It may be the dozens of mercenary private contractors who prowled, lawless, around the country for years on multimillion-dollar U.S. government (taxpayer) contracts. It may be those who stole the unaccounted-for $9 billion in U.S. government (taxpayer) funds, shipped in vacuum-sealed stacks of $100 bills in garage-sized containers. It may be those few lucky Iraqis who have helped put their nation fourth from the bottom on Transparency International's annual list of corrupt countries.
But the biggest beneficiary from our spawl of blood and treasure has been, and will be, Iran. We need not go into detail about how Iraq's Shiite neighbor influences so much that happens inside Iraq. It does. And as our military dwindles there, Iranian influence will only grow. And why not? They share a 900-mile-long border, just over half as long as ours with Mexico.
But was that the purpose of America's first preemptive war of choice? Does that mean all those soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen laid down their lives so Tehran could cast its black burqa over a once-secular nation?
You tell me.
Basic at Bliss had its moments. One drill sergeant, a big surfer from SoCal, broke every rule in the book when, halfway through basic, he took another trainee and me in his VW over to Juarez. First time I ever drank tequila.
My dad, a special agent for the Santa Fe Railway, said he happened to be "in the neighborhood" (he was in Fort Worth, 540 miles from El Paso) and came to Bliss. A week before basic ended, we walked over the International Bridge and hit some Mexican night spots. He later tried to convince Mama that the Polaroids of the chiquitas he was dancing with onstage were cardboard cutouts.
That dog didn't hunt.
But another memory intrudes on the good ones. On our last day of bivouac, a week camping rough in the White Sands Missile Range where we learned to fire our M-14s, we ran a three-mile course. Rifles were held at port arms, half an X across your chest, four inches from your waist.
My job on the run was to keep our column tight. After seven weeks of physical training, I was fit. I sprinted up and down the column, trying to make sure each soldier kept a five-meter interval. At the end of the line was Gomez, a short, still paunchy Texan.
Even after weeks of PT he was out of shape. He lagged behind -- seven meters, 10 meters, 15. I kept my rifle diagonal and ran next to him, cussing like a drill sergeant.
Back in the barracks I'd helped him learn to tie his tie. I wrote a love letter for him in English. But on that freezing afternoon in the desert, all I thought about was the Army and the rest of the 275 men in the company.
As he gasped and sweated, I slowed and let him get ahead of me. Then with my sand-scarred right boot, I kicked him hard in the butt. "Move it!" I yelled. He stumbled in the dunes, cried out and then caught up.
As I ran up and down the column again, a spawl blew up inside me. I wondered what I had just lost.
And that's what I wonder about Iraq today.
What have we lost?
Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.