PART I: THE BEGINNING
March 20, 2003: I was onboard USS Kearsarge in the Northern Arabian Gulf, providing sea basing for 16 CH-53E Super Stallions from an operating area called LHOA 3. (At least, I think that was the number. It was ten years ago.) I could probably draw the operating area’s vaguely tetrahedronal shape still, but only in the fluorescent green lines that defined LHOA 3 on our radar scopes and electronic charts. We had left our homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, some two months earlier, weighted down with thousands of Marines and their equipment. Those Marines had been summarily discharged into Kuwait a month earlier, leaving only behind their aviation brethren, and presumably sitting in the Kuwaiti desert since.
The ship’s crew had been collectively waiting to invade Iraq for months. All the stuff we saw on CNN, Hans Blix, weapons inspections, whatever, struck as a farcical holdup to the main event. The pieces were in place, and had been set in motion a long time ago. As in World War I, once the gears of war began turning, stopping them was beyond the will of any man. The sooner it began, we reasoned, the sooner we could all go home.
As a junior officer onboard an amphibious assault ship whose main purpose had already been fulfilled, little information (Surprise!) trickled down to me. We found out the invasion was for real only obliquely; a destroyer stationed near us radioed the afternoon of the 21st, when I happened to be on watch, to warn us to stand clear from them that night. They refused to say why. It didn’t take a naval genius to figure it out, though: that destroyer, a “shooter” in Navy parlance, would be firing Tomahawks that night. Tomahawks drop a booster stage early after they launch, which then falls into the sea…or onto an unwitting amhib. The word spread quickly from the bridge. Watch for fireworks tonight.
Sure enough, there was a light show after sunset, as the Gulf (and beyond) lit up with the fiery launches of hundreds of cruise missiles. We were watching the “Shock and Awe” portion of the campaign, and we figured we’d be going home soon. How long could a rag-tag Middle Eastern army withstand such an awesome show of force?
As it turns out, not long at all. And as it turns out, defeating that rag-tag army was barely the beginning.
When you’re way down the rungs of the military ladder, you pretty much have to assume someone, somewhere, knows what the fuck is going on. You, for one, almost never do. But someone has to be in charge, and they have to have some semblance of a plan. That’s how you justify doing things that make no sense. Maybe staying in this imaginary box is silly, sure, but someone, somewhere has a reason. Our is not to reason why. Iraq and, more particularly, post-invasion Iraq, is what happens when that chain of assumption reaches up to the very top…and it’s linked to nothing. What will we do after we invade? We’ll be greeted as liberators! These things will just work themselves out naturally.
23 of the Marines we sent ashore in February would not return.
PART II: MISSION NOT ACCOMPLISHED? THAT’S UNPOSSIBLE!
I spent six months deployed with Kearsarge on that go round (13 days in port), including quick missions off the coast of Egypt (to support a Bush visit) and Liberia (to exfiltrate some special forces caught in embassy attacks).
We deployed again a year later, with 3 weeks notice, for 3 months. (Even when I first saw it, I knew this would become a symbol of absurdity.) I came back for two months, then left again to join my next command, PC Crew Delta, aboard USS Firebolt, in Bahrain.
It wasn’t until my second deployment with Delta, in 2006, that I would actually, you know, met an Iraqi. I was assigned as a Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) officer, which, in our case, generally meant mostly visiting.
That six month deployment was by far the most interesting. I was an old salt by then, far more comfortable underway than back at home port , and I had an opportunity afforded to few. Deployed on USS Typhoon, PC Crew Delta spent much of that six months circling the platforms that linked Iraq’s oil supply with the world. Pipes carried oil from the interior of the country to the platforms; ships filled up with crude and carried it away. Shut them down, shut down Iraq- so the coalition keep the terminals surrounded by ships. Just off the Al-faw peninsula, we also just happened to be just off Kuwait and Iran. The area was packed with fishermen from all three countries, with a leveling of Indians and Pakistanis who had traveled up the entire length of the Gulf chasing their catch and trading everything from second hand cars to grey market oil. Routinely, the boarding team and I would go out to talk to fishermen, locals, trying to get a feel for the flow of illegal goods and information. (We once came aboard a fishing dhow just as a load of shrimp was being dumped onto the deck. Despite the protestations of the ship’s cook, who was also on the boarding team, I turned down the crew’s offer to share. I’ve always regretted it.) Guidance was…unclear if we should speak to Iranians, who we could identify from far off by their distinctive boat type. If the interpreter I had that day was up for it , I would always approach. It wasn’t until months into our deployment that we found out if IRGCN forces happened to see a fishing crew talking to Americans, they could be detained when they pulled into port.
All of which to say, I got to talk to a lot of people, from a lot of different places, about the American presence. Their (generally positive) response always had to be filtered through the perspective of unarmed fishermen trying to eke out a living talking to a crew of heavily armed Americans, watched over by a heavily armed ship a few hundred yards away. (Our friendly “Hey, mind if we come aboard?” was rarely turned down, even by Iranians risking God knows what. There’s a rock and a hard place for you. International enmity squeezing some fisherman in its vise.)
Kuwaitis routinely complained about Iraqis and Iranians. Iraqis complained about Iranians and Kuwaitis. Indians complained about Americans and Iranians. Iranians didn’t complain about anything. Occasionally, we would hear cries of “Ali Baba! Ali Baba!” over bridge to bridge radio, which meant someone was getting robbed somewhere. Most fishermen attributed these incidents to Iranian security forces, but who knew? What I did know was the American Navy had essentially airdropped itself into disputes decades, if not millennia, in the making. What were we supposed to do? Prioritization was given to maintaining security around the oil terminals; if they were hit, everything else wouldn’t matter. After that, we helped out as much as circumstances and mission allowed- trying to use a show of force to prevent Ali Baba from creeping out, training the nascent Iraqi Navy. Sandcastles in the tide.
I was in the pilot house of a tug, trying to gain a rapport with the ship’s captain, who resolutely ignored my questions while watching Saddam’s trial on a small TV. (We were close enough to shore that a standard TV antenna got a signal.) Suddenly, he looked up as if finally realizing I was there and went on an extended tear. Saddam was a bad man, he informed me via interpreter. He, the captain, knew people who had disappeared during Saddam’s reign. Everyone was always afraid. The Americans had done Iraq a favor by getting rid of him. I felt, momentarily, some pride. U! S! A! Maybe this whole thing was worth it after all! And then the captain continued. But now we have no electricity, he complained. It was hard to get fuel for his tug. If you wanted a job, you had to pay a bribe. Why weren’t the Americans solving these problems? Where was the police? I had no idea.
In 2006, I’m not sure anyone else did, either.
PART III: WHAT IT ALL MEANS (Or doesn’t.)
The amount of time and treasure spent in Iraq and Afghanistan is MIND BOGGLING. American dollars have flowed around the world, funneled through war zones. Even as the wars wind down, American taxpayers are the owners of a defense budget twice the size of a decade ago- and that doesn’t even account for the cost of the wars.
Ten years later, how many Americans know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite? How many know what Kurdistan refers to? What finding bin Laden in Pakistan means for India?
I frequently think of something I read once, about Americans in World War II. Newspapers would print maps of Europe, and children and parents would hang the maps and mark American battles and advances. Who, really, paid that much attention to Iraq or Afghanistan? Blame has been laid at the feet of everything from The Bachelor to the recession, but I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s still too soon to figure it out, but I think the ignorance and miscalculation and straight-up mistakes that led to the initial invasion forever hung over the war. We never really knew what we were doing there, so who could get smart about it. There was no goal to push for, no advance or battle to mark on a map. It takes a lifetime to learn the tribal complexities of a place like Iraq or Afghanistan; you can’t put that in a graph or chart or even an article. If the president didn’t know there were two kinds of Muslims in Iraq, what could we expect of the American people? And if we didn’t know, what were we doing?
Iraq is proof of the limits of military power. It’s proof that belief in American-style democracy means next to nothing outside of the U.S., proof that the concept of “American exceptionalism” doesn’t sell well when you’re standing by and letting fishermen get robbed, or beaten, or blown up. Classmates who studied Russian poetry have journals and kill lists published in Foreign Policy.
I still don’t know if we did “the right thing” in invading Iraq. I don’t think anyone does. Sure, we removed a dictator, but the headlines show we maybe didn’t do much else and maybe, in the end, made life for the lowest levels of Iraqis a little bit worse. What more does a simple person want, really, but certainty that he and his family can safely go to the market? Iraq still teeters on the edge of anarchy and, come 2014, Afghanistan is unlikely to do any better.
We all did the best we could, and, in the end, it probably wasn’t good enough.
23 of the Marines we sent ashore in February would not return.