Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Christmas, War is Over

Approximately two hours ago, the Iraq War ended.  Officially ended, that is, as the colors were cased in a ceremony in Baghdad.

4,500 Americans dead.
32,000 wounded.
Untold numbers of Iraqis killed and wounded.

Nine years and nearly $1 trillion later, was it worth it?  There are no easy answers, no neat-and-tidy PowerPoint briefing which could tie it all up with a Christmas bow for us.  I have my own complicated thoughts on the matter, but they're also not easy to articulate.  Let me put it this way: we stomped on the beehive and killed the queen bee; but at the same time, the queen's worker bees are pretty damn pissed off and stinging us at every opportunity.

Regardless, at 5:15 a.m. (EST) today, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stepped up to a microphone in Baghdad and told the 400 troops assembled in front of him: "You will leave with great pride — lasting in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside and to offer hope for prosperity and peace to this country's future generations."  He stood in a fortified concrete courtyard at the Baghdad airport--the very spot where a C-130 landed and delivered me to a year of duty in 2005.

Why do I hear John Lennon singing in my ear, "So this is Christmas....(War is Over)"?

Today's event closing down the war also brings to mind a different ceremony I experienced when I was in Baghdad in 2005: the Transfer of Authority ceremony in which the 3rd Infantry Division took charge of the combat zone around Baghdad.  In Fobbit, I fictionalized the ceremony between the outgoing 4th Cavalry Division and the incoming 7th Armored Division:
The TOA ceremony was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Crossed Sabers, Saddam’s military parade grounds where once upon a time he’d loved to bring his staff on hot summer afternoons and make them sit beside him in the reviewing stands while columns of his foot soldiers marched past, followed by the rumble of tanks, then long flatbeds carrying cigar-shaped missiles.  Now, with a cluster of American soldiers, Iraqi politicians and reporters watching, the 4th Cavalry Division commanding general would hand the guidon, flag hanging limp in the wilting heat, to the 7th Armored Division commanding general.  White knuckles on the wooden flag staff, clenched-tooth smiles, growls of “Take care of her, Jim” and “With pride and pleasure, Frank.”  Salutes would be exchanged, microphones would whine from the feedback of generals popping p’s during their speeches, a band would play the anthems of both Iraq and the United States, and thin, scattered applause would end the twenty-minute ceremony.

Here's more from that scene, which was eventually cut from the final draft of the book because it was pretty long and didn't advance the central plot of the novel.  Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, a public affairs soldier, has been sent by his boss, the hard-of-hearing Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad, to make sure everything is ready at the ceremony site to accommodate the media the two of them will be escorting.

An hour later, Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad arrived with the media pool—which turned out to be a cameraman from a German television network, a Stars and Stripes reporter, and two guys from Al-Jazeera.  “This is all that showed up at the checkpoint,” Harkleroad whispered to Gooding.  “Makes our job a little easier, eh?”

"Sure, boss," Gooding whispered back, wondering how important this ceremony could be if CNN didn’t even bother to come.  He stared at the rows of chairs, the lectern with its battery-powered microphone, the wilted U.S. and Iraqi flags.  It all looked as pathetic as an Amway membership meeting.

Harkleroad turned to his media pool—more like a puddle—and smiled benevolently.  “Great day for a history-making ceremony, isn’t it?”

The German cameraman returned a wan smile, but the other three turned their backs on Harkleroad and started bumming cigarettes off each other.  They cupped their hands around their mouths and Gooding heard them say, “This bites” and “Fuck, yeah.”  Harkleroad kept on grinning, his hearing aid apparently on the fritz again.

Gooding shook his head.   “Fuck, yeah,” he muttered.

"You say something, Sergeant?"  Harkleroad tapped his ear.

"Oh, uh, sir, I was just saying how lucky we are to have such a nice day for the ceremony."

"Yes, indeed, indeed."

Now, in the shadow of Saddam’s parade grounds, he could see Harkleroad’s helmet chin strap was askew and he’d somehow—God knows how!—managed to put his flak vest on inside-out that morning.  Gooding started to edge away, but Harkleroad’s voice—blustery cheerful for the sake of the reporters standing there—stopped him.  “Everything all set to go, Staff Sergeant Gooding?  Everyone know their positions?”

"Roger that, sir.  Smooth as silk."

Harkleroad nodded and beatifically smiled, pleased with the way it was all turning out.  The reporters smoked and threw dark glances in his direction.

Within fifteen minutes, the generals, their lieutenants, the neighborhood sheiks, Iraqi ministers and U.S. embassy staff arrived, filling the seats on the oven-hot pavement.  The 4th Cav commanding general showed and conferred with his sergeant major for several minutes.  The 7th Armored CG came only a few minutes before the ceremony was to begin.  He appeared to have eaten a box of tacks for breakfast which were now slowly working their way through his digestive system.

"The Old Man doesn’t look happy," Harkleroad said from the side of his mouth and Gooding nodded solemnly as he snuck a glance at the CG.

The division commander was a general named Bright and most days he was anything but.  Today was no exception.  He stood stiffly to one side of the proceedings, his face drawn and already haggard from the thought of leading his soldiers through fourteen (eighteen if the Pentagon and the White House actually got their way) months of what looked like unending misery and chaos here in Iraq.  Despite all the briefings and recon trips—begun more than a year ago—and despite all he thought he knew about Iraq, the reality was turning out to be pretty damned daunting for Bright.  Everyone wanted something—the ministers wanted this, the sheiks wanted that, and the people at large wanted….well, they really didn’t know what the hell they wanted; they were still too busy blinking in the dazzling light of their freedom.  And of course the Pentagon wanted something entirely different from anyone here on the ground, though the pencil-weenies in the Puzzle Palace were no less clueless than the average sheik determined to hold fast to the Old Ways and this damned religion which complicated everything.  Complicated.  Yeah, from all General Bright had seen, Iraq was pretty damned complicated.  A rat’s nest tangle and his division hadn’t even been in-country more than a month.  They were behind before they got here.

Bright had been around the block a few times in his years in the Army and now he found himself longing for the good old days of, say, Grenada or Bosnia-Herzegovina.  When the U.S. Ambassador walked up to him and welcomed him aboard, he shook his hand but he didn’t smile, didn’t crack an inch on his game face.  He just wanted to get this ceremony over with so he could start the clock ticking toward redeployment.  This was going to be a long year—the sooner it was in the division’s rear-view mirror, the better.

In the near-distance, gunfire popped like a string of firecrackers.  “I don’t like the sound of that,” Harkleroad muttered, casting a nervous glance at the Al-Jazeera camera crew (swarthy locals he never could bring himself to completely trust).  None of the media had blinked or even turned their heads at the sound.  Just your everyday gunfire on the Baghdad soundtrack.

A tall, pale NCO, sweat streaming from beneath his helmet, stepped to the portable lectern beneath the ginormous crossed sabers, blew into the microphone, then announced in a tinny voice fringed with static, “Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll please take your seats, the ceremony will begin shortly.”

Harkleroad grinned and rubbed his hands together.  “Okay.  Here we go!”

The next thirty minutes shuffled forward with cement shoes—mainly because everything the narrator and guest speakers said had to be translated all over again into Arabic.  The 4th Cav commanding general said how he would never forget his time here in Iraq, all the dear, dear friends he’d made with his counterparts in the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, all the good work he and the Iraqi generals had accomplished, all the joint training and great strides they’d made in preparing the Iraqi Army for the day when they could take the reins from America and its allies—no he would never forget any of that, so thank you from the bottom of his heart (placing his hand over that organ and giving a small bow to emphasize his sincerity).  He threw in a “Shukran” and an “Allah ma’ak” for good measure.

The sheiks brought their hands from the depths of their dishdashas to applaud, then the embassy staff, relieved, also joined in.

Next, General Bright stepped to the microphone and, on behalf of his division, said it was an honor to be here and he looked forward to making just as many friends and taking just as many great strides, thank you very much.  Then the U.S. Ambassador spoke at great length about the everlasting bonds of democracy which would bind these disparate nations, about how major accomplishments had already been crossed off the United States’ “To Do” checklist (with many more accomplishments to follow shortly), about never forgetting they were treading on sacred ground which had once been called Babylon with its beautiful Hanging Gardens, about always remembering that no matter what happened over the course of the next year the Iraqi people were already victors in his book as they (with assistance from the U.S.) had triumphed over sadism and tyranny.  The ambassador concluded with a quote from T. E. Lawrence he’d framed and hung on the wall behind his desk at the embassy:  “Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short.”

Then they played the Iraqi national anthem and that damned song—which never varied in beat or musical phrase, just the same thing over and over—seemed to last an eternity, making the U.S. national anthem, which came next, seem like a bright, breezy radio jingle.

Department of Defense photo

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