You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Letting Go

At the end of the war, the army digs in.

At dawn, the sky over Baghdad turns red for a few minutes before sunlight breaks through the dust. Combat engineers have been clearing IEDs from the streets of Amiriyah since 3 a.m., but the 500 American soldiers about to descend on the western Baghdad neighborhood wait for the sun. Just as it rises, Apache helicopter gunships arrive overhead, and, in the blinding light above them, two F-15 attack aircraft begin circling in a wide arc. The radio chatter quickens as the Bradley Fighting Vehicles on the ground and the aviation units above check in with one another. Operation United Front commences.

The operation's planners intend to cordon off Amiriyah as two battalions from the 10th Mountain Division's First Brigade Combat Team (1-10Mtn), along with 700 Iraqi soldiers and police, hunt for insurgents and weapons caches. As a U.S. foot patrol navigates its way through garbage-filled alleys, the residents of Amiriyah, which has become a dumping ground for headless bodies, emerge from their houses to plead for the soldiers to stay. Without the Americans, they say, it's too dangerous even to take out their trash. "This is a real bad area," Captain Michael Fortenberry says. "There's a lot of former Baathists, IEDs, sniper attacks." After searching a block of houses, the soldiers return to their Humvees, which proceed down an avenue lined with shrapnel-scarred buildings. Gunners swivel their turrets as the column passes a corner lot strewn with junk and, eerily, a rusted Ferris wheel. A flare dropped from an Apache floats down beside it like a Roman candle. American soldiers have died in its shadow, and, tomorrow, an IED planted here will wound several more. Tonight, American snipers return under cover of darkness to the Ferris wheel, where, after a short wait, they kill two men planting more bombs.

U.S. forces patrolled Amiriyah last year, the year before that, and the year before that. Today, many of them know the neighborhood as well as they know their own. They also know what will come when they depart, which 1-10 Mtn will do in a few weeks, with no one coming to replace it. "Many Iraqis feel more comfortable with a U.S. presence," says the 1-10 Mtn commander, Colonel Jeffrey Snow. "I think we are the buffer here." In Washington, however, it's 1971 all over again--after support for the war in Vietnam collapsed and not long before America's efforts to salvage it did. Neatly summarizing prevailing wisdom, Democratic campaign adviser Robert Shrum recently told The Washington Post, "The war in Iraq is over except for the dying." For all its testimonials to American resolve, the Bush administration can barely wait to devise the fig leaf that will permit the United States to withdraw. Quietly, but inexorably, the administration is "moving in the direction of downsizing our forces," as American Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has put it, having already cut troop levels to 127,000 with a plan to cut another 7,000 this summer.

So how do the Armed Forces feel about fighting a war that is "over except for the dying"? Responding to strategic rather than political imperatives, they operate at the same frenetic pace they always have. Anything less, commanders say, and the country would collapse around them. In a fine bit of solidarity with the soldiers dying there, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid calls Iraq "George Bush's war." Actually, it's now the U.S. Army's war. As its sense of ownership grows deeper with each year it spends here, the Army has created its own universe in Iraq--an ecosystem with its own values, requirements, and purposes. The din of politicians speechifying about the war, the faux moral posturing of opinion-makers who claim to speak in the name of "the troops," everything that Iraq has come to represent in the American imagination--it all melts away in the 115-degree heat. What's left is the machinery of a war that, having been called into being by civilians, no longer bears a relation to anything they say.

The anatomy of this universe, as much as anything that happens in it, points to an essential truth about the Iraq war: It has a momentum of its own. This much becomes clear even in Kuwait, where, at a desert air base, hundreds of soldiers line up in front of signs announcing flights to Speicher, Q-West, and other bases in Iraq. It is after midnight, but, from the other side of the base, the golden arches of McDonald's still glow in the sky. "When it gets built up like this, it's the surest sign you're going to lose," a contractor who served in Vietnam tells me, alluding to the wasted years that must elapse before this sort of infrastructure can come into being.

Never much to look at in the first place, Kuwait has been fully transformed into a supply depot. Here, amid a bleached landscape of sand and concrete known as Camp Arifjan, lies the nerve center of the U.S. staging operation. At his office in one of Arifjan's stadium-sized warehouses, Colonel Ross Campbell keeps an eye on a monitor tracking supply convoys as they move north through Iraq. The quantification of the U.S. enterprise in Iraq has few limits, and, knowing his figures by heart, Campbell ticks them off: over 800,000 personnel moved in and out of Iraq since 2003 and as many as 3,000 supply trucks on the road every day.

Outside, hundreds of them idle in the noonday heat, their South Asian drivers sleeping in bullet-raked cabs. In convoys of 30, they will head north to the border, crossing near the Iraqi town of Safwan for the 400-mile run up Main Supply Route (MSR) Tampa to Baghdad. Safwan, whose residents welcome the trucks with volleys of rocks, offers a fitting portal into Iraq. In response, the military has contracted to build an entry point farther to the west, at a site called K Crossing, and a new highway through the Iraqi desert to go with it. Whatever guides the invisible hand behind all this, it isn't the logic of withdrawal.

At the border, where supply trucks line up night and day, Army gun trucks join the convoys for the trip into Iraq. Helicopter gunships fly the length of MSR Tampa scouting for ambush sites, but the convoys still get attacked two or three times a week. Bad driving claims lives, too. Many of the Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans driving the supply trucks speak not a word of English, relying instead on cue cards that U.S. soldiers wave at them. At night, near Baghdad, you can watch them careening down the road in clouds of dust, only their headlights visible.

When the trucks reach their bases in Iraq, the Army takes over. After flying from Kuwait to Baghdad, I head to Camp Liberty, where 1-10 Mtn's supply battalion prepares to head into the city with a load of concrete barriers for a checkpoint. The barriers come not from Kuwait but from the base itself, where the Americans have opened their own cement plant. Baghdad is rapidly disappearing behind a maze of blast walls, and the cement keeps coming: In the heat, men from the battalion clean the guns on their Humvees and swat away mosquitoes before delivering more of it.

What the post describes as the "small-town feel" of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Iraq has been well-chronicled, but, with its traffic jams and sun-baked day laborers, Baghdad's Victory Base Complex feels more like Phoenix. The complex spans roughly 25 square miles and houses 35,000 Americans. A Goodyear-sized blimp with instruments to monitor the area floats above it, tethered to Baghdad Airport. The blimp, an essential part of the Baghdad landscape, has had its share of problems. Army helicopters keep clipping its ground wire, and it once floated as far as the Iranian border, where U.S. forces shot it down.

Victory, which rings the airport and borders Abu Ghraib to the west, actually consists of several smaller bases. Like a stop-motion film of a plant growing, I've watched the largest of these, Camp Liberty, expand and its comforts multiply since 2004. Liberty was constructed on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's hunting preserves, and the base's most notable landmark, "Signal Hill"--a huge dirt rise with antennae and counter-fire radar at the top--was his shooting platform. Among the hunting aficionados here, word spreads whenever one of the dictator's imported African deer ambles by. He also stocked the man-made lakes from which Signal Hill was dredged, and, according to a contractor wearing a fly-fishing vest, Saddam chose fish poorly (carp won't respond to his lures). The lakes do serve a function, however. The Army just opened a water-bottling plant here, which can turn muck into half a million liters of drinkable water per day.

Whatever else the constellation of bases that loop around the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys may be, it offers proof of American industriousness, as orderly and antiseptic as the country outside its boundaries is chaotic and filthy. Thousands of Humvees and tanks line their boulevards, and, at Liberty, so do dental clinics, legal-assistance centers, and dining facilities (DFACS). The Victory complex boasts six DFACS--airplane hangars where Filipino servers offer every variety of junk food that a 20-year-old soldier might possibly desire--as well as Burger Kings, Cinnabons, and other rest-stop fare. Officers at Liberty estimate that, for every soldier who leaves the gate regularly, seven do not. At FOB Sykes, one who does, Sergeant Frank Lucciarini, says, "The guys in the city hate the guys on the FOB. It's two different mentalities: You have the war fighter and the people who say, 'I gotta play softball tomorrow.'"

Nowhere can the distance between Iraq the place and Iraq the abstraction be felt more keenly than in the Army's combat brigades. A conventional wisdom has emerged in Washington, arguing that U.S. forces have been "hunkering down"--the title of a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly--and patrolling less. Indeed, the president himself has pledged "less U.S. patrols, less U.S. presence." But this does not make it true. After the February bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra, the number of U.S. patrols quadrupled in Baghdad. On a recent week, the Army sent 1,100 of them into the capital. It did so for a simple reason: Letting go has become the whole point of American policy, but officers know that, every time they let go of a sector, it comes apart at the seams.

The most important thing to understand about the way maneuver units fight the war is that no two of them fight the same way. 1-10 Mtn patrols constantly, but officers who served alongside it claim the National Guard brigade that preceded 1-10 Mtn rarely left the gate at all. Its sister brigade, 2-10 Mtn, which I visited last year, operated differently from both of them. The various operating styles derive, in part, from a philosophy of command in the Army that assigns nearly as much authority to the officer on the front line as the general back at division headquarters. Mostly, though, the brigades operate in a vacuum, with no strategy to guide them because no strategy has been offered. (The latest National Security Council official to be put in charge of Iraq policy sat recently for a Post story on "THE NSC'S SESAME STREET GENERATION.") So they fight their own wars, blanketing their sectors with troops and funds right up until the day the Pentagon orders them to let go.

Colonel Snow, a New Hampshire native with a soft New England accent, speaks quietly and methodically about his brigade's war. As his commanders prepare for a mission, he studies a map unfolded on the hood of his Humvee. Looking up, he says, "We patrol around the clock. We're always out there…We still have a central role to play here. The Sunnis aren't comfortable with [the Ministry of the Interior], and we still have to demonstrate that [the police] and [the army] can work together." As to how all of this jibes with the logic of exit strategies, Snow answers with what has become a stock response among senior officers, although, in this case, it sounds more like an earnest hope: "It has to be conditions-based."

1-10 Mtn has met a number of these conditions, foremost among them standing up the Iraqi army units in its sector. But the junior officers who patrol the streets daily will tell you that the most important condition--neighborhoods able to function without the Americans--won't be met for some time. The Iraqis who live there say the same thing. From the crumbling entryway to his house, a man in a tracksuit greets Snow. "We feel secure when we see the Americans," he says. "If you leave, every people here will kill each other." The patrol winds its way onto a block of large homes. On the porch of one, a middle-aged man named Nazar Al Jibouri introduces himself as a lawyer. He turns out to be a former Baathist, and, to judge by his palatial surroundings, the regime was good to him. None of this prevents him from submitting his own plea. "Until there is a correct army, the U.S. must not leave," he warns. "Or else we will have a disaster."

Jibouri was offering more than an educated guess. 1-10 Mtn withdrew from this sector once before. "In December, we moved out west toward Abu Ghraib," recounts Major Eric Bennett. "The idea was to give the Iraqi army and then the police control of western Baghdad, with both pushing out behind us." In February, however, the bombing of the Shia mosque in Samarra transformed Amiriyah into a killing zone. After 1-10 Mtn returned, says Snow, "the violence tapered back to pre-Samarra levels." Views of the Americans changed, too--one of the metrics tracked by Iraqi pollsters who conduct opinion surveys for 1-10 Mtn. The percentage of residents who said they felt secure spiked from 25 percent to 57 percent, while 88 percent said they felt safest in the presence of U.S. forces. Hence the logic behind the unit's return: "If people don't feel secure, what do you do?" Snow asks. "You put forces back into Baghdad."

None of this squares with the cliché that "redeploying United States troops is necessary for success in Iraq," as Senator John Kerry puts it. Its protestations notwithstanding, the Bush team has enshrined Kerry's logic in official policy: When 1-10 Mtn departs Iraq in a few weeks, the U.S. presence in one-third of Baghdad will end.

The one barometer of progress in Iraq that truly progresses is the training of Iraqi security forces, on which America's hopes for an orderly withdrawal depend. Yet even this proceeds unevenly, with the Iraqi army making genuine strides and the Iraqi police making very few. The administration describes this as "the year of the police," but American officers predict they will need at least twice that long.

One of 1-10 Mtn's company commanders has a meeting scheduled with neighborhood leaders at the Al Shagra mosque in Ghazaliya, and I'm curious to hear whether their views of the police jibe with some of the upbeat assessments coming from the Pentagon. Roused by the Humvees outside, Sheik Mohammed Jasim emerges to greet his visitors.

Equal parts Lord Sauron and Dom DeLuise in a beard and white robes, the Sunni sheik can't stop laughing--about the fact that his wife, guessing he would be meeting with a female journalist, has gone on a jealous rampage upstairs; about the wisdom of Captain Jeremy Gwinn, a bright young officer who, having dealt with the sheik month after month, clearly doesn't believe a word he says; about the Shia, whom he insists account for a tiny minority of Iraq's population. And, when the conversation turns to the police, he keeps on laughing. "The good ones just take bribes," he says. "The bad ones rip off your head."

With the Americans looking over their shoulders, however, the police seem less vicious than feckless. As Iraqi army soldiers patrol one side of a neighborhood in western Baghdad, an Iraqi police company patrols an alley at the other. The temperature has risen and clouds of flies descend on the alley, which reeks of urine. The police have been pounding on one gate for a minute now. As they prepare to move on to the next, an oval-faced girl peeks out. She's crying, begging the police not to search the house. So, incredibly, they don't. Noticing the confusion from a few houses back, Snow gestures for the police to return. He speaks softly to the girl, calming her. In the house, her hands still shake. So much that, when she reaches into a vase where her family has hidden a key, the glass heirloom slips away and crashes to the floor. The hysteria resumes, but it doesn't faze the Iraqi police lieutenant enjoying a cigarette on her family's couch. It hasn't been three minutes yet, and his men have already completed their search. Not much later, word comes over Snow's radio that the police have finished searching the entire neighborhood, even though the Iraqi army units operating by their side still have hours to go. "Interesting," he says under his breath.

Slowly, fitfully, but progressively, the Americans are transforming Iraq's army into a professional force. It fields 117,000 men, 86 percent of its authorized strength, and it has rapidly expanded the amount of territory under its control. The army no longer melts away in combat, nor does it suffer from mass desertions, as it did during its first battles. Mostly, it fights.

The officers who lead Iraqi army patrols bring with them a local's sense of where to look for hidden weapons and who has told the truth and who has not. On a joint patrol, American officers hang back as the Iraqi platoon under their watch conducts house searches. As Iraqi soldiers fan out across the street and take up firing positions in the dirt, others peel off to search a nearby house, which they do from top to bottom, netting an assault rifle. The discovery prompts a round of sharp questions, the checking and re-checking of ID cards, additional questions, a more thorough search. The process repeats itself from house to house along the length of the street and then the entire neighborhood.

When the U.S. Army trains foreign forces, it trains them to operate, equip, and acquit themselves along American lines. It trains them, in short, to emulate. Iraqi soldiers have taken the art to levels that would have made their South Vietnamese predecessors blush. Some even don the unit patches of their American counterparts. At the brigade headquarters of the Iraqi unit that conducted the sweep, the emulation extends to an after-action briefing where Iraqi officers summarize the day's tally (five detainees) for Colonel Muhammad Rao'of, whose richly appointed office is festooned with certificates of appreciation from various U.S. units that partnered with him. The largest of these, a gift from the First Cavalry Division, features a gold plaque with a map of Texas and some parting words: GOOD LUCK TO THE FUTURE OF IRAQ. One day soon, there will be no Americans left to emulate.

The armed forces in Iraq may view the war through a different prism than policymakers at home, but even 7,000 miles cannot measure their remove from American society. Unlike in Vietnam, where the cultural and political turmoil of the home front spilled over into rear areas late in the war, the Army in Iraq operates in a tightly sealed universe. "You really think Joe cares what The New York Times thinks about Iraq?" an incredulous major asks, using an officer's affectionate shorthand for the enlisted ranks. Watching a young American as he calls in a medevac brings to mind watching a surgeon or a violinist practice their craft. But, for most, it's just a job, whose larger meaning matters no more than it did to the World War II GIs recalled by Paul Fussell, for whom "the war might just as well have been about good looks, so evanescent at times did its meaning and purpose seem."

Nor, with the exception of its senior leaders, does the officer corps seem that much more attuned to debates at home. The borders of the sectors where they work 20-hour days define their horizons. Even the brightest among them, explains one company commander, avoid broader discussions about the war--in many cases a conscious choice, he adds, for even to entertain doubts risks "taking a step into nowhere." Having bled so much here, the officer corps has very little use for the suggestion it did so in vain. Tellingly, a Pew Research Center survey last year found that 64 percent of the military was confident of success in Iraq, a higher percentage than the public at large and roughly twice the percentage of civilian elites.

The two universes meet in Tall Afar, midway between Mosul and the Syrian border, and, for the second time this year, I travel there from Baghdad. Few towns in U.S. military history have been advertised so relentlessly and ostentatiously. As a result, the soldiers here operate under the American public's constant gaze. It makes for an uneasy coexistence. That's because Tall Afar, which the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment (3rd ACR) pacified last year, has become a metaphor in Washington for how things should be done. So much so that, in March, the president devoted an entire address to the remote outpost's lessons. 3rd ACR's commander, H.R. McMaster--a brilliant and profane officer who, but for the fact of his existence, only a fiction writer could invent--opened 29 patrol bases in the city, establishing the Americans as an essential part of its landscape.

With the exception of Tall Afar's mayor--who implored the president to keep McMaster in Tall Afar and who, I'm told on arriving, has flown to Colorado to be with him--the town's residents could have done without the publicity. Earlier in the week, a truck bomb killed 17 people here. Tall Afar's police chief, General Sabah Mohammed, explains the carnage the same way many officers do. "After President Bush speaks," he tells me, "the terrorists want to disprove him, so they start coming here." The First Armored Division's First Brigade Combat Team (1-1AD) has battled back aggressively, launching foot patrols, establishing even more patrol bases, and--with the gruesome exception of the truck bomb--reducing the number of attacks to what they were before the speech.

With such assertiveness come casualties, and with casualties comes public scrutiny, which, in turn, generates demands to bring the troops home. Some officers complain that the American public advertises its fears as if they were virtues. But 1-1 AD's Colonel Sean MacFarland, a humble man with an engineering degree, approaches the civil-military gap like a diplomatic translator. "If we didn't want to accept risk, we wouldn't leave FOBs," he explains. Pointing to intelligence tips generated by the foot patrols that 1-1 AD sends into Tall Afar daily, MacFarland says, "If you isolate yourself from people here, you've already lost." His officers echo the point. "There's this British instructor at Taji," one captain says, referring to the counterinsurgency school that junior officers attend when they arrive in Iraq. "And he makes the point this way: If someone's beating you over the head with a stick, do you cover your head or do you take the stick and beat him back?"

Army officers would choose the latter option. But it's not so clear the American public wants them to. With the advent of an all-volunteer force, a mountain of survey data shows public tolerance for casualties has diminished to lows seldom recorded during the era of universal conscription. Lately, the paradox has expressed itself in a tendency to infantilize American soldiers, particularly with recommendations about how they ought to protect themselves. The impulse can have unintended consequences: "Up-armored" Humvees constantly roll over under the additional weight, something that accounts for nearly three-quarters of Humvee accident deaths. "It's always the people who aren't in our positions who make decisions about armor," says 1-1 AD turret gunner PFC Anthony Stangle. In Mosul, armor now encases the entire bodies of turret gunners, who resemble heavily armed Michelin Men. In a convoy that makes its way along dirt roads from the town of Sinjar to Tall Afar, they choke in the heat. The politicians who demand more layers of body armor seem not to recognize that temperatures here reach 120 degrees in the summer. "I think they're really going overboard," says 1-1 AD gunner Lucciarini. "It's unbearable."

The next day, a convoy arrives at an Ottoman castle in the center of Tall Afar. From the castle's parapets on my last trip, I watched tanks slide in the mud. Today, the temperature hovers above 100 degrees, and the mud has dried into a red dust that covers vehicles and people. 1-1 AD's 2-37 Battalion makes its home inside the castle, as does Lieutenant Colonel John Tien, its commanding officer. Tien prides himself on the battalion's forceful posture, which, he says, has taken things a step further than 3rd ACR--pouring funds into a huge granary (Tall Afar's single biggest employer) on the outskirts of town, mounting infantry patrols, and adding more patrol bases in the heart of the city. He opened one of these bases in a house in Ay Asad, an insurgent stronghold. Their nest stirred, the insurgents demolished the house with a car bomb. "So, do we lick our wounds or do we stand and fight?" asks Tien, who has no use for the counsel of the risk-averse. He opened another base nearby, and its patrols cleared the entire neighborhood. Tall Afar, which descended into a horror show after the Americans withdrew from it in 2004, has nearly recovered.

The Americans however, will soon be leaving Tall Afar once more. Tien says they will withdraw from the city in December--and, like 1-10 Mtn in Baghdad, they will not be replaced. None of which follows from the police chief's reading of the situation. "Security here," he says, "still depends on coalition forces." The decision, however, is not his to make. It is Washington's.

The Army may have created its own universe in Iraq, but the outside world does intrude. The one arena where Washington does so regularly is the numbers game. In fairness, the Bush administration has only bad options: It can either maintain force levels in Iraq and face political ruination at home, or it can bring the troops home and watch Iraq burn. Most officers have resigned themselves to drawdowns proceeding without condition and regardless of consequence. "No one's going to `pull' brigades out of Iraq," says one field grade officer. "It'll be over when they leave but don't get replaced." In the Pentagon's desire to hold up the deployment of additional brigades, he says, one may glimpse the future of the country the Army now calls home. There is none.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also aDistinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate ofColumbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.