in the area firing illumination mortar rounds and other ordnance—didn’t stir a single one of the dozens of soldiers sleeping in the back room. They slept as deeply as if they were in their beds at home.

Home, in fact, was where they were. This latest deployment, which has gone on for more than a year now, is the third in Iraq for Bravo Company, 2/14 Infantry. The company, which belongs to the Army’s most deployed brigade (the 10th Mountain Division’s Second Brigade Combat Team), patrolled Iraq last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before that. I first encountered the brigade’s officers here in 2004. Then in 2005. Then again in 2006. And now in 2007.

Gen. David Petraeus elicited a few chuckles when, testifying before Congress in September, he inadvertently referred to Iraq as “home.” But in the constellation of American bases that loop around the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys and in the spectacle of young Americans knowing Iraqi neighborhoods as well as they know their own, there is evidence that Petraeus meant what he said.

In the months since I had last been to Bravo Company’s patrol base, it had expanded and its comforts multiplied. In June, a suicide bomber tried, unsuccessfully, to drive a truck packed with 14,000 pounds of explosives through the front door. Shortly after, engineers ringed the house with concrete blast walls, cleared a landing zone inside the perimeter, and even moved the road that passed by the front gate.

The house had changed; its inhabitants never seem to. Sgt. Donald Thompson, a lanky 28-year-old from Florida, has served in Iraq every year since 2003. Nor, in this all-volunteer and largely self-contained force, does this make him all that unusual. During a foot patrol of a nearby orchard, Thompson stepped on a pressure-plate mine, and his left leg was nearly sheared off. After five months of recuperation in a burn ward, he volunteered to return to Iraq.  There was, he suggested, a sort of gravitational pull at work. “I’ve been here when people were cheering us, when they’re blowing us up,” Thompson said. “I live this place.”

Indeed, Bravo Company had by now more or less melted into the landscape, becoming in effect the most powerful of the area’s tribes. This much was evident at a gathering of 20 local elders, where a young captain named Palmer Phillips cajoled and corralled sheiks three times his age. “Hey,” Phillips admonished the feuding tribal leaders, “There can’t be anymore of this Dulaimi versus Assawi action going on.” Over the years, I’ve watched the same scene unfold at mosques and homes in western and southern Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi, Sinjar, and Tal Afar. Absent a functioning government, the U.S Army administers nearly every visible facet of the state, above all the role of honest broker.

Not unlike the Americans in Vietnam and in the Philippines a century ago, the U.S. Army in Iraq has even acquired the flavor of its surroundings. This is not the army that resides in the city-states otherwise known as forward operating bases, with their Pizza Huts, traffic cops, and morgues. Officers in the Grand Army of the Tigris, as one of its senior officers calls the American force, dine with local elders at “goat grabs,” greet them with “man-kisses,” and routinely punctuate their own conversations with the casual “ insha’allah.” The vernacular has even followed the Army home: In the halls of the Pentagon, where nearly every Army officer has served at least two tours in Iraq, officers ask whether this or that official has “wasta“—Iraqi shorthand for “influence” or “pull,” though with a slightly more corrupt tinge.          

The Army has immersed itself so thoroughly in Iraq that senior officers back in the United States worry that the force has become “out of balance,” as Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey put it, too fixated on counterinsurgency. But there is another way to view this: Just as the U.S. Army that punched through Germany in 1945 bore slight resemblance to the amateurish force routed in North Africa three years before, the hardened units that America fields in Iraq today know the terrain in a way the Army of 2003 and 2004 never did.

Whether measured in terms of tactics and techniques improved, operational schemes perfected, or the clan loyalties of every house on every street cataloged and memorized, the accumulation of experience counts for everything in this war. In Iraq, roughly half of all casualties tend to be suffered during the first three months of a unit’s 15-month deployment. When I last visited Bravo Company, it was getting hit by IEDs twice a day and mortared routinely. “The whole area was a meat grinder,” Sgt. Johnson recalled, pointing to the canals and dikes that order the surrounding “triangle of death” into neat grids. But engagement with local tribes, intelligence tips, and targeted raids had quieted the area to the point where the company hadn’t been hit by a single IED strike in four months. Similarly, the brigade as a whole had lost more than 50 soldiers during its first eight months in Iraq, but only one during the last four months.

What is true in microcosm is also true writ large. In a war where it’s nearly impossible to detect intellectual coherence, the Army’s learning curve tells a clear story. In 2005, with other brigades either bulldozing through towns or hunkering down on their outskirts, the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment literally “went native,” fanning out across the city of Tal Afar and planting itself in the midst of a once-hostile population center. In 2006, the First Armored Division’s First Brigade Combat Team borrowed and improved the template by establishing its own outposts across the brutal city of Ramadi and “flipping” the local tribes. The 10th Mountain Division then purposefully applied the examples of both cities to southern Baghdad. Perhaps too late for the home front, but Petraeus has enshrined the lessons of these places in a theater-wide strategy that is generating obvious results.

There is, of course, an obvious downside to having an army that all but qualifies for Iraqi citizenship, even apart from the tally in dead and wounded. If the well-worn cliché that the U.S. Army inhabits a different universe from the Iraqis around it is no longer quite true, the reverse certainly is: Not even 7,000 miles can fully measure its remove from American society. Having bled so much here, the officer corps has very little use for the prospect that it may “have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain,” as Centurion Marcus Flavius predicted in his famous letter back to Rome. Its sense of ownership about the war grows deeper with each year the Army—and this is, at the end of the day, the Army’s war—spends in Iraq.  Neatly summarizing a narrative that has emerged from the ranks, the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks noted, “We in the military did what we were asked to do, but the politicians betrayed us, the media undercut us and the American people lack the patience to see it through.”

Friction on this score begins within the Army itself, pitting officers around and including Petraeus, for whom victory in Iraq takes precedence, against counterparts back at the Pentagon, such as Army Chief of Staff Casey, for whom the preservation of the Army is what matters.

Then there is the frustration of fighting a war that, having been called into being by politicians, is no longer remotely connected to anything they say. “The U.S. as a Nation—and indeed most of the U.S. Government—has not gone to war since 9/11,” Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, until recently one of the highest-ranking officers in Iraq, wrote  recently in Military Review. The argument is not limited by rank. Sitting on a bunk in Bravo Company’s outpost, Staff Sgt. Corey Hollister noted the irony that, even as the debate in America remained bizarrely unaffected by the reality around him, “It’s really military personnel and their families who don’t want [the Army] to leave Iraq.”

How could this be? An exhausted army is one thing. A defeated army is something else altogether. Anything but defeated, the 10th Mountain Division’s Second Brigade Combat Team was officially welcomed home in a ceremony at Fort Drum, N.Y., the day before Thanksgiving. Bravo Company, too, was there. Whether they were truly home—that wasn’t so clear.