What Were We Doing In Iraq Anyway?
Reflections on a war gone wrong.
One morning in October 2003, I was shaken out of bed by an explosion. I was in Baghdad, leading a platoon of Army Rangers as part of a special operations task force that was hunting down the famous “deck of cards”—the last of the Ba’ath Regime loyalists, and Saddam himself.
Because we did all of our work at night, I had only been sleeping for a few hours. When I first felt the explosion, I rolled out of bed, grabbed my M4 carbine, and ran out of the house we were living in on the southern tip of Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone. Improbably, my giant grizzly bear of a platoon sergeant remained asleep, snoring away in the cot next to mine.
When I got outside, I was initially blinded by the sunlight, but eventually I could see the al-Rashid Hotel, where visiting dignitaries often stayed, smoking in the distance. It had been struck by some kind of rocket. The only other person awake, meanwhile, was one of my Rangers, who was on the porch of our house with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Marlboro Red in the other. He looked me up and down. I was wearing my underwear, flip-flops, and carrying my carbine in one hand and my body armor in the other.
He took a drag from his cigarette and looked at me again, bemused.
“Good morning, sir. What the fuck are you doing?”
It was a good question.
The war in Iraq is, like all wars I suppose, a little like the film Rashomon: All of the participants in the conflict have our own unique, flawed, and often self-serving memories of our actions and the war itself. So caveat lector: Treat any reflection on the war—including this one—with caution and skepticism. Unlike many others who served multiple deployments as either soldiers or diplomats, I only saw the war as a snapshot: I did one, short tour of duty in the war’s first year. Nonetheless, I believe that what I saw then pointed toward why the war would become so painful for Americans and Iraqis alike, and why American participants’ individual memories of our experiences in Iraq continue to shape our lives—and the decisions and biases of those of us Americans, and Iraqis, who have gone on to serve in government in more senior positions.
I was commissioned into the Army in 2000 from the University of Pennsylvania. Out of the more than two thousand kids in our class, which included President Trump’s eldest son, I was one of two Army ROTC students. I became an infantry officer. The other became a nurse.
While seemingly all of my classmates went to Wall Street or law school, I went to Fort Benning and wondered if I had made the right decisions in life. I’m from Tennessee, the Volunteer State, and was proud to be serving, but I had this gnawing fear that my peers were somehow passing me by while I played soldier for a few years.
That changed, of course, on September 11th of 2001. Having graduated from the infantry officer course and Ranger School, I was leading a platoon of light infantry from the 10th Mountain Division that day, and we deployed to Kuwait and then Afghanistan immediately after the attacks. Suddenly, I felt like I had a sense of purpose and that what I was doing was much more meaningful that whatever my peers on Wall Street were doing. They were, in my estimation, helpless—the victims of an attack on America—whereas I was empowered, doing something about the deaths of my countrymen.
In the spring of 2002, we were engaged in some of the last of the initial combat of the war in eastern Afghanistan. I had taken a few books with me from Kuwait, and during breaks in the action, I read The Street Without Joy, Bernard Fall’s narrative history of the French Army in Indochina. One day, I sat on a pallet of MREs, reading about the French paratroopers and their terrible war, and smoking cigarettes. One of my machine gunners, Carl McCauley, sat next to me, sharing a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes. At some point, I remember turning to Carl and telling him, “Carl, If I ever find myself in a shitty little colonial war instead of this one, I swear to God I’m switching from Luckies to Gauloises.”
I would get the chance.
I often joke that I first grew interested in the Middle East by invading countries about whose history and people I knew nothing, but that’s not entirely true. For one, I missed the actual invasion of Iraq due to a freak training accident that blew out my knee.
After months of rehabilitation, however, I finally deployed at the end of September, and once in Baghdad, I set about planning and executing missions to either capture or kill the last remaining high-ranking regime loyalists. The Holy Grail was Saddam himself, who our task force finally found in December, but the effort to find him was equal parts tragedy and comedy.
In the fall of 2003, we did not yet have a well-developed human intelligence network on the ground in Baghdad, so finding Saddam involved chasing a lot of leads and dragging people only tangentially connected to him out of their homes in the middle of the night while their families cried in the adjoining rooms.
Sometimes it wasn’t even the right people. One night, I looked down at the small satellite picture of our target house for the night that I always kept strapped to my left forearm, like an NFL quarterback with his plays. (On my right forearm, I always had a picture of the person we were looking for—along with their name and description.) Looking at the picture of the neighborhood and then back at the neighborhood itself, something seemed off.
I turned to my forward observer, Collin McMahon, who was a fairly typical Army Ranger in that he had the drive and intelligence to have been doing any number of things other than kneeling next to me on a street corner in Baghdad at two in the morning. Collin had been captain of his university’s baseball team and had been admitted into law school when he shocked his family by enlisting in the Army. The two of us later served in the Obama administration together.
“Collin, pull out your map. Does it look like we’re in the right place?”
Collin looked at his map under a streetlight. “No. No, it looks like we’re a block off.”
“Shit. That’s what I thought. Come with me.”
We walked into the target house, where the assault team was interrogating a very confused and scared Iraqi woman and her family. The hinges of the door had been blown off. The furniture was all overturned, and a team of massive, heavily armed commandos was tearing the house apart.
I had a quiet word with the assault team leader who had planned the operation, giving him the bad news while Collin pointed out where we were on his map. In a few minutes, we left the house and drove a block west to where we should have been in the first place. No one was home.
I have no idea what happened to that lady and her family. I’m sure someone delivered a few hundred bucks the next day for her troubles, but I’m equally sure she didn’t shed many tears when Americans started dying in greater numbers on the streets of Baghdad the next year.
That entire night summed up the American experience in Iraq in its first year: We meant well. We were trying to do the right thing. Instead we were terrorizing the war-scarred people of Iraq and not doing a damn thing to make their lives better.
We had stumbled into Baghdad, as a nation, and were now stumbling into an insurgency, as a military, because of the ham-handed way in which we were occupying the country. Iraqis simply didn’t believe that we were so incompetent we didn’t know what we were doing. They felt certain the confusion and abuse in their lives was part of our plan, and they understandably resented us for it.
Looking back on the conflict today—and, sadly, with an eye toward future conflicts—I do not think we should have been surprised that even as professional a military organization as ours would struggle so mightily with post-conflict stabilization absent a coherent local partner. The Iraqi Army— which we unceremoniously disbanded in 2003—might have been that partner, but even then it still seems too much to have asked of young officers and non-commissioned officers operating thousands of miles from home in an alien culture. Meanwhile, the old Iraqi Army—thousands of suddenly unemployed young men with guns—helped form the insurgency that followed. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was almost certainly right that anyone who advised a future president to undertake a similar endeavor “should have his head examined.”
The evening following the attack on the al-Rashid Hotel, a senior U.S. military officer came to visit my Rangers in our humble house in the Green Zone. He asked me how things were going.
“Not too bad, sir. The boys are fine. Good spirits. We got a little shaken up this morning by the rocket attack on that hotel. You know, sir, the hotel Paul Wolfowitz was staying at.”
The senior officer stared at me. “Good,” he finally said. “That guy needs to experience getting shot at for once in his life.”
Neither of us said anything else. We stood on the porch and looked at the lights in the Green Zone.
A few days later, I was sitting on the hood of my armored Humvee, smoking another cigarette and trying to figure my life out. Over the spring, while recovering from my knee injury, I had started planning out my post-Army career and had taken the LSAT and applied to a few law schools.
I wasn’t enthusiastic about it.
“Do I really want to be a lawyer?” I asked Collin.
He sighed. “You tell me, man,” he replied. “Do you want to spend all next year studying torts and stuff?”
I most certainly didn’t. When we returned from Iraq in January of 2004, I took the GRE and applied to the American University of Beirut to study Arabic and the history and politics of the Middle East. My poor girlfriend—the one I had asked to mail me an entire carton of Gauloises after just three days in Iraq—was whiplashed by my change of plans.
I could see, though, that our national misadventures in the Middle East were not ending anytime soon. Getting out of Iraq—and the greater region—was going to be much harder than getting in. And we, including myself, seemed to have sown the seeds for a brutal and persistent insurgency in Iraq itself.
Indeed, in the years after I left, the war got worse. Much worse. The removal of Saddam set off a bloody struggle for dominance between Sunni and Shia Arabs in the country, and for the first time in generations, the Shia had the upper hand.American and allied troops, who still thought they were in charge and labored mightily under that illusion, were almost bystanders to the conflict but were very much fair game to combatants of every faction. I had not lost a single Ranger in combat in 2003 and 2004, but by 2006 and 2007, my peers—who were by now company commanders or Special Forces detachment commanders—were contending with deadly “improvised explosive devices” and losing too many men to count.
One of those roadside bombs killed my friend Joel Cahill in late 2005. Joel’s widow Mary, an Army nurse, had stayed up with me the entire night following my knee surgery in 2003. When I moved to Washington, DC at the end of 2008, one of the first things I did was to go visit Joel’s grave at Arlington.
In the summer of 2015, I returned to Iraq for the first time in over a decade. I was now the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, and the Islamic State was knocking on the gates of Baghdad.
I had arrived at the Pentagon in May, on the Monday after the Islamic State had captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi. I sat in a briefing with the secretary of defense, listening to our military commanders—many of whom I knew and admired from my brief time in the Army—reel off the names of places in Fallujah, Mosul, and Ramadi that I remembered from too many long nights studying maps under street lights.
One lesson we agreed on was that we had erred, between 2003 and 2007, in putting U.S. forces in the lead. We defeated an insurgency, sure, but the Iraqis never owned the resulting victory. So when we designed the campaign plan to defeat the Islamic State, we assumed some risk by supporting the Iraqi forces—a more time-consuming and messier approach, and one that likely caused more Iraqi civilian deaths—in the expectation that the Iraqi victory would be more sustainable. I have no idea if this new hypothesis will prove correct in the long run, but I do take comfort from the fact that it’s less expensive, for Americans anyway: We lost only five U.S. servicemen during my time at the Pentagon, even as Iraqi military and civilian casualties remained appallingly high.
The war in Iraq and its many, often conflicting, lessons continue to shape the war’s veterans in different ways. Some of my fellow veterans grew deeply cynical about all military endeavors—which I understand. Others, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and many senior officials in the Trump administration, including the current secretary of defense, retained a faith in military power but developed intense antipathy toward Iran given its support for militias that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers—which I also understand.
As for me, I developed what will probably be a lifelong suspicion of any moral justifications for initiating a conflict. Both contemporaneously and in retrospect, the best case for invading Iraq in 2003 was the moral case, even though the primary case concerned weapons Saddam turned out not to have. But the war’s supporters made the moral case effectively: How could the United States allow a mad tyrant like Saddam Hussein to remain in power? The man gassed his own people! But those moral arguments blinded our thinking about second- and third-order consequences—in addition to honesty about our own limitations—and helped lead us into arguably the greatest strategic mistake in our nation’s history.
4,500 U.S. troops died in Iraq, and countless more returned home with physical and psychological wounds they—and we, as a society—will deal with for the rest of their lives. As a nation, we have sunk over one trillion dollars into Iraq so far— one trillion dollars you see missing every day in unpaved roads, underpaid teachers, and the social services our congressional leadership tells us we don’t have the resources to fund.
And are Iraqis even better off? Are they at least an appreciative ally of the United States in the region? Conservative estimates of Iraqis killed in the war tally north of 100,000 dead. The Iraqi people suffered immensely during our invasion and the civil war that followed—a civil war we proved unable to end or even shape. Today, Iraq’s political class understands it needs continued U.S. diplomatic and military support, but Iraq’s people largely hate our country for what we ourselves did and for what we then allowed to happen. I can’t blame them.
Each afternoon in Iraq, I would return to my platoon from my planning sessions and brief my squad leaders on the night’s target. As the fall progressed, we went after more and more of the foreign fighters now flooding into the country, and those missions were always hazardous and seemed worthy. Those were bad, dangerous people. But often we were just looking for some hapless regime hanger-on. For two weeks of my life, for example, I searched for Saddam’s favorite mistress, a homely girl with a lazy eye. That meant for two weeks of my life her picture was strapped to my forearm, every night, looking up at me (and also just past me).
I didn’t try to hide my cynicism, and my men appreciated that.
“What’s on the schedule for tonight, sir?” they would ask.
“Boys,” I would reply, “I’m not going to lie: This is some fucking bullshit.”
Eight months later, back in Afghanistan, I left my platoon for the last time. They gave me a plaque, which reads, at the bottom: To Captain Andrew ‘Kid Ex’ Exum. This is fucking bullshit.
Yes, boys. Yes, it was.
NEXT STORY: Five Myths About Pentagon Weapons Programs