I could see, though, that our national misadventures in the Middle East were not ending anytime soon. Getting out of Iraq—and the greater region—was going to be much harder than getting in. And we, including myself, seemed to have sown the seeds for a brutal and persistent insurgency in Iraq itself.
Indeed, in the years after I left, the war got worse. Much worse. The removal of Saddam set off a bloody struggle for dominance between Sunni and Shia Arabs in the country, and for the first time in generations, the Shia had the upper hand. American and allied troops, who still thought they were in charge and labored mightily under that illusion, were almost bystanders to the conflict but were very much fair game to combatants of every faction. I had not lost a single Ranger in combat in 2003 and 2004, but by 2006 and 2007, my peers—who were by now company commanders or Special Forces detachment commanders—were contending with deadly “improvised explosive devices” and losing too many men to count.
One of those roadside bombs killed my friend Joel Cahill in late 2005. Joel’s widow, Mary, an Army nurse, had stayed up with me the entire night following my knee surgery in 2003. When I moved to Washington, D.C., at the end of 2008, one of the first things I did was go visit Joel’s grave at Arlington.
* * *
In the summer of 2015, I returned to Iraq for the first time in more than a decade. I was now the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, and the Islamic State was knocking on the gates of Baghdad.
I had arrived at the Pentagon in May, on the Monday after the Islamic State had captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi. I sat in a briefing with the secretary of defense, listening to our military commanders—many of whom I knew and admired from my brief time in the Army—reel off the names of places in Fallujah, Mosul, and Ramadi that I remembered from too many long nights studying maps under street lights.
One lesson we agreed on was that we had erred, between 2003 and 2007, in putting U.S. forces in the lead. We defeated an insurgency, sure, but the Iraqis never owned the resulting victory. So when we designed the campaign plan to defeat the Islamic State, we assumed some risk by supporting the Iraqi forces—a more time-consuming and messier approach, and one that likely caused more Iraqi civilian deaths—in the expectation that the Iraqi victory would be more sustainable. I have no idea whether this new hypothesis will prove correct in the long run, but I do take comfort from the fact that it’s less expensive, for Americans anyway: We lost only five U.S. servicemen during my time at the Pentagon, even as Iraqi military and civilian casualties remained appallingly high.
The war in Iraq and its many, often conflicting, lessons continue to shape the war’s veterans in different ways. Some of my fellow veterans grew deeply cynical about all military endeavors—which I understand. Others, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and many senior officials in the Trump administration, including the current secretary of defense, retained a faith in military power but developed intense antipathy toward Iran, given its support for militias that killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers—which I also understand.