Richard Engel was there as the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division (the 4/2 from here on out), poured through the border from Iraq into Kuwait last week. He’d been in and out of Iraq since before the invasion in 2003, and it was fitting that such a public face of the reporting of the war be present as the last combat troops left their theater of operations. The war made his career, and deservedly so. Engel was doing his best to add the proper amount of gravity to what the viewer was seeing on the screen, with ample backup from anchors and retired generals back in the MSNBC studios. The moment of those troops leaving should have been a profound one, but was, per usual, overplayed by the talking heads in the studio. Even Engel was not immune, there on the ground, bearing witness to what could not have been anything less than a true anchor point in his life. He was improvising on the fly, flailing in his attempts to convey to the viewer that what was playing out on screen did indeed have import. But really, it didn’t mean a damn thing. It, like everything else of real consequence in current events, got between the media machine’s efforts to make all stories equally sensational, and a public immune to the gesticulations of an apoplectic, even epileptic, tactic.
None of us were fooled. We all knew that the 4/2 crossing the border, joyfully cheering, clearing their weapons, slipping out of their body armor, lighting cigars, that along with that relief came the realization that there are still 50,000 troops in country, rebranded to meet the Presidential deadline for ending combat operations, but combat troops nonetheless. I was happy for the 4/2. They were out of it, headed back to the world, but to call them the last…no.
For over seven years, American troops have been fighting and dying in Iraq. The fight for the Iraqis themselves has been far more brutal and consequential, but that’s neither here nor there. A cold assessment, yes, but except for all those Americans directly involved in the conflict, the Iraqis exist only in the abstract here in the states. What are we supposed to take from the massive toll the war has taken on their country, especially now that enough time has passed between today and the reign of a brutal dictator we deposed? Iraq itself may be better off without Saddam Hussein in power, but it will take more time before the same can be said for so many of the Iraqi people, and America owns the botched transition that led to this sorry state of affairs.
While Iraq is an open question for the Iraqis (so open, in fact, that our last warriors leaving fosters a mere moment of bemusement in what is still an ongoing tale), for us, it seems, we have gained nothing more than a dubious ally where there was, once upon a time, a dubious ally. We have now also built for ourselves a fighting military that bore the brunt and deleterious effects of prolonged deployments in hostile country with little tangible benefit or even serious notice back here at home once overexposure to the war and its horrors took hold. As for the planning military, the one that’s on the books at the Pentagon and sucking vast amounts of United States treasure, that behemoth has grown into the many headed Hydra, impossible to kill, impossible to manage, and impossible to fully know the extent and effect of its reach in the American bureaucracy. We’re damaged goods because of this war, and we didn’t even win it.
A loss? No. We did turn certain defeat into something else after years of incompetence. A draw? Maybe not. We’ve got two of those in our pasts, and this doesn’t feel like those. This is something new. We came, we fought, and now we are leaving. But what we are leaving behind, no one can really say. The final determination will be made by the Iraqis, not us.
Worth mentioning here are the excellent articles by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin in the Washington Post, detailing the massive growth of the intelligence industry in this country. The intelligence industry is becoming large and unwieldy, with hundreds of thousands of people rated with top-secret clearance, and growing. Efficiency and effectiveness have become victims of a fierce partnership between government largesse and aggressive paranoia, and it’s worth being fearful that even after we do finally pull all uniformed personnel out of both Iraq and Afghanistan, the secret war will continue. To say we overreacted to the attacks of 9/11 is evident in the public face of our response to them. Priest and Arkin show that we may have crossed into a state of crippling fear when it comes to perceived threats that in no way, shape or form match either our response, or preparation, for them.
But sleep tight, because while the war in Iraq officially ceases at the end of the month, we went and got a head start when we sent the 4/2 trucking.