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Iraq Wrecked Me for Nothing

I recently spoke to some college students who, I realized, were in fifth grade when I got on a plane to Iraq. They now study that stuff in history classes like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st-Century America in the Middle East.” About halfway through our conversation, I realized it’s coming up on 10 years since I first went to Iraq. Now that’s real history.

I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases and in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragicomic terms how we failed (those “Errors”).

The book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People [1] was—and wasn’t—well-received. People laughed at the funny parts, but my message—it didn’t work and here’s why—was largely dissipated at the time (2012) by government and media propaganda centered on The Surge. That was David Petraeus’s plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al-Qaeda away, while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room so ISIS and the Iranians could move in.

Meanwhile, the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote on the war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq.  Meanwhile my employer, the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with my book. After a year-long process [2], State pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.


Iraq wrecked me, even though I somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think that traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, bearing witness to a war, learning how to be mortared at night and deciding it didn’t matter that I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. Of the military units I was embedded in, three soldiers did not come home; all died at their own hands. Around us, Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target. I did this at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting back home. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18-year-old me. And I had it easier than most, and much easier than many.

People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows, “Was it all worth it to you?” I always answered yes. I’m not important, I said, but the story is. And now we’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan. The only way to even start to justify it was to think there might be some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe somehow it…helped?

See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloging the failures in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t We Meant Well, but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors encouraged me to add more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laugh track to my interview [3]. I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations, you have to think that way. You can’t believe that what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning.

I now know officially that it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.


SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but that has its hands full just keeping a CVS receipt-length history of what’s wrong. Sound familiar?

SIGAR just released its “2019 High-Risk List [4],” which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some quoted highlights:

That last line really got me. In my book, I’d written, “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire….” Had SIGAR read what I’d written? Or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline 10 years and two countries apart?

Word for word as in Iraq, and after over 17 years of American effort, the U.S. has failed to establish a viable government in Afghanistan, eliminate the local insurgents/patriots/residents, establish a civil society, tamp down corruption, and ensure some sort of national defense. Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

But there still are semi-believers. One former State Department colleague is on her fourth assignment in Kabul, roughly half her career. Her job is to liaise with the few NATO officials still hanging around. She says it’s easy work; they’ve known each other for years. She’s heard we’re making progress.

Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its history [5] of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose that I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme seems to be that the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they misspelled Vietnam as I-r-a-q all throughout.

The post-9/11 wars have metastasized across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain about how it was never investigated enough and how there weren’t enough hearings. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard of, and unpunished. It’s ancient history.

We all want to believe that what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard, mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [6]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [7]: A Novel of WWII Japan.

75 Comments (Open | Close)

75 Comments To "Iraq Wrecked Me for Nothing"

#1 Comment By Bill Hocter On April 14, 2019 @ 9:25 am

The unwarranted assumption of the article is that 17 years is too long. I support President Trump but respectfully disagree that “great powers don’t fight endless wars.” They do if they have to.

Radical Islam is the third ideological threat after Fascism and Communism to rise from the ashes of the First World War. The Muslim Brotherhood began in the late ‘20s and spawned many similar movements over the years. We need the intellectual clarity to see our current problems in historical perspective. From the vantage point of the First World War and the following century, 17 years isn’t long at all.

Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t wars. They are fronts in a larger war that we’ll be fighting over the next few generations. Strategy will involve picking our fronts carefully to the extent we have a choice and seeking to make certain we have choices wherever possible. This is especially true in regard to radical Islamists who have a land fetish – conquest builds their morale and spurs recruitment. And their recruitment pool is very deep.

There was nothing wrong per se about choosing Afghanistan and Iraq as fronts in this war. There was plenty wrong with failing to deploy a blocking force in the early days in Afghanistan to prevent the escape of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Ditto for invading Iraq without an occupation force and dissolving the Iraqi Army and sending them home with their weapons.

Victory in the war against radical Islam will
be largely a function of morale, maintaining ours and crushing theirs. This means keeping our casualties and expenses low, while killing them suddenly and at will. The loser in this war will develop a sense of learned helplessness and give up. Given the ideological ferocity of our enemy this will require means that are nasty and brutish, but unfortunately not short.

In other words, Obama and Trump started to get some things right by deemphasizing large, bulky deployments of armies, and using special forces and drones more extensively. Nation building is expensive and saps morale as this article attests.

The next logical step in winning will require stronger stomachs than we currently have. This will require containing Islam and allowing them to fight among themselves while not permitting humanitarian assistance or relocation of refugees to non Muslim countries until they tire of killing each other. In other words let a thousand Syrias and Yemens bloom but turn the boatloads of refugees around. Strong stomachs indeed.

Are we up to the task? I’m not sure. To do so we’ll need to fight smarter and avoid discouraging sentiments such as are displayed in this article.

#2 Comment By JohnT On April 14, 2019 @ 10:15 am

@Ken Zaretzke
Thanks for correcting my grammatical/logical errors. I know how important facts are to Trump supporters like yourself. A couple things. McCain was a problem for this nation? Sweet Jesus! There quite simply is no rational adult on the planet who buys that nonsense. As for you calling me a Trump hater, hate is the primary product malignant sociopaths like Donald Trump sell every moment of every day. I doubt it but it is possible someone in your world can explain to you the despicable nature of Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn. This ain’t name calling, this is reality.

#3 Comment By Return of the Just On April 14, 2019 @ 10:46 am

You’re right. I see people like Robert Kagan’s opinions being respectfully asked on foreign affairs, John Bolton and Elliott Abrams being hired to direct our foreign policy.

The incompetent, the corrupt, the treacherous – not just walking free, but with reputations intact, fat bank balances, and flourishing careers. Now they’re angling for war with Iran.

It’s preposterous and sickening. And it can’t be allowed to stand, so you can’t just stand off and say you’re “wrecked”. Keep fighting, as you’re doing. I will fight it until I can’t fight anymore.

#4 Comment By ValeriusNaso On April 14, 2019 @ 11:11 am

“Meanwhile, the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote on the war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq.”

Last I checked, the Illinois State Senate wasn’t involved in the authorization of military force, so exactly what vote are we talking about?

#5 Comment By Brian McBee On April 14, 2019 @ 11:50 am

Probably the most important thing we could do at this point would be to not make the same mistakes again. Stop getting involved in foreign wars. Stop trying to police the rest of the world.Stop spending American riches and American lives on this BS. The immigration problem is a tiny speck compared to this waste.

Really, how long until the next one? Any bets that our current President can make it though his first term without getting us involved in another fiasco?

#6 Comment By Cherry Blossoms On April 14, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

@”Bill Hocter” … I haven’t read confused, toxic mush like that in a long time. If, contrary to the best advice of our Founding Fathers, we do continue to flail about in the Mideast, surely it will be because of opinions like this.

#7 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 14, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

@ Bill Hocter: I read your comment above (April 14, at 9:25 am) several times and I can’t even begin to square the views you express about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the US national interest.

Nevertheless, I was impressed enough by the passion of your views to look into the TAC Archives—and there and I found a Jack Hunter article under which you had commented (Oct 27, 2012, 7:49 pm) that you had “served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. My son in law is deployed now.”

As should all Americans, I deeply respect and honor your service in uniform, Mr. Hocter.

However, I think there can be a tendency—particularly among servicemen and servicewomen who have given so much and who have seen so much death and suffering—to want to make even the most obviously disastrous US wars, like our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, into something meaningful, into something positive.

Unfortunately, like the proverbial labors to make a silk purse out a sow’s ear, your labours to make the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into something positive in terms of the US national interest is not possible.

I would like to emphasize this point: Your service in uniform can be meaningful and honorable, Mr. Hocter, without the wars you fought in being anything other than complete and total disasters in terms of the US national interest.

#8 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On April 14, 2019 @ 3:38 pm

Fact-bedeviled JohnT: “McCain was a problem for this nation? Sweet Jesus! There quite simply is no rational adult on the planet who buys that nonsense.”

McCain had close ties to the military-industrial complex. He was a backer of post-Cold War NATO. He was a neoconservative darling. He never heard of a dictator that he didn’t want to depose with boots on the ground, with the possible exception of various Saudi dictators (the oil-weaponry-torture nexus). He promoted pseudo-accountability of government in campaign finance but blocked accountability for the Pentagon and State Department when he co-chaired the United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs with John Kerry.

And, perhaps partly because of the head trauma and/or emotional wounds he suffered at the hands of Chinese-backed Commies, it’s plausible to think he was regarded by the willy-nilly plotters of the deep state as a manipulable, and thus useful, conduit of domestic subversion via the bogus Steele dossier.

Unfortunately, the episode that most defines McCain’s life is the very last one–his being a pawn of M-16 in the the deep state’s years-long attempt to derail the presidency of Donald Trump.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 14, 2019 @ 4:26 pm

“This person is a crybaby. At 49 he went to a war that most rational people knew already, was an immoral, illegal waste of people, time and money. But now he wants to whine about PTSD.”

No one should forgo acknowledging error. And no one should who acknowledges error should forgo a time of mourning the same, especially when the damage is to others.

It’s a way to avoid the error again and to heal. And no one, no one who has engaged their being in a conflict zone (combat scenarios)escapes without the need of healing.

appreciate your service and I have a very firm idea why I do and what it means.

#10 Comment By Bill Hocter On April 14, 2019 @ 5:22 pm

Kurt-thank you for your kind response. I think it’s important to consider a couple of important things not generally discussed. First, we’ve been at war with radical Islam since at least 1979 when the Shah fell in Iran. Our “Arab Afghan” allies turned on us in the 90s and have been fighting us since. We’re at war whether we like it or not-Trotsky’s dictum definitely applies.

It’s terribly unfair, when you think about it, that we’re still dealing with serious aftershocks from WWI, but we are and wishing it wasn’t so changes nothing. The rise of Islamic extremism was probably inevitable, particularly due to the demise of Nasser’s and Sadat’s Arab nationalism. Something had to take its place and Islam was easily available.

As I mentioned above, choice of theaters within a war matters to the extent we have a choice. So does military performance at a front, particularly in the early days of a campaign which can often frame the outcome. Let’s be frank. Much of the anger and anguish permeating this article and the various responses stem not from immorality of these engagements but to their lack of success at high cost. The lack of success, in my view as expressed above, resulted mainly from preventable blunders at the beginning of each campaign. The outcomes were not foreordained.

Some bad outcomes are likely in any Great War but it’s important to learn from our mistakes. Nation building worked rather well in the Korean theater of the Cold War but failed in the Indochinese theater, largely due to geography- The narrowness of the Korean Peninsula allowed an effective barrier from infiltration from the North which unfortunately South Vietnam never enjoyed. We should have learned by now that nation building is difficult and that geography and culture may make it impossible.

Just as we eventually learned to fight the Cold War more intelligently, I think we’re learning to fight the war against Islamic extremism better as I mentioned above. Thinking about great wars as being subdivided into theaters can help us reduce demoralization by allowing us to see both the bigger and smaller pictures.. For example, it was fortunate for the British that they were able to demarcate the disaster at Gallipoli from the wider war, preventing a collapse on the Western Front.

We can’t avoid this struggle. An historical perspective, wise military decision making in theater choice when available , good performance in the early parts of engagement, and strong stomachs can enable us to prevail in the truly awful situation in which we find ourselves.

#11 Comment By Joe Dokes On April 14, 2019 @ 11:55 pm

Measuring success means determining goals. The goals of most wars is to enrich the people in charge. So, by this metric, the war was a success. The rest of it is just props and propaganda.

#12 Comment By Andrew Stergiou On April 15, 2019 @ 5:11 am

“Pyrrhic Victory” look it up the Roman Empire Won but lost if the US is invaded and the government does not defend it I would like to start my own defense: But the knee jerk politics that stirs America’s cannon fodder citizens is a painful reminder of a history of jingoist lies where at times some left and right agree at least for a short moment before the rich and powerful push their weight to have their way.

If All politics is relative Right wingers are the the left of what? Nuclear destruction? or Slavery?

#13 Comment By Peter Smith On April 15, 2019 @ 5:13 am

My goodness! I am also a veteran, but of the Vietnam war, and my father was a career officer from 1939-1961 as a paratrooper first, and later as an intelligence officer. He argued vigorously against our Vietnam involvement, and was cashiered for his intellectual honesty. A combat veteran’s views are meaningless when the political winds are blowing.

Simply put, we have killed thousands of our kids in service of the colonial empires left to us by the British and the French after WWII. More practice at incompetent strategies and tactics does not make us more competent–it merely extends the blunders and pain; viz the French for two CENTURIES against the Britsh during the battles over Normandy while the Planagenet kings worked to hold their viking-won inheritance.

At least then, kings risked their own lives. Generals fight because the LIKE it…a lot. Prior failures are only practice to the, regardless of the cost in lives of the kids we tried to raise well, and who were slaughtered for no gain.

We don’t need the empire, and we certainly shouldn’t fight for the corrupt businessmen who have profited from the never-ending conflicts. Let’s spend those trillions at home, so long as we also police our government to keep both Democrat and Republican politicians from feathering their own nests. Term limits and prosecutions will help us, but only if we are vigilant. Wars distract our attention while corruption is rampant at home.

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 15, 2019 @ 7:16 am

Thank you, too, Bill Hocter, for you equally kind response.

But with all due respect, I will stick with my original contention:

“As should all Americans, I deeply respect and honor your service in uniform, Mr. Hocter. However, I think there can be a tendency—particularly among servicemen and servicewomen who have given so much and who have seen so much death and suffering—to want to make even the most obviously disastrous US wars, like our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, into something meaningful, into something positive. Unfortunately, like the proverbial labors to make a silk purse out a sow’s ear, your labours to make the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into something positive in terms of the US national interest is not possible.
I would like to emphasize this point: Your service in uniform can be meaningful and honorable, Mr. Hocter, without the wars you fought in being anything other than complete and total disasters in terms of the US national interest.”

#15 Comment By Sid Finster On April 15, 2019 @ 3:50 pm

KenT wrote: “For Christ’s sake! The “Deep State”!?! With a well documented pathological liar and a seemingly endless supply of professional sycophants in our government selling our nation to the highest bidder in plain sight why in the world do you folks continue to need grand delusions of demons in the woodwork???
I have no reason to believe Comey, Clapper and Brennen have served this nation with honor and integrity in dealing with more responsibility than that required to sit safely at home and blabber about as the victim of some grand conspiracy.”

The concept of the “Deep State” is well known to political scientists.

People speak of it, because no matter who is elected to office, the policies never change.

#16 Comment By furbo On April 15, 2019 @ 6:56 pm

WJ – please do not confuse individuals who join the military for a multitude of reasons…with YOUR government that YOU elected to do YOUR will on behalf of our democratic republic.

#17 Comment By John Merryman On April 15, 2019 @ 9:43 pm

The issues do go much deeper than these wars. As Deep Throat said; “Follow the money.”
The problem is that money functions as a contract, with one side an asset and the other a debt, that enables markets to function, but we have come to see it as a commodity to mine from society.
Econ 101 tells us it is both medium of exchange and store of value, but medium and store are two different functions. In your body, blood is the medium and fat is the store. Wouldn’t confusing them cause problems?
Yet as the entire function of our society has mutated to the manufacture of money as an end in itself, we necessarily need to create enormous debt, to back those enormous assets and that is the function of wars today, to spend money. To burn it, by whatever means possible and as this essay makes clear, we are doing that very effectively and efficiently.
Eventually though, this equivalent of a national home loan is coming due and then we will discover how democracies mutate into real oligarchies.
Debt does matter, or we wouldn’t bother creating so much of it.

#18 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 15, 2019 @ 10:47 pm

“As should all Americans, I deeply respect and honor your service in uniform, Mr. Hocter.”

Nobody’s been forced into it at gunpoint for almost 50 years, so it’s mostly an economic decision.

I don’t think you can respect and honor it, or not, without knowing the motivations in each individual case. In the end, everyone is responsible for his own moral actions or omissions. “Don’t blame me, I just work here” isn’t good enough when really bad things happen you’re going along with. Resisting requires far more moral and physical courage. Otherwise, we’re all just “little Eichmanns,” and trying to invoke the functionary’s powerlessness to resist without incurring significant costs. Let’s face it, in institutions “doing the right thing” or “revealing the truth” will cost the individual a whole lot in consequences.

Ask yourself today: Are the truth tellers on top, or persecuted?

“Keep your head down, keep the lid on and don’t make waves” may be good careerist advice but I’m not going to be thanking anybody for just following orders.

#19 Comment By Joe On April 16, 2019 @ 1:05 am

We meant well? Not with an invasion being justified by a lie.

#20 Comment By BadZ On April 16, 2019 @ 5:11 am

Bill Hocter, don’t you remember that Iraq, while an odious dictatorship was a country of relative freedom (as long as you kept your head down didn’t threaten the interests of the thugs running the place) and of pretty much zero Islamic extremism. After we stormed the desert and liberated the place, an actual Islamic caliphate managed to establish itself for a few years! I can’t possibly see how you tell yourself that this was just all doing what’s necessary, can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs etc.

Also, the war on terror you seem so keen on … before September 2001 there would have been, maybe 100, maybe 1000, Islamic radicals in the world devoted to the cause and ready to blow themselves up. Suicide bombings were a thing, but not exactly commonplace even on a global scale. Fast forward a few years, they’ve got multiple mini-armies of extremists, bombings every day in multiple countries, growing international networks, first-world volunteers, podcasts & glossy magazines. How can any of this be considered a successful choice of theaters within a war?

Perhaps military decision making was the wrong sort of decision making right from the start.

#21 Comment By Marcus On April 16, 2019 @ 10:12 am

The attitude that I and many fellow service members of the oughts shared were like those of my dad’s old hippy friend, who used to play football with him in high school, who, my Dad said, would say to pro-Vietnam war hard hats who got in his face, “Look, fellas, in the abstract, I despise war and violence and so oppose our government’s involvement in these conflicts, but in the particular, I like to fight, and will happily kick your asses if you keep this up.”

We soldiers only wanted to kick the asses of Osama and his cohort of psychopaths who flew planes into our buildings and murdered our fellow citizens. Instead, we got to be the abstract tools of great power.

That power’s analysts had concluded, tragically, that invading and occupying the Middle East was a path to lasting victory over terrorism.

We, then, as were the Vietnam vets, are but the living, breathing stubbed toes of the great giant’s blunders. Such as were the soldiers who froze to death in Napoleon’s Grand Army when he invaded Russia, the Wehrmacht cannon fodder who did the same under Hitler, and the Japanese warriors who died for the Emperor’s ambitions. Even as we creep forward, some believe, toward a wealthier, more enlightened, more peaceful world, humanity will add names to the bruises, wounds, and scars of the collective organizations known as nations. I’m just happy to be alive, Peter. Others were not so lucky.

#22 Comment By Defunctdiplo On April 16, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

I feel for you Peter.
We suffer from the same malady.
The desire for policy to be effective and in the national interest is just missing the point.
The point is conformity.
The point of the conformity is never to even entertain the notion that higher military spending and intervention might not be the answer.
That could lead to embarrassment…heaven forbid.

#23 Comment By Ken T On April 16, 2019 @ 10:02 pm

Sid Finster:
For the record, your comment at 3:50PM on 4/15 was a response to JohnT, not Ken T.

#24 Comment By Conor Hanley On April 17, 2019 @ 3:40 pm

‘We meant well’ Was that supposed to be Ironic , as that’s the last thing that was meant.

#25 Comment By Quaker On April 18, 2019 @ 6:39 pm

Isn’t radical Islam more accurately described as political Islam? There is no military solution. Isn’t the fundamental problem with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq the American tendency to force military solutions onto political problems?