Memories from Baghdad
Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: A diplomat recalls sweltering heat and balmy beer.
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of Iraq War 2.0. The date is worthy of some reflection.
I was part of the war, heading two embedded civilian provincial reconstruction teams (ePRTs) in 2009–2010 and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by my employer, the U.S. State Department. The working title for the book was originally “Lessons for Afghanistan from the Failed Reconstruction of Iraq”; it was meant to explain how our nation-building efforts failed to accomplish anything except setting afire rampant corruption, and how repeating them nearly dollar-for-dollar in the Afghan theater was just going to yield the same results. After all, isn’t one definition of madness doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?
Between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was wasted on the effort to rebuild Iraq. In the end, the sum of what we accomplished was worse than nothing. Iraq before our invasion was a more or less stable place, good enough that Saddam was even an ally of sorts during the Iraq–Iran War. By the time we were finished, Iraq was a corrupt client state of Iran. Where once most literate Americans knew the name of the Iraqi prime minister, a regular White House guest, unless he’s changed his name to Zelensky nobody cares anymore.
But today I reflect on another war anniversary, its sixth, which I spent in Iraq. There were no parties, nothing official to mark the day as different from any other day: hot and dusty with a slight chance of being killed.
We had not always gotten along, the four of us State Department employees, arguing over the right thing to do, how best to get through our year. We moved gracelessly to a small patio near our office, outlined by a CONEX shipping container on one side, a sloppy brick wall standing because it was too lazy to fall on the second, and the remnants of another building on the third. Usually when we came back with our hidden beer from the embassy (as civilians, we did not technically fall under the military’s General Order No. 1 forbidding alcohol) we parceled the cans out in ones and twos, trying to make the stash last longer, like teens in our parents’ basement. A can tonight, maybe two on Friday—that way a couple of cases could pass the time for weeks.
But tonight, maybe in honor of the anniversary, something unspoken made us greedy. We chugged cans, we popped the tops of the ever-warmer brew—room temperature was 104 degrees—and slurped the foam like Vikings on a New World bender. One of the benefits of not drinking often was that your body dried out, and so even a little alcohol thrown down that dry hole left you with kaleidoscope eyes. Drunkenness, marvelously rich and fine, descended upon us. It tasted of a high school summer.
With a lot of dust in the air and only a toenail-clipping moon out, the darkness was almost complete as we sat drinking the last. Light would have embarrassed us. Seen in a photo, we could have been anywhere, there were no clues for an outsider to decode. We four felt closer to this place, and to one another, than we ever had.
The long days at the embassy for meetings—where we had been laughed at as unworthy Country Cousin Muggles—the warm beer, and the blanket of the dark led to stories. With the exception of a long, wandering tale that had something to do with a tree, the Germans, and a lawsuit, we had all heard these drunken yarns before. The two divorces, a daughter who did not write, the woman whose name had been forgotten even as the teller spent ten minutes describing how her shoes looked next to his bed—the stories all poured out in equal measure to what we poured down our throats. Some were bitter (the sum of our ages totaled over 200; nation-building was not a young man’s game), but most more matter of fact. A lifetime of experiences, a thousand autumns, all tied up in those voices.
We realized, maybe for the first time, that we had more in common than we had differences. Like every dog year equaling seven human ones, time spent together in Iraq fast-forwarded how you felt about the people sharing it with you. Nobody cursed Iraq or the anniversary—on the contrary, though none of us could walk a straight line to save his life, we were sharply aware that it was only because we were in Iraq that we could share what we were sharing. There was little talk of the routines of home that used to govern our lives: mortgages, Saturday morning chores and errands. That happened only at the beginning of your time, when you could still smell home on your shirt, or at the end of a tour when you had to will yourself to remember so you could try to fit back in.
For a group as deeply involved in the execution of a political policy as we were, there was almost no talk of politics. The others saw themselves as doing a job, nothing more, irrespective of who might be president at the time: no comments about “Mission Accomplished,” or the torture allegations, or any other aspect of what we were really doing there. There was no curiosity, no interest in reckoning the reality of our intellectualized exercises in stability and democracy with the people on the ground.
The talk instead was about people, friends, lovers, girlfriends, wives, dads: the people we did not have here, and for whom we all accepted one another as surrogates. Maybe because we were drunk, we recognized we cared about each other, our differences not resolved but perhaps more vital, dispelled temporarily.
The next morning I awoke with a vicious headache and the realization that someday I would come to miss being with those men as much as I now missed the smell of pillows on my bed at home, or kissing my wife when we both tasted of coffee. It was already over 100 degrees: a Thursday, if I remember it right.
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