One morning in October 2003, I was shaken out of bed by an explosion. I was in Baghdad, leading a platoon of Army Rangers as part of a special operations task force that was hunting down the famous “deck of cards”—the last of the Ba’ath Regime loyalists, and Saddam himself.Because we did all of our work at night, I had only been sleeping for a few hours. When I first felt the explosion, I rolled out of bed, grabbed my M4 carbine, and ran out of the house we were living in on the southern tip of Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone. Improbably, my giant grizzly bear of a platoon sergeant remained asleep, snoring away in the cot next to mine.When I got outside, I was initially blinded by the sunlight, but eventually I could see the al-Rashid Hotel, where visiting dignitaries often stayed, smoking in the distance. It had been struck by some ki
d of rocket. The only other person awake, meanwhile, was one of my Rangers, who was on the porch of our house with a cup of coffee in one hand and a Marlboro Red in the other. He looked me up and down. I was wearing my underwear and flip-flops and carrying my carbine in one hand and my body armor in the other.
He took a drag from his cigarette and looked at me again, bemused.“Good morning, sir. What the fuck are you doing?”It was a good question.
* * *
The war in Iraq is, like all wars I suppose, a little like the film Rashomon: All of the participants in the conflict have our own unique, flawed, and often self-serving memories of our actions and the war itself. So caveat lector: Treat any reflection on the war—including this one—with caution and skepticism. Unlike many others who served multiple deployments as either soldiers or diplomats, I only saw the war as a snapshot: I did one, short tour of duty in the war’s first year. Nonetheless, I believe that what I saw then pointed toward why the war would become so painful for Americans and Iraqis alike, and why American participants’ individual memories of our experiences in Iraq continue to shape our lives—and the decisions and biases of those of us Americans, and Iraqis, who have gone on to serve in government in more senior positions.
I was commissioned into the Army in 2000 from the University of Pennsylvania. Out of the more than two thousand kids in our class, which included President Trump’s eldest son, I was one of two Army ROTC students. I became an infantry officer. The other became a nurse.
While seemingly all of my classmates went to Wall Street or law school, I went to Fort Benning and wondered if I had made the right decisions in life. I’m from Tennessee, the Volunteer State, and was proud to be serving, but I had this gnawing fear that my peers were somehow passing me by while I played soldier for a few years.
That changed, of course, on September 11 of 2001. Having graduated from the infantry officer course and Ranger School, I was leading a platoon of light infantry from the 10th Mountain Division that day, and we deployed to Kuwait and then Afghanistan immediately after the attacks. Suddenly, I felt like I had a sense of purpose and that what I was doing was much more meaningful than whatever my peers on Wall Street were doing. They were, in my estimation, helpless—the victims of an attack on America—whereas I was empowered, doing something about the deaths of my countrymen.In the spring of 2002, we were engaged in some of the last of the initial combat of the war in eastern Afghanistan. I had taken a few books with me from Kuwait, and during breaks in the action, I read The Street Without Joy, Bernard Fall’s narrative history of the French Army in Indochina. One day, I sat on a pallet of MREs, reading about the French paratroopers and their terrible war, and smoking cigarettes. One of my machine gunners, Carl McCauley, sat next to me, sharing a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes. At some point, I remember turning to Carl and telling him, “Carl, if I ever find myself in a shitty little colonial war instead of this one, I swear to God I’m switching from Luckies to Gauloises.”I would get the chance.