A war and occupation thousands of miles away that lasted seven years and involved more than 1.5 million Americans, military and civilian, has passed into the history books and yet we still know remarkably little about so much of it. Take American military bases in Iraq. There were, of course, none in March 2003 when the Bush administration launched its regime-change invasion with dreams of garrisoning that particular stretch of the planet's oil heartlands for generations to come.
At the height of the American occupation, in the face of Sunni and Shiite insurgencies and a bloody civil war, the Pentagon built 505 bases there, ranging from micro-outposts to mega-bases the size of small American towns -- in one case, with an airport that was at least as busy as Chicago's O'Hare International. As it happened, during all but the last days of those long, disastrous years of war, Americans could have had no idea how many bases had been built, using taxpayer dollars, in Iraq. Estimates in the press ranged, on rare occasions, up to about 300. Only as U.S. troops prepared to leave was that 505 figure released by the military, without any fanfare whatsoever. Startlingly large, it was simply accepted by reporters who evidently found it too unimpressive to highlight.
And here's an allied figure that we still don't have: to this day, no one outside the Pentagon has the faintest idea what it cost to build those bases, no less maintain them, or in the end abandon them to the Iraqi military, to the fate of ghost towns, or simply to be looted and stripped. We have no figures, not even ballpark ones, about what the Pentagon paid crony corporations like KBR to construct and maintain them. The only vague approximation I ever saw was offered in an engineering magazine in October 2003 by Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army officer "tasked with facilities development" in Iraq. At a moment when U.S. base building was barely underway, he was already speaking of the program being in the "several billion dollar range," adding proudly that "the numbers are staggering." So for the full seven-year figure, let your imagination run wild.
The same is obviously true, by the way, of the more than 400 bases the Pentagon built in Afghanistan, as well as another 300 or so meant for local forces. Think of it this way: America's "stimulus package" these last years has significantly been in Baghdad and Kabul. All of this would be considered an extraordinary, not to say profligate, feat for any country -- to be able to construct what I once called American-style "ziggurats" in a land thousands of miles distant: garrisons with 20-mile or more perimeters, barracks, fire stations, bus lines, PXes, Internet cafes, brand-name fast-food restaurants, electricity and water supplies, and so much else. It is, in fact, the kind of over-the-top, can-do feat that the world once associated with the United States and that Americans expected -- not abroad, but at home.
Nowadays, however, as State Department officer and whistleblower Peter Van Buren makes clear, at home at least the can-do nation is a can't-do nation. Of course, as anyone who follows the news will know, a caveat has to be put next to the "can do" abroad label as well, and no one has done that better than Van Buren in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, just now being published in paperback. It should be cautionary bedtime reading for America's children. After all, what we built profligately but successfully -- those bases -- has now been abandoned to the elements; while what we were supposed to be "reconstructing" for others ended up mired in corruption, incompetence, and the sort of pure idiocy that would be amusing (and that Van Buren makes grimly hilarious in his book) if it weren't so sad. Tom
How Not to Reconstruct Iraq, Afghanistan -- or America:
A Guide to Disaster at Home and Abroad
By Peter Van Buren
Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to "reconstruct" that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their "liberation" by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.
I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I'm left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as "policy"?
The Good War(s)
With the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe and the economic miracle in Japan, rebuilding other countries gained a certain imperial patina. Both took relatively little money and time. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively (in 2010 dollars), in large part because both had been highly educated, industrialized powerhouses before their wartime destruction.
In 2003, still tumescent with post-9/11 rage and dreams of global glory, anything seemed possible to the men and women of the Bush administration, who would cite the German and Japanese examples of just what the U.S. could do as they entered Iraq. Following what seemed like a swift military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the plan had gotten big and gone long. It was nothing less than this: remake the entire Middle East in the American image.
The country's mighty military was to sweep through Iraq, then Syria -- Marines I knew told me personally that they were issued maps of Syria in March 2003 -- then Iran, quickly set up military bases and garrisons ("enduring camps"), create Washington-friendly governments, pour in American technology and culture, bring in the crony corporations under the rubric of "reconstruction," privatize everything, stand up new proxy militaries under the rubric of regime change, and forever transform the region.- Advertisement -
Once upon a time, the defeated Japanese and Germans had become allies and, better yet, consumers. Now, almost six decades later, no one in the Bush administration had a doubt the same would happen in Iraq -- and the Middle East would follow suit at minimal cost, creating the greatest leap forward for a Pax Americana since the Spanish-American War. Added bonus: a "sea of oil."
By 2010, when I wrote We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the possibility that some level of success might be close by still occupied some official minds. American boots remained on the ground in Mesopotamia and looked likely to stay on for years in at least a few of the massive permanent bases we had built there. A sort-of elected government was more or less in place, and in the press interviews I did in response to my book I was regularly required to defend its thesis that reconstruction in Iraq had failed almost totally, and that the same process was going down in Afghanistan as well. It was sometimes a tough sell. After all, how could we truly fail, being plucky Americans, historically equipped like no one else with plenty of bootstraps and know-how and gumption.
Failure Every Which Way