• Iraq War Anniversary

    March 25, 2023

    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    This week marks the 20th 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) 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” and 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 theatre 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 was we accomplished worse than nothing. Iraq before our invasion(s) 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 any 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, arguing over what the right thing to do was, 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 a second, and the remnants of another building on the third. Usually when we came back with our secreted beer from the Embassy (as State Department employees, we did not 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, and 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 kicked your butt. A lot of alcohol drunk purposely under these conditions sent four adults into drunkenness, marvelously rich and fine. It tasted of a high school summer.

    With a lot of dust in the air and only a toenail clipping shaped moon out, the darkness was complete as we sat drinking the last. A 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 had ever had.

    The long days at the Embassy for meetings where we had been laughed at as Country Cousin Muggles, unworthy, 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 the drunken stories 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), 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.

    The talk instead was about people, friends, lovers, girlfriends, wives, Dads; what 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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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      So all you got from the Iraq fiasco was a hangover from beer???

      Well, that gives me an idea for the Iraq War Memorial on the National Mall. As the Vietnam War was remembered by the long black scar on the National Mall, the Iraq War Memorial on the National Mall should be an exploding beer can like the Las Vegas volcano. We can drink to forget the misery we caused the Iraqi people…we destroyed the village to save it….but we will have one fucking big hangover. CHEERS

      03/26/23 9:39 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- I will advocate for your selection/choice to design the Iraq War and then the Afghanistan War memorials. Send me your initial sketches so I can really get behind my support. You might never have imagined a second career as a DC war memorial designer. I’m in your corner! If your beer can idea is considered should there not be an
      an opener side site addition?

      03/27/23 5:08 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Apparently the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial pulled a fast one on the stiffs who paid for it. It was put beneath the ground because the designer made the one true statement: it was not a memorial as the politicians who sent these boys to their deaths based on a damn lie that North Vietnam threatened the US national security wanted it to be quickly forgotten.

      As for the exploding Iraqi Memorial IED beer can, it will symbolize the country’s shock and awful performance drunk with power. When we all cheered the bombs exploding on Saddam’s palace, it was just another reminder ABSOLUTE POWER TENDS TO CORRUPT. And the next shithead in Congress who says Putin should face justice for his disgusting war crimes, tell them to get….drunk.

      03/27/23 9:48 PM | Comment Link

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