As the U.S. “relocates” personnel (it’s not an “evacuation”) out of the World’s Largest Embassy in Baghdad, it is valuable to look at that one billion dollar monument to American hubris.
Though likely tens of thousands of people have been inside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and a great many of them have scattered photos of the place across the social media landscape, actual official photos of the embassy have been limited to a handle of narrow views. The stated reason for all this is “security.”
Still, what has been missing is a really nice color shot of the lawn. We have that now, posted online by someone:
There is a very interesting backstory to that nice lawn you see pictured above. If you’ve read my book about Iraq, We Meant Well, you may already know the story:
The World’s Biggest Embassy (104 acres, 22 buildings, thousands of staff, a $116 million vehicle inventory), physically larger than the Vatican, was a sign of our commitment to Iraq, at least our commitment to excess. “Along with the Great Wall of China,” said the ambassador, Chris Hill at the time, “the Baghdad Embassy is one of those things you can see with the naked eye from outer space.” The newly-opened embassy was made up of large office buildings, the main one built around a four-story atrium, with overhead lights that resembled sails. If someone told us there was a Bath and Body Works in there, we would not have thought it odd. The embassy itself, including juicy cost overruns, cost the American taxpayer about one billion dollars.
The World’s Biggest Embassy sat in, or perhaps defined, the Green Zone. Called the Emerald City by some, the Green Zone represented the World’s Largest Public Relations Failure. In the process of deposing Saddam, we placed our new seat of power right on top of his old one, just as the ancient Sumerians built their strongholds on top of fallen ones out in the desert. In addition to the new buildings, Saddam’s old palaces in the Zone were repurposed as offices, and Saddam’s old jails became our new jails. Conveniently for Iraqis, the overlords might have changed, but the address had not. The place you went to visit political prisoners who opposed Saddam was still the place you went to look for relatives who opposed the Americans.
The new Embassy compound isolated American leadership at first physically, and, soon after, mentally as well. The air of otherworldliness started right with the design of the place. American architects had planned for the Embassy grounds to have all sorts of trees, grassy areas and outdoor benches; the original drawings made it look like a leafy college campus. For a place in the desert, the design could not have been more impractical. But in 2003, no projection into the future was too outlandish. One building at the compound was purpose-built to be the international school to educate the diplomats’ happy children who accompanied their parents on assignment. It was now used only for offices. Each embassy apartment offered a full-size American range, refrigerator, and dishwasher, as if staffers might someday take their families to shop at a future Baghdad Safeway like they do in Seoul or Brussels. In fact, all food was trucked in directly from Kuwait, along with American office supplies, souvenir mugs, and T-shirts (“My father was assigned to Embassy Baghdad and all I got was…”, “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel”) and embassy staff were prohibited from buying anything to eat locally. The Embassy generated its own electricity, purified its own water from the nearby Tigris and processed its own sewage, hermetically sealed off from Iraq.
The ambassador, who fancied himself a sportsman, ordered grass to grow on the large sandy area in front of the main Embassy building, a spot at one time designated as a helicopter landing zone, since relocated. Gardeners brought in tons of dirt and planted grass seed. A nearly endless amount of water was used, but despite clear orders to do so, the grass would not grow. Huge flocks of birds arrived. The birds had never seen so much seed on the ground in one place and ate passionately. No grass grew. The ambassador would not admit defeat. He ordered sod be imported into Kuwait, and then brought by armored convoy to the embassy. No one confessed to what it cost to import, but estimates varied between two and five million dollars. The sod was put down and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water were used to make it live in what was practically a crime against nature. Whole job positions existed to hydrate and tend the grass. No matter what Iraq and nature wanted, the American Embassy spent whatever it took to have green grass in the desert. Later full grown palm trees were trucked in and planted to line the grassy square.
We made things in Iraq look the way we wanted them to look, water shortages throughout the rest of Iraq be dammed. The grass was the perfect allegory for the whole war.
BONUS: Long-time friend of the blog Rich submitted this poem by Carl Sandburg as a coda to the green grass of the Baghdad Embassy:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
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