Debacle: Lessons From Lost Wars
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
It was to be the war that would establish empire as an American fact. It would result in a thousand-year Pax Americana. It was to be “mission accomplished” all the way. And then, of course, it wasn’t. And then, almost nine dismal years later, it was over (sorta).
It was the Iraq War, and we were the uninvited guests who didn’t want to go home. To the last second, despite President Obama’s repeated promise that all American troops were leaving, despite an agreement the Iraqi government had signed with George W. Bush’s administration in 2008, America’s military commanders continued to lobby and Washington continued to negotiate for 10,000 to 20,000 US troops to remain in-country as advisors and trainers.
Only when the Iraqis simply refused to guarantee those troops immunity from local law did the last Americans begin to cross the border into Kuwait. It was only then that our top officials began to hail the thing they had never wanted, the end of the American military presence in Iraq, as marking an era of “accomplishment.” They also began praising their own “decision” to leave as a triumph, and proclaimed that the troops were departing with—as the president put it—“their heads held high.”
In a final flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad, clearly meant for US domestic consumption and well attended by the American press corps but not by Iraqi officials or the local media, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke glowingly of having achieved “ultimate success.” He assured the departing troops that they had been a “driving force for remarkable progress” and that they could proudly leave the country “secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people begin a new chapter in history, free from tyranny and full of hope for prosperity and peace.” Later on his trip to the Middle East, speaking of the human cost of the war, he added, “I think the price has been worth it.”
And then the last of those troops really did “come home”—if you define “home” broadly enough to include not just bases in the US but also garrisons in Kuwait, elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, and sooner or later in Afghanistan.
On December 14 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the president and his wife gave returning war veterans from the 82nd Airborne Division and other units a rousing welcome. With some in picturesque maroon berets, they picturesquely hooahed the man who had once called their war “dumb.” Undoubtedly looking toward his 2012 campaign, President Obama, too, now spoke stirringly of “success” in Iraq, of “gains,” of his pride in the troops, of the country’s “gratitude” to them, of the spectacular accomplishments achieved as well as the hard times endured by “the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” and of the sacrifices made by our “wounded warriors” and “fallen heroes.”
He praised “an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making,” framing their departure this way: “Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering—all of it has led to this moment of success.… [W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”
And these themes—including the “gains” and the “successes,” as well as the pride and gratitude, which Americans were assumed to feel for the troops—were picked up by the media and various pundits. At the same time, other news reports were highlighting the possibility that Iraq was descending into a new sectarian hell, fueled by an American-built but largely Shiite military, in a land in which oil revenues barely exceeded the levels of the Saddam Hussein era, in a capital city which still had only a few hours of electricity a day, and that was promptly hit by a string of bombings and suicide attacks from an Al Qaeda affiliated group (nonexistent before the invasion of 2003), even as the influence of Iran grew and Washington quietly fretted.
A Consumer Society at War
It’s true that, if you were looking for low-rent victories in a near trillion-dollar war, this time, as various reporters and pundits pointed out, US diplomats weren’t rushing for the last helicopter off an embassy roof amid chaos and burning barrels of dollars. In other words, it wasn’t Vietnam and, as everyone knew, that was a defeat. In fact, as other articles pointed out, our—as no fitting word has been found for it, let’s go with—withdrawal was a magnificent feat of reverse engineering, worthy of a force that was a nonpareil on the planet.
Even the president mentioned it. After all, having seemingly moved much of the US to Iraq, leaving was no small thing. When the US military began stripping the 505 bases it had built there at the cost of unknown multibillions of taxpayer dollars, it sloughed off $580 million worth of no-longer-wanted equipment on the Iraqis. And yet it still managed to ship to Kuwait, other Persian Gulf garrisons, Afghanistan, and even small towns in the US more than two million items ranging from Kevlar armored vests to port-a-potties. We’re talking about the equivalent of 20,000 truckloads of materiel.
Not surprisingly, given the society it comes from, the US military fights a consumer-intensive style of war and so, in purely commercial terms, the leaving of Iraq was a withdrawal for the ages. Nor should we overlook the trophies the military took home with it, including a vast Pentagon database of thumbprints and retinal scans from approximately 10 percent of the Iraqi population. (A similar program is still underway in Afghanistan.)
When it came to “success,” Washington had a good deal more than that going for it. After all, it plans to maintain a Baghdad embassy so gigantic it puts the Saigon embassy of 1973 to shame. With a contingent of 16,000 to 18,000 people, including a force of perhaps 5,000 armed mercenaries (provided by private security contractors like Triple Canopy with its $1.5 billion State Department contract), the “mission” leaves any normal definition of “embassy” or “diplomacy” in the dust.
In 2012 alone, it is slated to spend $3.8 billion, a billion of that on a much criticized police-training program, only 12 percent of whose funds actually go to the Iraqi police. To be left behind in the “postwar era,” in other words, will be something new under the sun.
Still, set aside the euphemisms and the soaring rhetoric, and if you want a simple gauge of the depths of America’s debacle in the oil heartlands of the planet, consider just how the final unit of American troops left Iraq. According to Tim Arango and Michael Schmidt of the New York Times, they pulled out in the dead of night, at 2:30 am. No helicopters off rooftops, but 110 vehicles setting out in the dark from Contingency Operating Base Adder. The day before they left, according to the Times reporters, the unit’s interpreters were ordered to call local Iraqi officials and sheiks with whom the Americans had close relations and make future plans, as if everything would continue in the usual way in the week to come.
In other words, the Iraqis were meant to wake up the morning after to find their foreign comrades gone, without so much as a goodbye. This is how much the last American unit trusted its closest local allies. After shock and awe, the taking of Baghdad, the mission-accomplished moment and the capture, trial and execution of Saddam Hussein; after Abu Ghraib and the bloodletting of the civil war; after the surge and the Sunni Awakening movement; after the purple fingers and the reconstruction funds gone awry; after all the killing and the dying, the US military slipped into the night without a word.
If, however, you did happen to be looking for a word or two to capture the whole affair, something less polite than those presently circulating, “debacle” and “defeat” might fit the bill. The military of the self-proclaimed single greatest power of planet Earth, whose leaders once considered the occupation of the Middle East the key to future global policy and planned for a multi-generational garrisoning of Iraq, had been sent packing. That should have been considered little short of stunning.
Face what happened in Iraq directly and you know that you’re on a new planet.