The Light at the End of the Corner
A Trip Down Memory Lane, Pentagon-Style
By Tom Engelhardt
If you're in the mood, would you consider taking a walk with me and, while we're at it, thinking a little about America's wars? Nothing particularly ambitious, mind you, just -- if you're up for it -- a stroll to the corner.
Now, admittedly, there's a small catch here. Where exactly is that corner? I think the first time I heard about it might have been back in January 2004 and it was located somewhere in Iraq. That was, if you remember, just nine months after American troops triumphantly entered a burning Baghdad and the month after Iraq's autocratic ruler, Saddam Hussein, was captured near his hometown, Tikrit. Yet despite President George W. Bush's unforgettable May 1, 2003, "mission accomplished" moment when, from the deck of an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, he declared "major combat operations in Iraq... ended," the American war there somehow never actually stopped. An insurgency had already flared, U.S. bases were being periodically mortared, and American officials feared that some kind of civil war was in the offing between the country's formerly reigning Sunni minority and its rising Shiite majority.
It was then that Major General Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, mentioned that corner (and as you'll gather from his comments, it wasn't even the first time he'd brought the subject up). Here, as New York Times correspondent John Burns reported it, was Swannack's assessment of the situation:
"The general, a large, imposing figure renowned among his troops for his no-nonsense ways, began his remarks by reminding the reporters that he had appeared in Baghdad six weeks ago, about the time of the insurgents' Ramadan offensive, and had said he believed [troops] in his area were 'turning the corner.'
"Now, he said, 'I'm here to tell you that we've turned that corner. I can also tell you that we are on a glide path towards success, as attacks on our forces have declined by almost 60 percent over the past month.'"
As it happened, Americans would remain on the glide path to that corner of ultimate success for some time, not just in Iraq but in Washington, too. There, as Rowan Scarborough reported more than a year later, in March 2005, "in the privacy of their E-ring offices, senior Pentagon officials have begun to entertain thoughts that were unimaginable a year ago: Iraq is turning the corner. 'This is still a tough fight. We don't want anyone to think that it is not,' said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst who strongly supports Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. 'But the momentum is in our direction.'"
Here was the problem: every time American troops actually turned that corner, what they found there were insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weaponry, sometimes even American-produced arms. In addition, the streets around that corner turned out to be pitted with half-buried improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, those same insurgents could build from instructions on the Internet and that could destroy the most well-armored Humvee for the price of a pizza. (Early on, in fact, some of the places down which American troops had to turn were already being given grimly sardonic names like "RPG Alley.") There were, as it happened, so many corners to turn and yet, from 2003 on, seemingly nowhere to go.
I don't doubt that those of you of a certain age preparing for our little walk are already thinking about a somewhat more perilous image from another war: the infamous "light at the end of the tunnel" that will forever be connected with Vietnam. That phrase was repeatedly used by Americans to describe the glide path to victory in that conflict and would long be associated with the commander of U.S. forces, General William Westmoreland. He used it to remarkable effect in 1967, a mere 10 weeks before the enemy launched its devastating Tet Offensive.
However, the general was anything but alone in his choice of imagery. That "tunnel" was also occupied by a range of top U.S. officials, from President Lyndon Johnson to National Security Advisor Walt Rostow. And it wasn't the newest of images either. After all, General Henri Navarre had used it a decade and a half earlier in the French version of that losing war.
For those in the antiwar movement of the era, it was an image that always had a particularly ominous resonance, since you weren't just heading for "the corner" but deep inside a dark tunnel where, just beyond the light glimmering at its end, it was easy enough to imagine a train bearing down on you. By the way, lest you think there's anything especially original about the American military in the twenty-first century, Westmoreland also spoke with hope in 1967 (but assumedly before he found himself in that tunnel) of how the U.S. "had turned the corner in the war" and how its end had begun "to come into view."
In Iraq, the light at the end of the corner would prove no more evident than it had been in that Vietnamese tunnel and, as a result, the corner itself simply disappeared. In fact, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2008, U.S. commander (and Iraq surge general) David Petraeus even admitted, however reluctantly, that "we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel." And soon after that, corners of any sort were largely abandoned (at least as figures of speech). Or perhaps, thought of another way, the problem of finding a corner, no less any good news on the other side of it, would be solved by a change in tactics in the second iteration of Washington's Iraq War in this century: the one against the Islamic State. From August 2014 on, the U.S. Air Force would be called in to play a major role in turning Iraq's embattled cities, from Fallujah to Mosul, into so much rubble. No corners, no problems, you might say.
Now, I don't want you to be disappointed. I was serious about that walk to the corner, just not in Iraq. Consider corner-less Iraq no more than background information for the real walk we're going to take.
But before we leave Iraq, let me mention -- and I hope you won't consider me too much of an optimist for this -- that I just might see a little light glimmering at the end of the rubble. Is it possible that, some 14 years late, America's mission-accomplished moment is finally arriving? After all, the "caliphate" of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is history and, in December, President Donald Trump even declared victory over ISIS. ("We've won in Iraq," he said without hesitation or qualification.) No tunnel, no corner, no glimmers of light, just the whole shebang.