Mike Tharp: U.S. combat in Iraq ends in a spawl

09/06/2010 1:55 AM

09/07/2010 12:31 PM

The end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq was declared Tuesday by President Obama at Fort Bliss, Texas.

That's where I did Army basic training from Jan. 13 to March 8, 1969. Bliss, a misnomer for anybody who did sit-ups, push-ups and leg-lifts on its gravel parking lots when it still trained recruits and draftees, has become a crucial base for the war in Iraq.

Some 200,000 soldiers from there have deployed to Iraq the past seven years, according to The Associated Press. Fifty-one soldiers from Bliss died in Iraq, and thousands more wounded. Forty-one years ago, I left Fort Bliss sporting the black mosquito wings of a private on my sleeve and spent three months at Fort Meade, Md. Then I was shipped to Vietnam for 13 months.

Fort Bliss represents some sort of symbol for me. I did two six-week tours in Iraq for McClatchy Newspapers last year and the year before. And I entered the country, without benefit of visa, in February 1991 during the ground invasion of the Persian Gulf War.

So Bliss and Iraq ... Iraq and Bliss.

The symbol may be a spawl, a word I learned from an NCO in Baghdad last year. It refers to the metal that explodes in all directions inside a rig that's been hit by a shaped charge. At the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, Americans may have suffered a spawl.

We know that more than 4,400 American troops have died there, including seven from our county, and tens of thousands were wounded. Several hundred thousand Iraqis were killed, and 2 million left the country.

What are we left with?

And was it worth it?

The easy answer is: too soon to tell.

Some 50,000 U.S. troops are still there until next year, supposedly to train Iraq's military and police forces. Plus some special forces snake-eaters to hunt and kill insurgents.

But Iraq is a failing state. It's not yet Somalia, but five months after an "election," its people still don't have a legitimate government. Sectarian violence is way down from 2006-2007, when Iraqis staggered to the brink of civil war, gazed into the abyss and lurched back.

The heralded "surge" helped. But after two tours, and two embeds -- with the 10th Mountain Division in Kirkuk and with the 1st Infantry Division in Baghdad -- I believe domestic forces played the pivotal role in reducing violence.

Especially if you count as "domestic" the payoff of hundreds of millions of U.S. government (taxpayer) dollars to Sunni insurgents to "awaken" and stop most of their ethnic cleansing of Shiites, Kurds and Christians.

Though Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has dropped dramatically, killing continues -- 295 civilian deaths in August, according to Reuters, down from 396 in July. And the clan and tribal loyalties and rivalries, once brutally controlled by Saddam Hussein, have flared again.

If the definition of a government is a system that protects borders and provides an environment for its citizens to conduct the daily deals of living and working, Iraq is further from that now than before the 2003 invasion. Take just two staples: gasoline and electricity. Iraqis must queue for hours to fill their cars' tanks when petrol is available; and electricity works for only a few hours a day countrywide, even in 130-degree heat.

Cui bono? The Latin legal phrase means "who benefits?"

Seven years after the invasion, it's not the Iraqi people who have benefited. "I want them to leave but without lies," says Jinan, a former reporter in the McClatchy Baghdad Bureau. "Just face the reality that says Americans do not care about Iraq. They (U.S. troops) just want to run away and leave the ruins behind them."

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.

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