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Magazine / NATIONAL SECURITY

My Iraq War

Fear, death, and even elegy—one witness’s recollections from a decade of war.

In like a lion: The invaders were cocksure. (James Kitfield)

photo of James Kitfield
March 21, 2013

My war began a decade ago on a bluff in Kuwait, on the far-western flank of the U.S. invasion force. Spread out on the desert floor below was the 3rd Infantry Division’s “heavy metal”—tanks and armored fighting vehicles—to spearhead the attack. At dusk on March 20, 2003, the artillery brigade opened up on the nearby Iraqi border posts. Muzzle flashes flickered across the dark desert landscape like lightning in a squall; the distant thunder of impact sounded the approach of an angry giant. The next morning, as we drove past a smoldering checkpoint, the soldier next to me, Maj. Joe Samek, gazed out the window of our Humvee at the losing end of “shock and awe.” “You know,” he said, “this is the first time I’ve been in a foreign country uninvited.”

* * *

During a blinding sandstorm, U.S. forces were repelling Saddam Hussein’s fanatic Fedayeen militias up and down their supply lines. The Army commander, Lt. Gen. Scott Wallace, had told a Washington Post reporter that he was surprised by the intensity of the counterattacks; the U.S. military had not war-gamed to fight Fedayeen-style salvos. This was dangerously off-message. Word soon leaked that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was furious. Wallace was told to shut up around reporters. It was vintage Rumsfeld: After insisting on a very small invasion force, he refused to allow his generals to admit their surprises and their constraints. Less than a week into the war, truth was already a casualty. It never recovered.

 

* * *

On a very bad day for U.S. casualties, I sat in the operations tent with Lt. Col. Rick Nohmer. The command radio sputtered angrily to life. Third Division headquarters wanted to know who had died in a Humvee that had toppled into a canal while under fire during the seizure of the Baghdad airport. One of the occupants apparently was an embedded reporter, and HQ wanted a name from its front-line unit. But the name that Nohmer scribbled had to be a mistake. Something in my expression made the colonel stop what he was doing. “Mike Kelly,” he said, naming my close friend and colleague at Atlantic Media—one of the best journalists of his generation. “Did you know him?”

* * *

In October 2003, I was staying at the Al Rashid hotel at the same time as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of the war. When morning broke, a crackling noise outside drew nearly everyone to the windows, including Wolfowitz. In the instant before the explosion, they saw the contrails of the approaching rockets. Wolfowitz called the deadly rocket attack, which killed a U.S. Army colonel a few doors down from my room, the “last, desperate act” of a handful of “bitter-enders.” Instead, it was the beginning of a coordinated Ramadan offensive of rockets, suicide bombings, and assassinations that plunged Baghdad into chaos. Sunni insurgents were infuriated by de-Baathification and the disastrous U.S. decision to disband the Iraqi army. After the Ramadan offensive, it seemed obvious that Iraq would be a long war. But Wolfowitz couldn’t see it. He believed.

* * *

By the summer of 2007, the short drive from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone was a gantlet of sniper fire and roadside bombs. I slipped into the city in the dead of night in the belly of a heavily armored bus and was greeted by a mortar attack that killed several Iraqi troops. Burly Lt. Gen. Ken Hunzeker told me he had instructed his own guards to shoot him if he might be captured by insurgents, who were cutting off heads. Outside the Green Zone, Baghdad was a scene from the apocalypse. At night, bands of Sunni terrorists and Shiite death squads roamed freely, and the morning light found children playing soccer in fields littered with corpses, many of them bound and mutilated beyond recognition. In the first six months of the “surge,” 575 U.S. troops died in Iraq, making it the deadliest stretch of the war. For Dagger Brigade, where I was embedded, it seemed like every other day was Memorial Day, as the soldiers gathered to honor fallen comrades with taps and three-gun salutes. “I’ve been to a lot of these services,” Lt. Col. Steve Miska told me after one ceremony. “And they never get easier.”

* * *

On the day of Iraq’s presidential election in March 2010, I rode in a helicopter above the city with an Iraqi and an American general. The Iraqi officer was worried that U.S. troops were pulling out too fast. “We have fought and bled together, and that always creates a special bond that we don’t even share with some of our own countrymen,” Brig. Gen. Rob Baker assured him. “It will let us rise above things that others can’t seem to rise above.”

* * *

The last American troops departed in 2011. But from the open door of that helicopter, light shimmered off the Tigris, and it was possible to imagine a Baghdad that was just another capital city with a river running through it. Years hence, I wondered, would anyone recall what a den of tyranny and sectarian violence this place had been, before the wild boys came and fought and sounded taps throughout the land?

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