If you’re in the mood, would you consider taking a walk with me and, while we’re at it, thinking a little about America’s wars? Nothing particularly ambitious, mind you, just—if you’re up for it—a stroll to the corner.
Now, admittedly, there’s a small catch here. Where exactly is that corner? I think the first time I heard about it might have been back in January 2004 and it was located somewhere in Iraq. That was, if you remember, just nine months after American troops triumphantly entered a burning Baghdad and the month after Iraq’s autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, was captured near his hometown, Tikrit. Yet despite President George W. Bush’s unforgettable May 1, 2003, “mission accomplished” moment when, from the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, he declared “major combat operations in Iraq…ended,” the American war there somehow never actually stopped. An insurgency had already flared, US bases were being periodically mortared, and American officials feared that some kind of civil war was in the offing between the country’s formerly reigning Sunni minority and its rising Shiite majority.
It was then that Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, mentioned that corner (and as you’ll gather from his comments, it wasn’t even the first time he’d brought the subject up). Here, as New York Times correspondent John Burns reported it, was Swannack’s assessment of the situation:
“The general, a large, imposing figure renowned among his troops for his no-nonsense ways, began his remarks by reminding the reporters that he had appeared in Baghdad six weeks ago, about the time of the insurgents’ Ramadan offensive, and had said he believed [troops] in his area were ‘turning the corner.’
“Now, he said, ‘I’m here to tell you that we’ve turned that corner. I can also tell you that we are on a glide path towards success, as attacks on our forces have declined by almost 60 percent over the past month.’”
As it happened, Americans would remain on the glide path to that corner of ultimate success for some time, not just in Iraq but in Washington, too. There, as Rowan Scarborough reported more than a year later, in March 2005, “in the privacy of their E-ring offices, senior Pentagon officials have begun to entertain thoughts that were unimaginable a year ago: Iraq is turning the corner. ‘This is still a tough fight. We don’t want anyone to think that it is not,’ said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst who strongly supports Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. ‘But the momentum is in our direction.’”
Here was the problem: Every time American troops actually turned that corner, what they found there were insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weaponry, sometimes even American-produced arms. In addition, the streets around that corner turned out to be pitted with half-buried improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, those same insurgents could build from instructions on the Internet and that could destroy the most well-armored Humvee for the price of a pizza. (Early on, in fact, some of the places down which American troops had to turn were already being given grimly sardonic names like “RPG Alley.”) There were, as it happened, so many corners to turn and yet, from 2003 on, seemingly nowhere to go.