East Baghdad, January 25, 2007. Newly minted 1st Lieutenant Danny Sjursen, all of 23-years-old, led his scout platoon – the "Ghost Riders” – on yet another meaningless presence patrol in an increasingly aimless war, at about 9:00pm local time in the Al Amin neighborhood of Shia-majority East Baghdad. We were no longer allowed to call them "presence patrols,” of course. From now on, each patrol had to – imagine that! – have a specific mission, a purpose, something, you know, worth dying for. The army, mind you, is traditionally masterful at bending language to its tactically fashionable whims. So, while the nomenclature changed, the nature of the actual patrols themselves remained remarkably consistent. From the perspective of my young privates and sergeants – laying their lives on the line for some $30,000 annually – nothing changed…not a lick.
I hadn’t wanted to roll out my platoon that night, and had told my obtuse captain so in no uncertain terms. He was, unsurprisingly I’d found, just another mediocre careerist, a "company man," and could hardly spell Iraq. In that sense, he had much in common with our shared commander-in-chief, George W. Bush (the lesser), who’d reportedly been unaware of the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims just two months prior to America’s ill-fated invasion.
My hesitancy that night stemmed from basic logic, not some (as of yet) advanced knowledge of Iraq or the Arab World. It was simple. The U.S. military kept civilian foot traffic, and more importantly, vehicles, off the roads in Baghdad after dark. Which meant, in my part of town, that the vaguely Iranian-backed Shia militiamen could emplace their new, advanced explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) – a lethal form of IED, then the bane of our existence – replete with a passive infrared (PIR) detonation triggers all over their end of the city without fear of causing civilian casualties.
Notionally, my "vital" "mission" was to link up – essentially pound some chai with – with some local Iraqi National Police (INP) in the north part of our assigned sector. Why visit the inevitably sleepy local police after curfew, I’d pointedly asked, when it’d be safer and no less meaningful to do so in the morning, when, with the roads loaded with vehicle traffic, the militias would think twice before emplacing PIR-triggered EFPs? The captain insecurely muttered something about chain-of-command, pleasing our colonel, and his exhaustion with my consistently flippant attitude. I hardly cared what he thought by then, just three months into our messy, bloody, eventually 15-month combat tour. He yelled my way, I screamed back – perhaps secretly wishing he’d relieve my already fatigued ass – and I stormed out the door to do my duty, as all professional West Point-bred officers are trained to do.
These were awful times, and this was a particularly bad night. So, when newly-promoted Sergeant Alex Fuller, of New Bedford, Massachusetts – my absolute favorite soldier – flagged me down, I was in no mood for small talk. No matter, I genuinely loved the 21-year-old, highly motivated, former juvenile delinquent; thus, I composed myself, took a breath, and nodded intently as he flipped through newest pictures of his petite, pregnant wife, Stacey. Look how beautiful she looks, Sir. I mean, that’s my baby in there! I was, genuinely, happy for them both. Alex, who’d been on my HMMWV crew for a year of training and combat, had just forced my hand until I relented, reassigning him to be the dismounted team leader in the first truck in our convoys. Al planned to make the army a career. He couldn’t understand why so many soldiers complained about military life. With two brothers in and out of jail, a sister in a Florida prison, and an inattentive alcoholic mother back home, he saw the army as not just fun, (relatively) financially secure, but also a form of veritable redemption.
We rolled out the gate of Camp Rustamiyah, in Southeast Baghdad, and weaved our way north. A new staff sergeant led the patrol, and it made me nervous. Staff Sergeant Damian South, a close friend and stellar scout with a nose for finding IEDs before they blew, was in the convoy’s rear – covering down for our senior platoon sergeant who’d just flown home on leave. The lead vehicle missed a planned turn. I should’ve halted us, forced him to pull a U-turn. Unfortunately a combination of apathy, inexperience, and a desire not to undercut a sergeant on the platoon radio channel, caused me to let the transgression go. The regret haunts my dreams to this day, as well it should.
In war, as the Vietnam veteran novelist Tim O’Brien has astutely noted, traumatic events blur the lines between fact and fiction, memory and reality. So what followed remains hazy. Suffice it to say that time slowed, smoke billowed, and the sound of the deafening blast seemed to manifest so very long after the flash of the EFP’s explosion. The lead vehicle, less than 10 meters ahead of me, disappeared in a gray cloud, then crawled to a halt beside a telephone poll. What followed was a melange of shrieking, desperate yells, my own confusion, the pungent smell of burnt metal and flesh. Soldiers rushed to the disabled HMMWV, the left side of which resembled a slice of Swiss cheese. Someone opened the drivers door. PFC Michael Balsley, of California, fell out lifelessly, a copper slug having pierced his skull. SPC Richard "Ducks" Duzinskas, of Chicago, screamed in pain, his left side littered with shrapnel, his arm hanging by a pathetic thread. And Fuller, my dear Alex, I foolishly gazed into the back seat and saw his body transformed into nothing less than an unidentifiable pile of chop meat.
Nothing, not my life or anything else, has ever been the same. We were told, soon after, that the culprit was the iconoclastic son of a populist legend – Moqtada al-Sadr – specifically his Mahdi Army militia. Odds were they probably had been. To the untrained observer, this was curious. After all, in the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush and his cronies had repeatedly assured the American people that the long-oppressed Shia plurality would greet the U.S. military invasion with rose petals and cheers. Only by now, in January 2007, year three of a wildly off-the-rails American quagmire, both Shia and Sunni nationalists (and jihadis) alike were at war with we, the "occupiers" of Iraq. In my early twenties, this heartbroken author swore to never forgive the Mahdi Army, the Shia, the Iraqis, the world’s Arabs, for hastily stealing the lives of those I loved. Over a decade later, I’ve made my peace with them all.
Why, then, do I choose to tell this extended war story? Partly because life, for me at least, sort of froze in that moment. It’s when, viscerally if not intellectually, I stopped growing. In an unfortunate, yet equally beautiful (I think) sense, I’ll always be that twenty-something lieutenant who dared love both his own soldiers and the average Iraqis more than conventions recommended. But no, I put fingers-to-keyboard tonight in response to a disturbing revelation and analysis of allegedly leaked Iranian documents published at The Intercept. According to the legitimately profound revelations, Iran has – in the wake of the US invasion and especially since major combat units finally departed in late 2011 – forged a "special relationship" with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, played kingmaker, backed key militias, and even "flipped" former local CIA assets. For a few days, at least, the American press will spin over the story (before reverting to their all-Trump, all-the-time, standard impeachment coverage). Still, for me the story is both highly personal and completely unsurprising.
The long-known (by insiders), but unspoken, truth is that the true victor of America’s long-running, tragic war in Iraq was…Iran! Indeed, whether purposefully (as per the conspiracy theorists), or inadvertently (as per those of us who know, finally, that most foreign policy elites don’t know a damn thing!), Bush-the-Younger’s invasion handed the whole of Iraq to the Ayatollahs in Iran on silver platter.
All the signs were there from the start, even if a frightened, typically ill-informed, post-9/11 American public hadn’t realized it. The Bush team – many signatories of the near-apocalyptic Project for the New American Century (PNAC) group that had longed for an excuse to establish overt US hegemony in the Mideast – had early on put faith in an illegitimate coterie of Iraq Shia exiles from the flagrantly Islamist SCIRI and Dawa parties. Most hadn’t actually been inside Iraq for decades, had a nonexistent"ground game" in Baghdad, and – because many had fled to Iran during the cataclysmic 1980-88 war between the two rival countries – were seen as outsiders, if not traitors, by many Iraqis. What they did have was an effective and convenient public relations apparatus that served the Bush cabal’s ideological purposes. And they not only helped sell Bush’s war to a skeptical public, but were expected to lead post-invasion Iraq towards democracy.
If one buys the prevailing dogma (I don’t) that Iran was and is America’s implacable enemy, then the ostensible justification for, and certainly the outcome of, the US invasion in 2003 must seem strange, even counterintuitive. Remember (is it even possible in our Orwellian forever-war-world), that on September 10, 2001, Iran was tightly contained in a military-strategic box. To its west, a weakened, and sanction-riddled (though still reasonably formidable) Saddam Hussein-led Iraq; to its north, an historically unfriendly and meddling Russia; to its east a Sunni-Islamist Taliban regime in Afghanistan; to it’s southwest, a hostile U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian Sunni theocracy and the powerful American Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Ah, the "good," bad old days: when U.S.-backed, or "created” (in the case of the Taliban) dictatorial regimes held the "evil" Islamic Republic of Iran at bay.
All that changed when Baby Bush took the profoundly absurd (and illegal) step of preemptively invading a decidedly unthreatening Iraq – under false pretenses, to put it mildly – in March 2003. See, Saddam Hussein, that nefarious strongman who – it must be said – was long on the CIA/US government payroll when he restrained his murderous tendencies to an aggressive invasion of Iran and gassing his own Kurdish minority, had for decades served as a convenient counterweight to Tehran’s regional aspirations.
Problem was, that even though Saddam had efficiently murdered and oppressed them into second-class status, the Shia (he was a Sunni) were the demographically preeminent group in Iraq. Seeing as Iran was also a Shia state, and America’s prevailing appetite was for spreading its own peculiar form of "democracy" the world over, a military-induced regime change mission in Iraq would, inevitably, result in a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Hindsight makes it all seem so clear, though I’m increasingly persuaded the Bush-era powers-that-be – reveling in their anti-intellectualism – might have missed these implications entirely.
What transpired must be labeled a sequential litany of U.S.-induced comedies of error. By disbanding Iraq’s entire army, firing all vaguely "Saddam-friendly" government employees (including the ever-so-"powerful" public school teachers) – thereby depriving them of livelihoods and well-earned pensions – the US imperial regime of Bush-appointed L. Paul Bremer virtually ensured the outbreak of a Sunni-based insurgency. Add to that the heavy-handed tactics of American soldiers, trained for conventional war against the Soviets in Europe, not for complex counterinsurgency in the Mideast, and soon enough even Saddam-oppressed Shia nationalists joined a budding and intractable insurgency against the US occupiers. It was into that maelstrom that this hopelessly naive, if well meaning, young officer, and his motivated platoon of underprivileged misfits, entered the Iraqi imbroglio in October 2006.
Matters deteriorated from there. By the time "Saint" Obama withdrew US troops completely in December 2011, a Shia-chauvinist, authoritarian government ruled in Baghdad, under Prime Minister Maliki. Short-term, expedient, US decisions had led to this eventuality. In its haste to demonstrate democratic progress, Washington had gone forward with national elections in 2005, despite the clear intransigence of the alienated Sunni community which had announced its determination to boycott the vote, ensuring an unrepresentative Shia/Kurd "unity" government. Then, an "enlightened" American General, "King" David Petraeus, sold Bush a military escalation – an unpopular "surge" strategy – to ostensibly "create the space" for a sectarian and communal political settlement, and due to a number of expedient factors violence temporarily dropped. The political settlement never unfolded, of course, but Bush and the buoyed US military declared – what was ultimately merely tactical – victory.
Prime Minister Maliki, by then entrenched as a Shia strongman in the Saddam-mold, seemed both vital to that "success" and its primary beneficiary, and could thus essentially punched his own ticket. So, when he clearly lost the 2010 elections to a more secular-minded, unity candidate, Iyad Allawi, Maliki refused to step down. Desperate to maintain America’s ephemeral gains and "declare victory" on the way out of Iraq – a key Obama campaign promise – the new administration took a back seat, allowed Shia Iran to broker a settlement, and acquiesced to Maliki’s undemocratic maintenance of power. Ironically, at the time, my platoon’s old foe, Moqtada al-Sadr – a genuine nationalist, it turned out – had then called for the withdrawal of both American and Iranian influence in Iraq. No matter, Washington – eager for a scapegoat with convenient American blood on its hands – quickly labeled Sadr an Iranian stooge.
The US military evacuated the country without leaving any residual force, since Maliki – seeking to burnish his nationalist credentials in the wake of an embarrassing election – refused to agree to a basing agreement. The prime minister then accused his Sunni vice president of treason, turned his back on Sunni tribesmen who’d allied with the US military against Al Qaeda extremists, and suppressed an entire sect of Iraqis over the next few years. When Sunnis peacefully protested, he had them gunned down in the streets. The rise of the ISIS monster was complex, of course, partly dependent on the chaos of the nearby Syrian Civil War, but Maliki’s Shia-chauvinist authoritarianism contributed mightily to rise and popularity of the Islamic State. Specifically, the alliance of Sunni tribes from Western Iraq with ISIS – including the vital contribution of former Saddam-era generals – was in part caused by the expedient, U.S.-backed Maliki regime.
What’s scarier than that is the discomfiting fact that a Maliki-successor, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, himself a Shia-sectarian, today rules a Baghdad security state that’s again gunning down protesters in the streets, a repeat performance of the brutal antics that helped give rise to ISIS. History repeats itself, as Marx noted, first as tragedy, then as farce. In contemporary Iraq, America’s crusade, and its bloody aftershocks, certainly rate as farce.
So finally, the current leaks and joint New York Times/Intercept reports on these disturbing – if predictable – Iranian intelligence documents, can be read one of two ways – both remarkably disturbing. Either A) as some conspiratorial-minded folks have surmised, the Iranian documents are little more than disinformation, actually leaked by US intelligence; or B) as I’d suggest, the reports are consistent with events and inherently accurate. If the conspiracy crowd is correct, then Trump and company can spin the Iranian infiltration into Iraq as further cause to drum up the Israeli-Saudi dream of a US war with Iran. That’d be, as I’ve repeatedly argued, an American and regional disaster.
If, on the other hand – as seems more likely – the leaks are authentic, they represent proof positive that the American invasion of Iraq was an epic fail of such proportion that it ranks among the worst, most counterproductive, blunders in US History. As such, The Intercept report would answer, once and for all, two key questions: Who won the 2003 Iraq War? Iran, and, by grotesque extension their foil, Sunni Islamist jihadis. Who, then, lost? Certainly the US military – with nearly 5,000 unnecessarily killed and more than 30,000 wounded; but also the Iraqi people, who, by conservative estimates suffered some 200,000 civilian fatalities, and, more specifically, the Sunni, secularist, and Shia-nationalist communities.
The grandiose gravity of that conclusion is still almost too much to fathom for this humble old soldier. So, whether appropriate or not, I’m left – in the wake of the latest revelations – wondering how on God’s-good-earth I could possibly explain to Mr. and Mrs. Balsley, and Alex Fuller’s widow, just what their loved ones ultimately died for. And, in my own insignificant little world, how I’ll someday tell my now eleven year old son Alexander – Sergeant Fuller’s namesake – what the whole mess that defined my misspent youth was all for…
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen