As the Bush administration tells us that more troops will finally yield victory, the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq seem ever clearer: the mismanaged occupation of a profoundly different nation; the vast lies; the increasing desperation when reality can no longer be denied.
There are, however, two important differences. The first is that for all the mistakes America made in Vietnam, it was a work of genius compared to the occupation of Iraq. If the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and the entire cast of Saturday Night Live made a war movie together, they couldn’t come remotely close to what the Bush administration actually did. What I found even more shocking than the decisions themselves was how they had been made: secretly, in a nearly perfect vacuum of information, by less than 10 people who had virtually no relevant knowledge or experience. Most had never even served in the military, and none had ever been in combat or overseen an occupation.
The second difference between Iraq and Vietnam, however, is that we can’t simply leave. This is not to say that The Surge will work; it won’t. But neither will a complete exit; we’ve dug ourselves — and the Iraqis — into too deep a hole.
I received my first dose of Iraqi reality in 2004, when I had dinner with George Packer, who was preparing to write The Assassins’ Gate. By the time I began making my film No End In Sight a year later, I thought I understood how bad things were.
But when I started doing serious research, I was simply stunned. Nothing had prepared me for the black comedy of stupidity, arrogance, incompetence, and dishonesty that I uncovered. And so I learned, for example, that when the Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) was established to run postwar Iraq — only 50 days before the war — it was given offices that had no computers. When ORHA entered Baghdad a week after the war ended, it had no armored vehicles, only a dozen people who spoke Arabic, and no email, Internet access, or telephones. Baghdad was devastated by unchecked looting; Ahmed Chalabi’s private militia went around committing carjackings, one of them literally in front of the administrator of Baghdad and the general in charge of U.S. ground forces.
And then came L. Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Appointed in late April 2003, within a month Bremer made three catastrophic decisions. First, he halted the formation of an Iraqi interim government and instituted a long-term U.S. occupation. Second, he purged the senior levels of the Iraqi government of all members of the Ba’ath Party, including the technocrats and professionals necessary for a functioning government. Third and most fatally, on May 23, 2003 Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army, Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, intelligence services, and secret police, firing over half a million armed men with zero notice and zero severance pay. This in a desperately poor society which, after a decade of economic sanctions, had a 50 percent unemployment rate.
By destroying their livelihoods and honor, Bremer drove these men into the insurgency. Iraqi officers repeatedly approached the U.S. military, the CPA, and the UN, warning that insurgency was inevitable unless their positions were restored. Even after joining the insurgency, former Iraqi officers approached the UN, offering to negotiate. Senior UN diplomats approached Bremer, who refused to speak with them.
Insurgents and criminal gangs began looting the dozens of huge weapons caches left unguarded due to insufficient troop levels and poor intelligence. By late 2003 kidnapping, looting, and carjacking became major industries, Baghdad alone had 700 murders per month, and automatic weapons, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades were sold openly in neighborhood markets.
Yet the Administration lives in a fantasy world. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Bremer still defends his decisions. By far the most astonishing of Bremer’s many false and distorted claims is the following: “So, after full coordination within the U.S. government, including the military, I issued an order to build a new, all-volunteer army.”
This is a complete lie. What really happened was this:
Immediately after the war ORHA and the U.S. military, concerned about lawlessness and insufficient troop levels, started to recall the Iraqi Army, planning to use it to keep order and to aid reconstruction. ORHA planned to filter returning Iraqi military personnel, to remove Saddam loyalists and assist those leaving the military to reintegrate themselves into civilian life. By early May of 2003, ORHA had obtained registration statements from 137,000 men by working with two groups of senior Iraqi Army officers, comprising Shiites as well as Sunnis.
But on May 1, Bremer had started work at the Pentagon. Between May 1 and May 9, Bremer met with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Undersecretary Douglas Feith, and Walter Slocombe, who had been appointed by Rumsfeld to oversee policy towards the Iraqi military. None of them had visited postwar Iraq, none had ever worked in the Mideast, none any experience with occupations or postwar reconstruction. In fact none of them except Rumsfeld, who had been a Navy pilot in the 1950s, had ever served in the military.
Unknown to ORHA, on May 9 these five men in Washington DC simply decided to dissolve the Iraqi Army. On that same day, they ordered General Paul Eaton to build a new, token army from scratch, with a budget of under $200 million. In reaching this momentous decision, they did not consult with the military commanders in Iraq, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ORHA, the State Department, or the CIA, all of whom opposed the decision when they learned of it. Paul Hughes, the Army colonel directly in charge of dealing with the Iraqi Army for ORHA, learned of the decision by watching its public announcement on television on May 23. Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage learned of it the same way, as Armitage states on camera in my film. In short, the process was completely insane.
Let us hope America has learned something from this: that wars and occupations are serious business, and that we must deliberate and plan carefully before undertaking them. For Iraq, and for thousands of dead American soldiers, it is now too late. Now, we must concentrate on avoiding the very worst, preventing genocide and regional war, in the hope that eventually Iraq will stabilize when a new generation tires of killing and extremism.
George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I hope that to some small extent my film, and the books written by George Packer and others, will help us understand — and remember — the decisions that brought us here.