New York City, NY – Success! Victory! Victorious! He was unambiguous in his assessment, except that he wasn’t. The caveats said it all.
In 2003, then-General David Petraeus offered an accommodating reporter a quotable quote that has become, perhaps, the signature line of the war. “Tell me how this ends,” he said. So I put the question to Raymond F Chandler III, the Sergeant Major of the US Army, the most senior enlisted member of that armed service. Chandler, who served in Iraq, told me the Army’s foremost mission was decisively winning wars, so I asked him to tell me how the war there ended.
By now, the results of the Iraq War are more or less clear. The numbers alone tell a rather unambiguous story. Hundreds of thousands of casualties through violence or indirect causes like the destruction of the public health system, a lack of access to urgent medical care, and malnutrition, according to the best estimates available. Some 1.3 million internally displaced by the war and 1 million others who fled to now civil war-torn Syria. A jump in the number of Iraqis living in slum conditions from 17 per cent before the American invasion to 50 per cent as of last year, with 7 million of Iraq’s population of 30 million living below the poverty line. The grim statistics go on and on.
And what it took to get to this level of success is equally well-documented. The myth of David Petraeus’ so-called surge aside, the key to tamping down the violence to what the US considered an acceptable level was handing over large quantities of cash to the insurgents who had been killing Americans for the previous several years. About $360m was paid out in one year alone, transforming yesterday’s terrorists into “true Iraqi patriots”, as one American general put it.
On the day I spoke to Sergeant Major Chandler, Iraqi insurgents unleashed a coordinated wave of small-arms attacks and car bombings across the country, with the worst of the violence centred in the country’s capital, Baghdad. More than 140 people were killed or wounded in the attacks, which targeted police officers, security convoys and government buildings. “Iraq will be like this for 10 or 15 years,” 52-year old Abdul Razaq al-Zaidi, one of those injured in the attacks, told the New York Times. “We are used to it. This is a part of our lives.” It wasn’t, however, before the American invasion.
It was in the hours before Iraqis headed into that day’s charnel house that Chandler and I spoke. He had just echoed a line I’d read in an Army “white paper” from a few years before: “Foremost, the Army must be capable of fighting and winning the nation‘s wars.”
Aside from triumphs over such powers as the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada and the small Central American nation of Panama, the US military’s record since World War II has been far from stellar: stalemate in Korea; outright defeat in Vietnam, failures in Laos and Cambodia; debacles in Lebanon and Somalia; a decade of wheel-spinning against a rag-tag insurgency in Afghanistan. Given that one could persuasively argue that the US hadn’t won a major war in almost 70 years, I asked the Sergeant Major of the Army if the Iraq War just another in the ever-lengthening list? Or did he believe the US had won in Iraq?
“I believe that we met the criteria defined by the president in what was determined as success and victory in Iraq,” Chandler told me. “And we left Iraq on our own terms.”
It wasn’t exactly unconditional surrender by a foe atop a battleship, was it? “Criteria defined by the president.” “What was determined as success.” I almost cringed on his behalf. But it was his second line that struck me. I recalled those terms – how, in December 2011, the last US troops pulled out of Iraq in the dead of night. At 2.30 am they made a break for the Kuwaiti border.
The day before they left, the New York Times reported, those last troops had their interpreters call local Iraqi officials and sheiks with whom the Americans had close relations to fool them into thinking they’d be staying for weeks. The Americans didn’t even say goodbye to the people they called friends and allies. So they were the United States’ terms, but they hardly screamed of victory.
So I wondered if it was me that Chandler was trying to convince when he continued with another sentence that sagged under the weight of awkward caveats: “So I absolutely believe that we were victorious within the construct that the president of the United States, the commander in chief, defined for our nation.”
I followed up with other questions, but didn’t press further or quote him the number of Iraqis dead, wounded, displaced, traumatised or impoverished by the war. It almost seemed pointless. “Tell me how this ends,” Petraeus asked. Whatever the “criteria” and “constructs” involved, it seems we finally have an official answer.
Nick Turse is a historian, investigative journalist, the associate editor of TomDispatch.com, and a senior editor at Alternet.org. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso Books).