Breaking Up With Iraq

After I returned home from Iraq, I read a review of George Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, in the New York Review of Books. The memoir has provided Democrats with a welcome opportunity to slap the former president around for a long laundry list of genuinely infuriating faults—most notably his support of torture and his decision to invade Iraq based on intelligence that he now admits was “false.” This particular review, written by former New York Times editor Joe Lelyveld, was a good example of the genre:

Bush 43 isn’t into remorse. … So he never allows himself to ask what he’d have done had he been gifted with foresight and understood from the start the real costs of his intervention in Iraq: a conflict lasting not months as he was originally assured but the better part of a decade, with more than 4,400 Americans killed in action and 30,000 wounded, many grievously; 100,000 or more Iraqi civilian casualties; several million refugees; and an overall cost to American taxpayers approaching $1 trillion.

So far, so good. It was a mistake to invade Iraq. We wasted many, many lives and arguably helped to bankrupt our own country. If Bush 43 isn’t into remorse, then writers like Lelyveld should step into the breach. But it also contains a good example of a trap that I worry liberals are setting for themselves by allowing their hatred of Bush, and his largely civilian cadre of advisers, to bleed into a blanket dismissal of Iraq:

Instead [Bush] clings to a wisp of a hope that he will be seen to have bequeathed a stable democracy in the Middle East as Paul Wolfowitz and other neocon dreamers once promised. Democracy is on the rise in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, he suggests. The three countries have ‘the potential to serve as the foundation of a free and peaceful region.’ As they say thereabouts, Inshallah!

The easy jeer of this last sentence reminded me of the tone I might have used—and frequently did use—during the first three years of the war, when the Bush administration’s pronouncements about “winning hearts and minds” in Iraq seemed so obviously disconnected from events on the ground that irony was the only sane response. Even the administration’s chosen phrase was a joke, given that it most likely derived from Peter Davis’ Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds. Largely forgotten now, that film was once a touchstone of the anti-war movement. When it won an Academy Award in 1975, its co-producer Bert Schneider said, “It’s ironic that we’re here at a time just before Vietnam is about to be liberated.”

The problem is that Iraq might not be an ironic war. From what I saw, the reduction in violence there is drastic and real. There is no hostile army, like the Vietcong waiting to liberate the country from our oppression. Instead, Obama’s massive troop withdrawal, carried out in the summer of 2010, has been done with the peaceful cooperation of the Iraqi government and its military. And though I’m not qualified to comment on the state of Iraq’s government—much less Lebanon’s or Palestine’s—many veteran commentators are quietly saying good things. On the Dec. 28, 2010, edition of the PBS NewsHour, Joost Hiltermann (who himself writes for the New York Review of Books) said: “I think [the Iraqi government] is fairly stable. … I don’t expect any major violence, no serious internal threats, no serious external threats either.” His fellow commentator, Michael Gordon of the New York Times, agreed.

So what if Iraq actually worked? I started to wonder after I saw the broadcast. What if, after years of struggle, mistakes, wasted money, and loss of life, the U.S. Army actually managed to help the Iraqis to “stand up as we stand down”? Even more paradoxically, what if Iraq turned out to be a more likely and more willing “partner” to the United States than Afghanistan could ever be? And what if this provisional success—or at least this window of opportunity—could be attributed to decisions that President Barack Obama has made?

Then I looked up the transcript for the show and found the following post in the comments section after the piece:

I am baffled as to why the producers had Michael Gordon appear as a commentator on Iraq with Margaret Warner.It was Gordon’s and Judith Miller’s enthusiastic lies at the Times that were so helpful to the propagandists in the White House, enabling them to illegally invade and occupy a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 not [sic] did it have any WMDs for years before the U.S. invasion.Miller was in a relationship with someone in the administration. It’s never been explained why Gordon was such a willing tool of the Bush White House.

My concern is that, like Lelyveld and the author of this comment, most Democrats feel safest when discussing Iraq in terms of the war’s ironic early days, when everything was black and white, rather than dealing with Iraq as it is currently. It was Bush’s war, it was wrong, and that’s it. But the sweetness of having won the argument about the beginning of Iraq (not to mention the pleasure of tormenting Republicans for the whole “Mission Accomplished” fiasco) could very quickly turn into the ugliness of having been wrong about its end. This even applies to President Obama, who, though he now praises the U.S. military’s efforts in Iraq, spent most of his 2008 campaign emphasizing his vote against the invasion and termed the war a “dangerous distraction.”

Certainly the soldiers who’ve done two or three tours in Iraq, who’ve lost friends there, who’ve been injured themselves—who have given up much of the prime of their lives in an attempt to “liberate” and then “pacify” a country that arguably shouldn’t have been invaded in the first place—aren’t much interested in pro- or anti-war sloganeering.

During my nine-day visit to Iraq, I never heard one soldier use the word victory. Nor did I hear former President George W. Bush mentioned by name. People did refer to Saddam Hussein, but it was usually in the offhand way one might reference to a former landlord—”This was Saddam’s old hunting grounds”—and never as a devastating enemy and worldwide terror threat. If anything, the years they’ve spent in Iraq have taught them the opposite. Iraq is not a threat. It’s poor. Its infrastructure is ravaged. Its streets and highways are lined with trash. Its army is improved but still shaky. Even its oil industry is a sham. Its refineries can’t produce the high-grade diesel necessary to run the generator farms that power bases like Balad and Marez. Which probably means that, when the United States leaves, these power plants will be packed up and shipped away.

What the engineers in the 36th Engineer Brigade did talk about, though—eagerly, with little prompting—were the specific memories of their previous tours in Iraq. Unlike infantry soldiers, who are allowed two years between deployments, engineers can be deployed every other year. Most had already been to Iraq at least twice, with intervening deployments to Afghanistan.

Back in 2003, the brigade’s commander, Col. Kent Savre, was living in a tent and repairing the Balad airfield, then abandoned by the Iraqi air force and still riddled with craters from the United States’ prewar bombing campaign. Lt. Col. David O’Donahue had rebuilt schools around Tikrit and Samarra in 2004. Capt. Erin Kennedy had repaired roads and highways around Joint Base Balad in 2006. Sgt. Sammy Sparger had patrolled Baghdad’s Haifa Street in 2004. They lost soldiers on these missions. They missed years of their children’s lives. Sparger, who fought with the Marines during the first Gulf War, then deployed to Iraq three times with the Army, has spent 10 years working to get his college degree online. “I turned 21 in [Iraq],” he told me, “and I’ll turn 41 next year.” Other soldiers talked to me about divorces they’d gone through at least in part due to their time away.

“Now it’s different,” Sparger said, explaining why he was ready to leave Iraq. “Whenever you’re patrolling the streets, you can almost buy in. When you go by the same people on a daily basis, and you have an interaction with the population, and all that kind of stuff. You know which dogs are gonna bark at you, and which dogs aren’t. Which little kids are absolutely obnoxious, which ones aren’t. You really get pulled in, I guess, you would say. The interesting parts for me are when we go back to Victory, and I drive through areas that I walked, you know, for a year at a time. And you wonder, kinda how the people are. Because you meet good people who just want to live and do all that. And now … we’re helping the U.S., but it’s not as personal. You don’t have somebody that’s offering you tea. I’ve never had somebody stop my patrol when you’re IED hunting and say, here, have some ice cream or some chai tea.”

Sparger’s chiseled face is starting to weather, the eye sockets prominent, the crow’s feet and wrinkles permanent. I wondered aloud if, after all these years, he felt a fondness for Iraq or the work he’d done here. He paused, leaned back in his chair. “Have you ever built something, and you’re not a good carpenter?” he asked.

When I left Iraq a few days before Christmas, I flew out of Balad on a C-130 and landed at Ali Al Salem airbase in Kuwait. I spent two days marooned at Ali, as it is commonly known, waiting for my flight back to the States. Very little had changed there since my last trip through in 2006: the same acres of brown tents erected to house soldiers on their way in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq. As such, it’s particularly haunting territory. One place in particular affected me. It’s known as “Tent 1,” a long, Mylar-roofed structure at the north end of the base. For seven years, soldiers have waited here for their flights into combat zones. It has two rooms, divided by a plywood wall. In the first, there’s a pair of desks that serve as makeshift airline counters and a line of AT&T phones where soldiers sit on plywood stools and make their last phone calls home before they leave. In the second, larger room, there are cubbyholes where the soldiers store their bags, Kevlar helmets, and body armor while they wait; and then rows of padded metal chairs facing a big screen television; and, behind it, a giant American flag.

Even in the daytime, when the sun shines blindingly on the sand outside, the lights in Tent 1 are kept at a steady, low-level twilight. Soldiers sleep, read, or check their Facebook pages on the wireless network provided there. Other than the murmur of the television, and the occasional announcements of an outbound flight, there’s very little conversation. You can feel people thinking about where they’re going to be.

On my last day at Ali, I spent an entire afternoon in Tent 1, charging up my laptop and waiting for the shuttle that would drive me back to the Kuwait International Airport. I was just about the only person there who was heading home. In the seat in front of me, a sergeant had plugged her laptop into the same outlet I was using. Behind me, another soldier stripped off his boots and socks, lay down with his hands tucked between his thighs, and feel asleep. A third stumbled groggily into the front row of seats to watch the film that was playing on Armed Forces Network Prime.

It was the 1954 classic White Christmas, and its premise seemed no less ludicrous than the Tom Cruise action feature that had been playing earlier. In it, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, both World War II vets, try to help out the general of their old division by putting on a musical at his failing Vermont inn. I felt like I was in a Thomas Pynchon novel, sitting there in the dark as Kaye and Crosby danced before the sleeping, dusty soldiers in Tent 1’s twilit gloom, singing:

Gee, I wish I was back in the Army

The Army wasn’t really bad at all

Three meals a day, for which you didn’t pay

Uniforms for winter, spring, and fall.

While the beautiful, Technicolor dames on their arms responded:

The Army was the place to find romance …

A million handsome guys

With longing in their eyes

All you had to do

Was pick the age, the weight, and size

The movie ended with Crosby in a Santa suit, offering a reprise of “White Christmas” in an opulent dining hall, the audience gussied up in fancy suits and dresses, the Christmas trees trimmed with tinsel, the tables laden with champagne glasses and cake.

In the ironic world of Gravity’s Rainbow (by the way, there was a copy of V. on the Tent 1 reading rack), a scene like this would be played for laughs, entirely at the watching soldiers’ expense. Here are the dumb GIs taking in a mass-produced spectacle of American goodness and achievement while participating in an orgy of cynical, military-industrial greed. The problem is that Pynchon’s Vietnam-era take, like Lelyveld’s take—or Michael Moore’s take, or Oliver Stone’s take—presumes that disaster is the inevitable result of a war that began as cynically as our invasion of Iraq.

But what if, in the case of Iraq, it turns out that the average American soldier might have earnestly and unironically muddled through? Whatever mistakes the U.S. military made at the beginning of our involvement in Iraq—and there were plenty of them—it seems indisputable that, over the last seven years, hundreds of thousands of soldiers have made a genuine and, in our modern age, shockingly altruistic investment in that country. It is also true that none of these soldiers, or their families, had any say in the decision to invade Iraq. The fact that they appear to have successfully ended the conflict there is something the Democrats might want to celebrate, rather than, in Obama’s words, simply trying to “turn the page.”

This probably includes admitting that President Bush’s surge worked, as Obama has been loath to do. But it also means giving the military credit for things—like our peaceful base transfers and cooperation with the Iraqis—that ought to be in the Democratic wheelhouse. Especially since they make it possible for us to leave.

Postscript: In January 2011, two soldiers from the 36th Engineer Brigade were killed by a high-tech bomb known as an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, while conducting a route clearance mission near Taji. They were the first fatalities that the brigade had experienced during its deployment in Iraq. The brigade has since returned to the United States.

Click here to launch the slide show Breaking Up With Iraq.