Friday, August 20, 2010

8/18/10: Shock & awe in reverse

There was no bugout mode in effect this time, no overloaded Hueys lifting off the embassy roof at precarious angles. When about 440 soldiers of the 4th Styrker Brigade, 2nd Infantry took the main north-south highway into Kuwait on Wednesday, they were about to make history, but quietly for a change. They were the advance guard of a new dawn for Iraq.

On Wednesday, 2,666 days after President George W. Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq, reality finally caught up with him. The last United States combat troops in Iraq began leaving that beleaguered country (two weeks ahead of schedule), formally starting the process of ending Operation Iraqi Freedom, after 4,415 servicemen and women killed, about 32,000 wounded and a cost in billions upon billions we will be paying until we are old.

An estimated 50,000 U.S. forces will stay behind, serving mainly, but not exclusively, in support, training, administrative and security roles. Some U.S. presence in counter-terrorism operations will be maintained, but the rest of American forces there will be the vanguard of a new U.S. military relationship with Iraq: more limited engagement, more surgical intervention — approaches that some military analysts have been calling for for years.

Credit Richard Engel of NBC News with the scoop of the year: Riding with the Strykers as they roared down the highway at high speed in the dead of night, broadcasting the departure live via a sometimes jittery satellite hookup — a mirror opposite of the time and circumstances of March 2003, when the late David Bloom of NBC News rode the network's satellite vehicle in the other direction, covering the invasion in the heat of the day.

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You can't spend seven years and five months in one place without having something invested, personally and emotionally, in where you are. Maybe now that it's over, for all practical purposes, we'll see who knocks out that Great Book, that must-read novel that puts this mess into a final overarching perspective we haven't read before, for obvious reasons.

Every American who was in country will take something of that experience with them. That's personal. What should be of greater concern to the U.S. military is what we're leaving behind.

In August 2007 Ivan Watson of NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported that “a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report … found [that] the Department of Defense cannot account for 190,000 pistols and rifles that were distributed to Iraqi security forces during the first two years of the U.S. occupation.”

The Government Accountability Office reported that same month that the Defense Department and U.S. forces in Iraq couldn't account for 135,000 pieces of body armor, and 115,000 helmets issued to Iraqi forces between June 2004 and September 2005.

In December 2007, CBS News reported on a wide array of missing military vehicles. “Tractor trailers, tank recovery vehicles, crates of machine guns and rocket propelled grenades are just a sampling of more than $1 billion in unaccounted-for military equipment and services provided to the Iraqi security forces, according to a new report issued ... by the Pentagon Inspector General,” Laura Strickler reported.

And the Center for American Progress reported, via its research, that the United States military in Iraq has lost 20 Abrams M1 tanks, 55 Bradley fighting vehicles, 250 Humvees, 20 M113 armored personnel carriers and 109 helicopters.

And that was almost three years ago. Then as now, weapons in the wrong hands are a worrisome thing. Throw up the hope that we'll never know. The only thing worse than fighting a war you didn't have to fight in the first place is having to fight it twice.

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As U.S. forces vacate Iraq, the manifest of lethal hardware we're leaving behind should be worrying, saying nothing of the prospect of facing another enemy in the future, an enemy with weapons identical to the world's strongest military power.

That's the numb truth that ends the United States' military role in Iraq, the new baseline of our experience with war and its domestic consumption: Not only was this an unnecessary war, it's one whose detritus, whose machinery may be used against us, and almost certainly will. This is the new, sobering postwar reality, only this time "postwar" means post-Iraq war; the word will come to mean what we've just this minute put in the rear-view mirror: the Iraq war as history.

But just like with other interpretations of "postwar" — most notably post-World War II — the history attached to this chapter of the story of the United States will be informed by the present day, which borrows from the past all the time, as a way of anticipating the future. Think: the Iraq war as warning.

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For students of distant history (like the grand ceremony aboard the USS Missouri, the grim gala that closed the proceedings of World War II) or the more recent kind (like the stately ceremonies at the lavish Majestic Hotel in Paris, where Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, among others, signed the Paris Peace Accords exiting the United States from the Vietnam War), the end of the Iraq war will go down almost as anticlimax, so ordered, so utterly measured at the end as to almost contradict the chaos there at the beginning, and for every minute of the seven-plus years that followed.

Anyone looking for the cosmetic closure of bunting and pageantry, presidents in flight suits and speeches on the carrier deck is bound to be disappointed. But considering the bill of goods sold to the United States and the world by the Bush administration — the yellowcake nonsense, the aluminum-wrapped tubes of hubris, the smoking gun/mushroom cloud sophistry proffered as either sober analysis or absolute fact — ending the Iraq war with that kind of pomp and circumstance would have just been … wrong, on so many levels.

To go by the subdued Strykers photographed on Wednesday, the Iraq war ends for the United States with shock and awe in reverse: sweet and blessed relief; the dead calm of uncertainty; and the kind of introspection that should have been there, with the leaders of another White House, before that war even began.

Image credit: U.S. forces exiting Iraq: via MSNBC. U.S. tanks entering Baghdad 2003: public domain. U.S. casualties: public domain.

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