More than 65 years after World War II, U.S. military bases still dot Germany (194 of them) and Japan (108). Almost 60 years after the guns fell silent there, U.S. armed forces are still stationed on the Korean peninsula (at 82 sites). Just a few years ago, there were 505 American bases scattered all across Iraq, a country only about twice the size of Idaho. But as of January 1, 2012, Iraq will be free of American bases.
After years of wheel-spinning occupation, the only American “victory” to be found in Iraq turned out to be the name of the Pentagon’s most obscenely large base.
And the only true accomplishment of the entire mission, it seems, was an exercise in construction and deconstruction unlike any the world has ever witnessed. In less than nine years, the United States built hundreds and hundreds of self-contained American cities, towns, and tiny outposts all over Iraq. On the largest of them, they recreated American consumer society, right down to fast-food franchises, gyms, movie theaters, and big-box-like PXs brimming with TVs, DVD players, gas grills, and thong underwear, and then they dismantled all of it. This exercise in futility may stand as the war’s only success.
Army Staff Sergeant Gene Taylor was the non-commissioned officer who oversaw the final days of packing up Contingency Operating Base Adder. “Our mission here was to take all the units’ equipment…send them to Afghanistan or send them back to the States to get remanufactured,” he told a military journalist on the scene. In late November, Taylor’s troops loaded up the final pallets with radios, computers, and hospital equipment — and, with that, Adder was a thing of the past.
At Joint Base Balad, after the final metal Conex shipping containers were packed up and shipped out, Air Force Colonel Brent Bigger reflected, with another military reporter, on the transition. “The last days were like a ghost town, it was surreal…a dramatic difference from 15,000 personnel to zero in 30 days,” Bigger said.
Located next to Baghdad International Airport, the ill-named Camp Victory was the mother of all U.S. bases and the nerve center of the Pentagon’s war — an American city complete with Burger King, Cinnabon, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Subway, and Taco Bell, as well as bus routes, a bottled-water plant, and an electric grid that was the envy of Iraqis everywhere but available to few of them.
At the war’s peak, Mike Gudgell of ABC News recently reported, that there were 40,000 troops based there and, on any given day, more than 80,000 people within its 27-mile perimeter of blast walls and razor wire. It took hundreds of millions of dollars to construct that mini-America, and now it’s all gone, transferred to the Iraqi government for its use.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
In April 2003, The New York Times revealed that the United States had drawn up plans for retaining four major bases in Iraq. They were to be called “enduring,” but it was clearly a euphemism for “permanent” and an unmistakable signal of American plans to turn Iraq into another Middle East outpost for the Pentagon.
But as the spring “cake walk” of 2003 evaporated and ragtag insurgencies fought America’s much-vaunted military to a standstill, the U.S. threw everything it could, from troops to money, at Iraq in a vain attempt to defeat small numbers of guerrillas armed with rifles designed in the 1940s and homemade bombs detonated by garage-door openers.
In the process, the U.S. ended up adding 501 bases — representing untold billions of dollars in construction — to those “enduring” four.
It eventually required paying off one set of enemies in Iraq to kill off another group of enemies, just to win the right to abandon all those bases.
And the price of building Adder, Balad, Victory, and the rest of the $4 trillion the war is projected to ultimately cost is felt every day in United States.
Over the past eight years, as American infrastructure crumbled, sewer lines, power grids, and roadways were built in Iraq. As Americans lost their jobs and the economy hit the skids, billions of dollars winged their way to the Middle East to prop up a Shiite government that cozied up to Iran, to fund Sunni militants who had been targeting Americans just months before, and to build monuments to waste — like a chicken-processing plant that Iraqis didn’t want and a fever-dream water park in a country where many still suffer from a lack of clean drinking water.
America’s legacy in Iraq turns out to be trillions of dollars wasted and millions of Iraqis killed, injured, maimed, crippled, widowed, orphaned, displaced, or exiled as a result of the invasion, as well as tens of thousands of American casualties. Its victories and accomplishments are few. While the much-vaunted surge propelled celebrity general David Petraeus out of Iraq (and eventually out of the military) and into a stateside job running the CIA, it never did destroy the insurgency that America’s Sunni mercenaries temporarily tamped down.
Just weeks ago, when I talked to him from Baghdad by telephone, Major General Russell Handy, the senior U.S. Air Force officer in Iraq, admitted that the country continued to be “a dangerous place.”
He went on: “We are, regrettably, reminded here on a regular basis there are still those out there who would seek to do us harm and would seek to do our Iraqi partners harm.” Now, about all that’s left to show for more than eight years of occupation, besides hazy memories of a Popeyes chicken trailer at Camp Victory, is America’s withdrawal.
Millions of pieces of equipment have traveled across the border to Kuwait, been shipped off to the war in Afghanistan, or have been sent home to America for reconditioning. Big airfields once bristling with bomb-laden jets have vanished. Megabases that boasted football fields and squash courts, swimming pools, and DVD stores are no more.
In the end, the work of Colonel Brent Bigger, Staff Sergeant Gene Taylor, and the thousands of Americans who packed up the bases and shipped off their contents — everything from Porta-Potties to paper shredders, cots to computers — turns out to be America’s one success, a mission finally accomplished.
This doesn’t mean America will vanish from Iraq. After all, the U.S. mission in Baghdad is a highly militarized operation with an “army” of more than 5,000 hired guns and a $750 million mega-embassy that sits on a swath of real estate so large it can be seen from outer space. But the fact that neither the Army nor the Navy, Air Force, or Marines will retain facilities there speaks volumes about America’s state of decline.
On December 5, with no fanfare and no ceremony, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Barry Johnson announced that, as of 2 p.m. that day, there were no longer any American troops at Camp Victory. “The base is no longer under U.S. control and is under the full authority of the government of Iraq,” he said.
In 2003, then-General Petraeus offered an accommodating reporter a quotable quote that has become, perhaps, the signature line of the war. “Tell me how this ends,” he said. We now know exactly how. Not with a bang but with the metallic squeal and clang of Conex doors and an unceremonious announcement during the Friday afternoon “news hole.”
Victory at last.
Nick Turse is a historian, journalist, and essayist who is the author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives. He is the associate editor and research director of the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com; his personal website is www.nickturse.com.