DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Stuff happens in Iraq
By Tom Engelhardt
It's the ultimate argument, the final bastion against withdrawal, and over
these past years the George W Bush administration has made sure it would have
plenty of heft. Ironically, its strength lies in the fact that it has nothing
to do with the vicissitudes of Iraqi politics, the relative power of Shi'ites
or Sunnis, the influence of Iran, or even the riptides of war. It really
doesn't matter what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki or oppositional cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr think about it. In fact, it's an argument that has nothing to
do with Iraq and everything to do with the American way of war (and life),
which makes it almost unassailable.
This week the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen - the man
president-elect Barack Obama plans to call into the Oval Office as
soon as he arrives - wheeled it into place and launched it like a missile aimed
at the heart of Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan for US combat troops in Iraq.
It may not sound like much, but believe me, it is. The chairman simply said,
"We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an
awful lot of equipment that's there. And so we would have to look at all of
that tied to, obviously, the conditions that are there, literally the security
conditions ... Clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely." Getting it all
out safely, he estimated, would take at least "two to three years".
For those who needed further clarification, the Wall Street Journal's Yochi J
Dreazen spelled it out, "In recent interviews, two high-ranking officers stated
flatly that it would be logistically impossible to dismantle dozens of large US
bases there and withdraw the 150,000 troops now in Iraq so quickly. The
officers said it would take close to three years for a full withdrawal and
could take longer if the fighting resumed as American forces left the country."
As for the Obama plan, if the military top brass have anything to say about it, sayonara.
It is "physically impossible", says "a top officer involved in briefing the
president-elect on US operations in Iraq", according to Time Magazine. The
Washington Post reports that, should Obama continue to push for his two
brigades a month draw-down, a civilian-military "conflict is inevitable" and
might, as the Nation's Robert Dreyfuss suggests, even lead to an Obama
"showdown" with the military high command in his first weeks in office.
In a nutshell, the Pentagon's argument couldn't be simpler or more
red-bloodedly American: We have too much stuff to leave Iraq any time soon. In
war, as in peace, we're trapped by our own profligacy. We are the Neiman Marcus
and the Wal-Mart of combat. Where we go, our "stuff" goes with us - in such
prodigious quantities that removing it is going to prove more daunting than
invading in the first place. After all, it took less than a year to put in
place the 130,000-plus invasion force, and all its equipment and support
outfits from bases all around the world, as well as the air power and naval
power to match.
Some have estimated, however, that simply getting each of the 14 combat
brigades still stationed in Iraq on January 20, 2009, out with all their
equipment might take up to 75 days per brigade. (If you do the math, that's 36
months, and even that wouldn't suffice if you wanted to remove everything else
we now have in that California-sized country.)
Going to war with the society you have
In December 2004, when a soldier at a base in Kuwait asked about the lack of
armor on his unit's Humvees, then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld famously
said, "As you know, you have to go to war with the army you have …"
Rumsfeld was then still focused on his much-ballyhooed "transformation" in
warfare. He was intent on creating a military lite - the most pared down,
totally agile, completely networked, highest of all high-tech forces that was
going to make the US the dominant power on the planet for eons. As it turned
out, that force was a mirage. In reality, the US military in Iraq proved to be
a military heavy. In retrospect, Rumsfeld might have more accurately responded:
You have to go to war with the society you have.
In fact, the Bush administration did just that - with a passion. After the
attacks of September 11, 2001, the president famously pleaded with the American
public to return to normal life by shopping, flying and visiting Disney World.
("Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.") The
administration and the Pentagon led the way. As the Pentagon's budget soared,
its civilians and the high command went on an imperial spending spree the likes
of which may never have been seen on this planet.
For them, Iraq has been war as cornucopia, war as a consumer's paradise.
Arguably, on a per-soldier basis, no military has ever occupied a country with
a bigger baggage train. On taking Iraq, they promptly began constructing a
series of gigantic military bases, American ziggurats meant to outlast them.
These were full-scale "American towns", well guarded, 22-32 kilometers around,
with multiple PXes, fitness clubs, brand fast-food outlets, traffic lights, the
works. (This, in a country where, for years after the invasion, nothing
To the tune of multi-billions of dollars, they continued to build these bases
up, and then, in Baghdad, put the icing on the Iraqi cake by constructing an
almost three-quarter-billion dollar embassy of embassies, a veritable citadel
in the heart of the capital's American-controlled Green Zone, meant for 1,000
"diplomats" with its own pool, tennis courts, recreation center, post
exchange/community center, commissary, retail and shopping areas, and
restaurants - again, the works.
In other words, abroad, we weren't the Spartans, we were the Athenians on
steroids. And then, of course, there was the "equipment" that Mullen referred
to, the most expensive and extensive collection you could find. As the
Washington Times' Arnaud de Borchgrave wrote in October 2007:
them drive by at 30 miles [48 kilometers] per hour, would take 75 days.
Bumper-to-bumper, they would stretch from New York City to Denver. That's how
US Air Force logistical expert Lenny Richoux described the number of vehicles
that would have to be shipped back from Iraq when the current deployment is
over. These include, among others, 10,000 flatbed trucks, 1,000 tanks and
20,000 Humvees ... and the 300,000 "heavy" items that would have to be shipped
back, such as ice-cream machines that churn out different flavors upon request
at a dozen bases…
As Dr Seuss might have put it: and that is
not all, oh no, that is not all. In July 2007, for instance, The Associated
Press' Charles Hanley described US bases holding "more than the thousands of
tanks, other armored vehicles, artillery pieces and Humvees assigned to combat
units. They're also home to airfields laden with high-tech gear, complexes of
offices filled with computers, furniture and air conditioners, systems of
generators and water plants, PXs full of merchandise, gyms packed with
equipment, big prefab latrines and ranks of small portable toilets, even Burger
Kings and Subway sandwich shops."
And it doesn't stop there. In mid-2007, when the issue of our "stuff" first
became part of the withdrawal news, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed
out: "You're talking about not just US soldiers, but millions of tons of
contractor equipment that belongs to the United States government, and a
variety of other things … This is a massive logistical undertaking whenever it
takes place." So, one might ask, what about those many tens of thousands of
private contractors in Iraq and all their materiel? Presumably, some of them,
too, would have to withdraw, mainly through the bottleneck of Kuwait and its
overburdened ports. This would, as the military now portrays it, be an American
Dunkirk stretching on for years.
The argument of last resort
Now, back in the days when we had less experience fighting losing wars,
Americans in retreat simply shoved those extra helicopters off the decks of
aircraft carriers in chaos, burned free-floating cash in tin drums, and left
tons of expensive equipment and massive bases behind for the enemy to turn into
future industrial parks.
At the US Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in April 1975, while
everything in sight was being burned or destroyed, including precious advanced
electronic equipment, money actually rained down from the embassy incinerator
on the roof on amazed Vietnamese allies huddled below, waiting for a promised
airlift to safety that, for most, never came. Withdrawal then was unsightly,
unseemly and environmentally unsound. But, as we know, the lessons of Vietnam
were subsequently learned.
Today, the Pentagon and the military top command plan to be far more
responsible consumers and far better environmentalists, however long it takes,
and the Department of Agriculture's "stringent requirements" for the
"power-washing" - this, in the desert, of course - of every object to be
returned to the US will help ensure that this is so. "Ever since US authorities
found plague-infected rats in cargo returning from the Vietnam War," the AP's
Hanley has written, "the decontamination process has been demanding: water
blasting of equipment, treatment with insecticide and rodenticide, inspections,
And don't forget the shrink-wrapping of those helicopters - who knows how many
- for that long, salt-free sea voyage home.
Think of this as a version of the Pottery Barn Rule that secretary of state
Colin Powell supposedly cited in warning Bush on the dangers of invading Iraq:
"You break it, you own it." For the departure from Iraq, this might be
rewritten as: You bring it, you own it.
You might say that, in the end, Bush's secret plan for never withdrawing from
Iraq was but an extension of his shop-till-you-drop response to 9/11. The idea
was to put so much stuff in the country that we'd have to stay.
And now, as the mission threatens to wind down, the top brass are evidently
claiming that an Obama timeline for withdrawal would violate our property
rights and squander a vast array of expensive equipment. You'll hear no
apologies from the military for traveling heavy, despite the fact that they are
now arguing against a reasonable withdrawal timetable based on the need to
enact a kind of 12-step program for armed consumer sobriety.
Ever since the president's troop "surge" strategy was launched in January 2007,
this argument has been a background hum in the withdrawal debate. Now, it's
evidently about to come front and center.
A new president will be taking office. His withdrawal plan - he spoke of it
more accurately on CBS's 60 Minutes as "a plan that draws down our
troops" - is a modest one. After those American "combat brigades" are out, it's
still possible, as one of his key security advisers, former navy secretary
Richard Danzig, told National Public Radio last summer, that as many as 55,000
US troops might remain in an advisory capacity or as residual forces. And yet,
with the Iraqis urging us on, so many of the arguments against withdrawal have
fallen away, which is why, when Obama sits down in the Oval Office with his top
commanders, he's going to hear about all that "stuff". For those who want to
drag their feet on leaving Iraq, this is the argument of last resort.
As Rumsfeld so classically said, in reference to the looting of Baghdad in
April 2003 after American troops entered the city, "stuff happens". How true
that turns out to be. When it comes to withdrawal, the most militarily
profligate administration in memory has seemingly ensured that the highest
military priority in 2009 will be frugality - that is, saving all American
"stuff" in Iraq.
Irony hardly covers this one. The Bush administration may have succeeded in
little else, but it did embed the US so deeply in that country that leaving can
now be portrayed as the reckless thing to do.
By the way, in case anyone thinks that the soon-to-be Bush-less Pentagon has
drawn the obvious lessons from its experience in Iraq, think again. It still
seems eager to visit Disney World.
According to Wired Magazine's reliable Danger Room blog, military officials are
now suggesting to the Obama transition team that the next Pentagon budget
should come in at $581 billion, a staggering $67 billion more than the previous
one (and that's without almost all the costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars being
But like Rumsfeld's military lite, the Pentagon's military heavy plans are
likely to prove a mirage in the economic future that awaits us. Perhaps the US
should indeed salvage every bit of its equipment in Iraq. After all, one thing
seems certain: Washington may continue in some fashion to garrison an
economically desperate world, but it will never again have the money to occupy
a country in the style of Iraq - largely because the Bush administration
managed to squander the American imperial legacy in eight short years.
Someday, Iraq and all those massive bases, all that high-tech equipment, all
those ice-cream machines and portajohns, will seem like part of an American
dream life. Money may never again rain from the sky.