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Wasting the Golden Hour in America's Iraq Meltdown

Wasting the Golden Hour in America's Iraq Meltdown

Mini Teaser: A firsthand account of the U.S. failure to seize the initiative in the early days of the Iraq occupation.

by Author(s): James Clad

IN LATE April 2003, I rode in an open car down Baghdad’s wide-open airport highway. U.S. Army and Marine units had seized the city just two weeks before, at the end of a short invasion. I had come to Iraq for a few months, detailed to the White House from another agency, and I was heading that morning to Basra, the southern city occupied by the British Army.

At the airport, I climbed into a C-130, an old model of the transport workhorse with just a few tiny windows. We were heading for a first official visit to the British zone, traveling with the retired U.S. Army general Jay Garner, the three-star commanding the occupation authority called the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA). When taking the job, Garner expected that his ad hoc occupation entity, and its anodyne acronym, would disappear in three months or less, leaving the Iraqis to rule themselves.

It was not to be. As a dazzling dawn broke over Mesopotamia, Garner already had become the invasion’s first political casualty, the terms of his engagement rewritten back in Washington, changed from “rapid departure” to “indefinite stay.” From my marginal place, I saw Garner working hard at what needed doing, predicated on our need to get out of Iraq almost as quickly as we had arrived.

Settling into the airplane’s canvas seats, his staff fussed over briefing books. Our eyesight was dim as the outside glare yielded abruptly to the plane’s darkness. When our eyes adjusted, we saw boxes and equipment secured on the rollway between seats placed parallel to the fuselage. The old plane lifted into the sky; quite soon, tactics like tight takeoffs or the release of missile-distracting flares would become routine, as fears grew of ground-to-air attacks. For the moment, though, the country lay prone, unsure of our next moves, and we felt no fear of new attacks. The day before, I had walked around the old city, even meandering through the ancient book market.

Inside the plane, just in front of me, more shapes became discernible in the gloom. Astonished, I saw tiny lights blinking; they were from intravenous pumps and vital-sign monitors attached to heavily medicated soldiers strapped to stretchers. The war had ended two weeks earlier, yet here were new casualties. I looked around: C-130 noise levels famously doom all but short, shouted conversation. If you try to speak, you must also use pantomime; mouthing “WATER” also requires hand gestures mimicking the act of drinking. I remember thinking, “What word and gesture can alert others on the plane to these lives ebbing away unnoticed in front of us?” I locked eyes on a staffer sitting on the other side of the prone figures. He saw it too.

As the plane flew south, I realized that these sedated soldiers were badly wounded, their faces locked in unreachable repose. These first postinvasion casualties gave me an almost-visceral jolt, a mute warning of dangers to come and a sign of the risks and vulnerabilities that always surface when conquerors presume too much from victory. I had been a war correspondent in Asia and had also covered the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, but this was my first time in Iraq. I didn’t know much. But I knew these casualties were tied to a very short fuse in this country. Here we sat, victors in a sullen nation, only nominally in charge of a society debased by wars and sadism.

On that dawn flight to Basra, we might—had we been paying attention— have sensed the urgency of the brief moment in which we still held the initiative. Even then, in the first dawn of our uninvited tenure, the monitor lights had turned amber. Even in the first exuberance of conquest, that moment and many others should have given cause for pause.

Then we arrived in Basra, center of the British occupation zone. The visit’s agenda—lines of authority, intended occupation outcomes, the usual fuss and feathers—dominated staff meetings over the next two days. Not long afterward, street ambushes and IEDs would increase, as would the risk of simply walking the streets. All that lay a few weeks away, but some in ORHA and the U.S. military could see that we were already losing the “Golden Hour,” a term taken from trauma-response medicine but, in politics, connoting the brief slot of time in which the gods of favorable fortune may still be summoned. As James Stephenson chronicled, this term was widely used from the beginning of the occupation. I think we lost that moment only a few weeks after taking the country. Sands from the Golden Hourglass started emptying from the moment we arrived, even before our most egregious missteps (sweeping de-Baathification, abolishing the Iraqi Army, marginalizing the Sunnis—actions that the prevailing consensus today, a decade on, now sees as irreparable blunders). Back then, with an awful dictatorship eliminated and the air suffused with freedom, the occupier’s task seemed possible. Daunting, but possible. But what we did from the get-go made it otherwise.

RECENTLY PUBLISHED or broadcast ten-year remembrances of the 2003 Iraq invasion rarely touch on the victory itself, as if history has become indifferent to the short, swift defeat inflicted on Saddam’s regime. So much of the war’s messy aftermath lies in the same demoralization that enabled the quick victory, as much of Iraq’s military chose to stand aside from the path of our invasion, expecting not to be marginalized as the quid pro quo. Our initial appearance of invincibility couldn’t overawe them indefinitely.

But there’s another story: few if any preconditions for a successful occupation of any duration existed in Iraq. Those that did we eliminated in rapid order.

Specifically, we failed: to understand that large parts of the Iraqi armed forces did not feel beaten; to realize that we had days, not months, to establish a tough, firm authority—a shortcoming that went far beyond our tolerating the initially unrestrained, but highly publicized, looting; to keep the distraction of venal émigrés, carpetbaggers, contractors, NGOs and aid agencies to a minimum; to listen to ideas about occupation policy from our three major foreign allies, Australia, Britain and Japan; to give genuine plenipotentiary authority to the occupation chief, in order to reduce backbiting and disarray; to understand the basic precepts of Political Economy 101 (i.e., to “follow the money” and “co-opt the locals”); and to throw aside government oversight and auditing rules and maximize fast initial spending for immediate impact, leaving oversight and auditing until later. On this last point, small constraints had big impact; for example, life-insurance policies would only be honored if occupation staff traveled in convoys organized by security personnel, a good way to get killed. So people stayed inside the compound and didn’t get out.

In 1964, General Douglas MacArthur published his book, Reminiscences, describing his agenda for occupying Japan in 1945. He wrote that the country “had become the world’s great laboratory for an experiment in the liberation of a people from totalitarian military rule and for the liberalization of government from within.” He went on to say that his policies there were to

destroy the military power. Punish war criminals. Build the structure of representative government. Modernize the constitution. Hold free elections. Enfranchise the women. Release the political prisoners. Liberate the farmers. Establish a free labor movement. Encourage a free economy. Abolish police oppression. Develop a free and responsible press. Liberalize education. Decentralize the political power.

MacArthur never hesitated to tout his leadership skills, but his ambitious checklist had a chance of success only because Japan was so “completely destroyed by the war,” as the general put it. The utter destructiveness of the Allied victory over Germany also enabled an assertive and intrusive occupation there. In both countries, the incoming occupation structure demanded and won immediate authority.

The legacy of these successful occupations is a fixed mental template about occupation practice, which in 2003 exerted a strong grip on neoconservative and Wilsonian enthusiasts keen to transform Iraq. As with Nazis or Shinto militarists, Iraq’s Baathist structure and functionaries would be eliminated. Yet the postinvasion occupation found little in Iraq analogous to Germany’s or Japan’s absolute defeat. Iraq and Iraqis did not lie supine at the conqueror’s feet. The underappreciated psychological operations (PSYOPs) by the U.S. Central Command had sent a basic message to the Iraqis—“If you don’t fight us, we will look after you.” This reached Iraqi officers in many ways—via mobile phones, radio and even in air-dropped paper leaflets the size of dollar bills.

“All this,” as Republican Guard Corps commander Raad al-Hamdani told me, “was nothing less than a battlefield promise for us, a matter of honor.” This was the general who, during the invasion, launched the only serious Iraqi counterattack, on the night of April 2. I had cause to remember his words: in mid-May 2003, I walked among Iraqi officers milling near the ORHA palace and found them quite unable to believe we had decided to disband the preexisting military. Much criticism has been aimed at that decision, but the operative part for the Iraqis—their sense of a betrayal of a “battlefield promise”—holds true even today. Several years later, I saw how deeply felt that “betrayal” had become when working through back channels to peel disbanded officers away from Al Qaeda—a movement these same officers had ruthlessly suppressed in preinvasion Iraq.

The demeanor of our occupation also foreshortened the Golden Hour. The de-Baathification order in May 2003 led a long queue of MacArthur-like edicts. The British and other coalition countries had little input into these actions. An aide to the British counterpart of Jerry Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), describes as “a very close-run thing” a diversionary effort by the British to head off an edict legitimizing capital punishment. Others privatized state-owned businesses and liberalized commerce. Worthy? Maybe. Workable? No.

Washington’s lack of consensus about the war affected occupation conduct and assertiveness. Contemporary reportage and more recent retrospectives miss the impact of incessant second-guessing and snide back-channeling on occupation conduct. Well briefed by factional favorites in Washington, Iraqi politicians coming into ORHA already knew the weak points—that Garner would be replaced, that a decision to remain in Iraq indefinitely was in the cards.

In the first month, before the decision to stay on indefinitely became irrevocable, the closest allies in Iraq—Australia, Britain and Japan—failed to present the Bush administration with a set of common views. Senior representatives from these countries preferred a less ambitious, shorter occupation. Though President George W. Bush could be stubborn, he listened carefully to trusted allies. But each country chose a bilateral agenda instead, losing a chance to insist jointly on a shorter occupation. Early on, the British offered to send a large number of royal paratroopers to Baghdad; when I told this to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in June, he almost had a seizure. He suspected it was a case of military jealousy: “You mind your town; we’ll mind ours.” An American officer familiar with this never-publicized offer said Britain had acted because of Washington’s decision not to deploy the First Cavalry Division to Iraq. “The Brits recognized we didn’t have enough troops on the ground at the center of gravity of Iraq,” says Paul Hughes, then a colonel with ORHA. The British proposal would have put 1,300 or more vitally needed, street-smart soldiers into a Baghdad wracked by looting and lawlessness.

Remorseless media attention amplified policy tussles and telegraphed indecisiveness to the Iraqis. ORHA’s media-management section, to which I was briefly detailed, spent most of its time cultivating major American media despite urgent “messaging” needs for the Iraqi people. The State Department’s Margaret Tutwiler arrived to try to beat some sense into ORHA’s messaging. Her approach: the more outlets, the better. The British, by contrast, permitted only one newspaper—their newspaper. They closed down all AM-radio outlets except their own, even dynamiting at least ten AM-radio broadcast towers around Basra. A UK major tasked with controlling media explained: “One message. Our message.” When ORHA’s first road convoy left Kuwait for Baghdad, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s assistant gave those assembled the message that they would be out of Iraq in ninety days.

Well-known missteps occurring afterward simply deepened the hole into which we had dug ourselves after victory. The defeated Iraqis had sufficient eyesight to see—in favoritism shown to Ahmad Chalabi or in the returning émigrés demanding reinstatement of lands seized thirty years earlier—the skewed priorities of a stumbling occupation.

THAT’S THE macro picture. At the individual level some seized the initiative. Britain’s Simon Elvy, senior adviser at the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, and American Eugene Stakhiv (in the same role in Iraq’s irrigation-and-water ministry) showed authority and skill. Elvy told me he had felt uncomfortable with the rigid, top-down de-Baathification order, which targeted the top three “layers” and “levels” of Baathists.

At his ministry, Elvy assembled senior staff and simply asked for names on paper of all “the fearful people here.” He then ran the most frequently cited names past a group of people not mentioned at all in the first cut. In this way, Elvy smoked out the secret police who would otherwise have eluded the “levels and layers” law but couldn’t escape peer identification as being “fearful.” Elvy sacked them and the place resumed functioning.

Stakhiv used a similar approach within a much bigger structure, employing some personal flourishes. At his first meeting, he asked the Iraqi bureaucrats who was in charge. All the more prominent political figures had fled; most of those remaining had, necessarily, become Baathists during their engineering and hydrologist careers. Gene knew he needed their technical skills. They had begun a technical meeting when “one director-level guy put up his hand and said he wouldn’t obey my orders because Iraq ‘had become a democracy’ with Saddam’s departure.” There are many ways to show authority; Gene chose one to which the Iraqis could readily relate. He pulled a little Beretta revolver out of his holster and placed it on the table. “Any more democracy talk today?” he asked.

“This was no time for consensus building,” he later told me. “We all knew what the priorities were, and we all had to pitch in and get the job done—the beginning of the irrigation season was only a month away.”

Stakhiv was senior in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and managed to retain crucial technical staff, backing up this bravado by traveling unescorted with tribal sheikhs to the Shatt al-Arab, where policies going back to the British period (1918–1958) had drained the marshes, a policy imposed with rigor by Saddam after 1991 to deny Shia insurgents a sanctuary. Seeking waivers from de-Baathification strictures, Stakhiv bombarded the CPA with memos, one of which concluded with a plea to “not throw out the babies with the Baath-water.”

Others in ORHA also showed flair: Andrew Erdmann served as an adviser to the education ministry and drove over to a volatile University of Baghdad campus, where anxious students and professors needed a show of authority and purpose. Don Eberly, a political appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), became an adviser to the ministry of youth and sport, formerly run tightly by one of Saddam’s sons. Eberly organized a spread of soccer matches all around the city, defusing tensions and igniting optimism in the occupation.

Others showed refreshing indifference to bureaucratic rule books. The Office of Transition Initiatives, a part of USAID, sent tough and experienced contractors into “Saddam City” (now “Sadr City”), where they cleaned streets and collected rubbish in that vast slum. And Civil Affairs officers attached to battalion headquarters set up in each of Baghdad’s fifteen districts showed a similar initiative. I spent a day with one such command in mid-April: the lieutenant colonel in command showed amazing resourcefulness. Not least, Japan’s senior representative to ORHA, a rugby-playing diplomat named Katsuhiko Oku, ignored protocol and drove around Baghdad in a thin-skinned Toyota with his younger colleague Masamori Inoue, writing checks on the spot to repair electricity substations, shopping centers and water systems. In one aside, Jay Garner compared this can-do behavior to that of fiscally minded bureaucrats from Washington, already in Baghdad and already demanding full receipts for paltry sums needed in the immediate postinvasion situation. Each of these men exemplified the First Rule of Occupation Practice: show authority and leadership.

DESPITE EARLY televised “kinetics” showing Baghdad being slammed by precision munitions, Iraqi exhaustion resulted mostly from the impact of 1990s-era sanctions on civilian morale and health. Iraq’s hospitals, bridges, roads, railway improvements, and port and storage facilities had risen after the 1970s oil boom, but spending ended just as Saddam began the war against neighboring Iran in 1980, three times the size of Iraq in territory and population. The enormity of this war still escapes Americans.

Consider the gaping hole left by the up to 1.5 million Iraqis and Iranians killed during the 1980s. This Big Death of recent history punched a huge hole in the country’s demographics, one still felt today. In many ways, it is still that war, and not the one-sided American blitzkrieg in 2003, that hangs over today’s Iraq.

I thought about post–Civil War literary clichés in the United States about the town spinster or village widow following the loss of 5 percent of American males during that war. In April, when I visited a U.S.-educated Iraqi engineer at his home, I noticed middle-aged women hovering in the shadows at the rear of his house. They were a never-to-be-married sister and a dead brother’s widow. “Think about France in the 1920s, where the population pyramid’s male side was also savagely indented by the First World War,” he said. “That’s us, now.”

Later that month, in Kirkuk, I admired a quick completion of a receiving facility for refined products from Turkey. The Sunni Arab engineers were in no mood to be humored. “If you hadn’t bombed the bridge from the refinery to the storage tanks, we wouldn’t have to spend money to truck in Turkish kerosene and bribe the peshmerga [the Kurdish militia].” They were just getting warmed up. “You think we are like those effeminate sissies [the exact Arabic word was more direct] from the Gulf, who grow their fingernails long to show they don’t do manual work?” I caught the full blast now: “We are Iraqis! We know how to do things!”

Iraq’s infrastructure in that April had emerged relatively unscathed. The rapid U.S. advance explained this, in part, but it also happened by design. A British general in the joint U.S.-British command structure, Albert Whitley, “saved” the Iraqi railways by removing them from the target lists. When I saw Whitley at the newly reopened British embassy’s first reception in early May, he reluctantly acknowledged that he’d “played a role.” His staff went further, calling him, for real or in jest, a “self-confessed ‘train spotter.’” “What was I supposed to do?” he asked over a gin and tonic. “They were going to destroy the Iraqi railways.”

Reconstruction meant money. The occupation promised a better life, which meant repairs, new construction and a rapid resurgence of prosperity remembered from the 1970s. The many OMB and inspector-general reports since 2003 have focused on waste and mismanagement in U.S. contracting, but attention given to these factors misses a major occupation error—the failure to use Iraqi technical proficiency. We needed them, including their eyes and ears: local technicians would prevent sabotage. Iraqi contractors waited for a call that never came.

“Following the money” usually means intelligence agencies greasing the skids. Reporting from Afghanistan about cash subsidies in Kabul reveals a familiar story. But the smart money in Iraq cared little for suitcases full of cash. We needed to be conversant and friendly with Iraqi business families, a different matter from buying off a warlord here or a general there. It meant making journeys such as a trip I made to the lobby of London’s Dorchester Hotel, opposite Hyde Park, where I met the cunning, elderly nephew of a 1950s Iraqi finance minister. This man, who likes to be called Abu Mohamad, described how he and other traders kept Iraq’s currency stable until the invasion. Abu Mohamad and his peers are as essential to Iraq as were the Fugger family of Augsburg and other bankers to Renaissance princes.

IN FEBRUARY of the invasion year, I joined a newly formed Office of Global Communications at the White House, created after 9/11 to address the “Why Do They Hate Us?” question. I went to Qatar in the same month to work on the public-affairs side of U.S. Central Command preinvasion preparations.

When Baghdad fell, I went to Kuwait tasked with a vague brief to help “stand up” a new and independent Iraqi media. The White House detail lasted until early June, but I returned to Iraq in various guises in later months and years. The initial plan for a new Iraqi media involved closing regime outlets and channeling funds toward what one American adviser hoped would become the “Wall Street Journal of Iraq.” This paper, Al-Sabah, made its appearance before the risks of collaboration with the occupation had become too high.

What we needed then was a reliable daily broadsheet. We also needed at least a month’s suppression of publications or radio programming that were adding confusion and inciting opposition. We needed, here also, to show authority. Iraqis expected it. Bremer’s two-page May 7, 2003, presidential letter of appointment gave him full plenipotentiary powers, but that was not how the occupation behaved. A well-intentioned policy permitting an “anything goes” media in Baghdad created unrest and delegitimized the occupation. No number of newly arrived public-affairs reservists could fix that fundamental defect. We spent time each day in damage-control mode reacting to yesterday’s mischief.

One April evening, ORHA staffer Paul Hughes and I lay spread-eagled on the roof of the riverside palace, chosen as ORHA headquarters. We watched, in high vertical procession, flare after red flare hovering over a distant highway, signaling U.S. Army units moving around the city, different colors indicating the convoy’s composition.

We discussed how most officers of the Iraqi Army and Special Republican Guard were coming into the city in good order and awaiting further instructions. This is what Raad al-Hamdani had meant, though he had followed orders to defend the regime and hadn’t “stood aside.” While the U.S. Third Army destroyed his Medina Division, most other units had survived. Conscripts had disappeared after the war, but the officer corps remained intact.

“The intent of Raad’s comment is accurate,” Hughes said years later, after he had served on the Iraq Study Group, created in 2006 to reassess the war and make recommendations for changing U.S. policy toward Iraq. “The Iraqi military fully thought they would be part of the solution.”

Between the battlefield success of PSYOPs and the decision to cast aside the existing military lay a major disconnect. We had the skills, then, to weed out the psychopathic ideologues using informers and “smart” occupation practices—like those used by Simon Elvy. But American legalism and a false equivalency between Iraq and the experience of the defeated Axis powers nearly sixty years earlier gave us instead a one-size-fits-all decision.

A former under secretary of defense in the 1990s, Walter Slocombe, had taken the ORHA senior advisory position for the Iraqi defense ministry, but he was the very last “adviser” to arrive in Baghdad. When he did, one of his aides told me: “We are committing a colossal blunder. If we disperse the Iraqi officer corps, we will let loose literally thousands of men, all with weapons training and combat experience, men not beholden to us in any way.” Returning from his first visit to Iraq in June, Wolfowitz called me about this subject. I had raised the issue of the Iraqi Army’s disbandment when seeing him in the Pentagon just before he went to Baghdad. “It’s too late to change it now,” he reported on his return.

The recent ten-year retrospectives on the war have revisited familiar charge sheets: all casus belli fabricated; no WMD; no postinvasion plans worthy of the name; and giving carte blanche to lowlife looters to steal office furniture, national antiquities and girls on the street. And then the crowning ineptitude: disbanding the army and evicting all Baathists. Retrospectives see the war as a type of kinetic midwifery, a one-sided and spasmodic prelude to “what came next.” The “strategic error” cited by Brent Scowcroft, national-security adviser to the realist Bush, George H. W. Bush, haunts us still—namely, the invasion’s tilting of strategic advantage toward Iran, just as our abrupt unseating of the Taliban had done eighteen months earlier.

A long line of cautionary advice, from Xenophon or Machiavelli to many shelves of U.S. military after-action reports, shows the same conclusion: conquerors of restless lands have tightly rationed time limits within which they must show authority, replace or neutralize enemy elites, and tilt history in favorable ways. Then they must leave. On every marble lintel over all our armed-services academies, the following words should be chiseled: get the hell out of wherever you’ve landed, and get out fast.

America’s occupation experience mostly rests on short-duration expeditionary wars or punitive actions, each with a different tempo. In these ostensibly short-duration conflicts, the task differs from conquest. In these events, we make our point and get out. Today we fancy ourselves distant from the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century strutting of imperial powers, never hesitant to teach the natives a lesson or give them a whiff of grapeshot. Our own nineteenth-century expeditionary annals show many obscure forays in “lesson teaching,” in places such as the Barbary Coast, Sumatra and Samoa. But we also sent a light force (just seven thousand troops) to seize Mexico City in 1847 and occupy it just long enough to force a peace treaty on the Mexicans. In the Spanish-American War, we seized more land and embroiled ourselves in occupation and counterinsurgency. Occupation is much tougher than lesson teaching but, in both cases, the Golden Hour ticks away, a severely constrained window of time, a “moment” lasting an hour or a month, offering a brief chance to overwhelm, overawe and then call it quits on our terms.

Films and books about the American experience in Iraq usually portray a type of sullen death-dealing competence by lethal twenty-somethings. The films treat the place as mere backdrop, in much the same way the video gamers use “terrorist settings” as a stage to blow away opponents. Iraq as a place—actual, cultural, strategic—still eludes basic understanding. The sense of history even deserted the British in this last invasion, but in earlier times they had absorbed it in good measure. I remember American officials at a preinvasion meeting in Washington belittling the British role in Iraq after 1914 on the notion that they had “failed” because their tenure in Iraq lasted “only” forty years.

So why has the American public shown so little interest in the invasion’s aftermath? Perhaps it’s because the Iraqis haven’t been supine. They reluctantly welcomed our removal of a regime whose level of violence and torture still astounds; in buildings near ORHA’s old monarchical palace headquarters, our teams came across DVDs recording torture scenes for the amusement of Saddam’s sons. A mother and child being fed to lions. Rapes. Snuff films.

Thus, one might want to consider the good that we also did. I remember a naval reserve officer, Sandy Hodgkinson, who went out each morning in April 2003, looking for the mass graves filled with the former regime’s victims. She found them soon enough. Day after day, she traveled under minimal escort to wretched locations where local people, hushed and sad yet frantic with a strange type of traumatized hope, pointed out mounds where people had been killed and bulldozed into trenches. As ORHA’s weeks lengthened, more atrocity graves came to notice. Documented with initial forensic work, the graves revealed in abundance a justification for war that the WMD canard failed to provide.

Here’s the point: crudely put, these exhumations could have bestowed upon the invasion an exculpatory rationale, an ample charge sheet justifying (for certain audiences) the type of “humanitarian intervention” doctrines popular among hand-wringing think tanks during the Bill Clinton era. But after just a few days, mass graves ceased to be good copy. The advantage slipped from our grasp. Meanwhile, we were giving a cold shoulder to Al Jazeera, even though it had—then—a strong grip on opinion in what is known as the Arab street.

NEITHER RETROSPECTIVE nor early reportage comes close to an interesting complaint I heard from the ORHA military chaplain as staff on off-duty hours were watching escapist action films screened on the blank palace wall. “We are not a curious people,” said the chaplain. I’ve thought a bit about this in the intervening years. Whatever the arrogance of European imperialism, there were periods when that continent also took an interest in places that were being explored, mapped or invaded by Europeans.

Consider Alexander in Persia, Napoleon in Egypt or the British in Asia. In just a three-year occupation of Java in the early nineteenth century, the governor wrote a two-volume encyclopedia about the place. What set these conquests apart from other depredations, aside from blood and the overwhelming of subject territories? I think the answer is “curiosity.”

Back in World War I, the British Indian Army took four years to get from Basra to Baghdad. Mishandling the aftermath led to a revolt in 1920–1922. But an abiding reality of that experience, apparent in the writings of T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell and others influencing British policy, was an insatiable curiosity about the place. Earlier European archaeological discoveries, in Nineveh and Ur before the First World War, had become common knowledge. Even if we call this “Orientalism” and steeply discount it for abundant European condescension, the British in Mesopotamia, like the French in Egypt a century before, at least realized they had shot their way into a very deep place. The British knew Iraq held claim to the world’s earliest literature, the earliest crop-rotation schemes and organized city-states. After a week’s diet of Hollywood sitcom films and other escapist fare, the chaplain sought to locate BBC or National Geographic documentary films about Arabia and about Iraq’s history and archaeology.

But the chaplain, to put it gently, was out of sync with staff preferences. In the same week, Garner commented about ORHA staff spending time “sending e-mails to each other, instead of getting out and learning something about the place we’ve just taken over.”

So, there it is. By sharply imposing our authority, by delimiting our time on the ground and by working Iraqi opportunism to our advantage, we had a chance to make a go of it. The ten-year retrospectives appearing in March would have had much sport with whatever problems our invasion had spawned, with all the usual shortcomings and omissions that always open up between the perfect and the passable. But there would not have been the sense of a monumental blunder hanging over subsequent years.

In Iraq, the Golden Hour dissipated very quickly: Garner heard the figurative clock ticking loudly during his brief tenure, but others, more naive, assumed we had both the will and capability to apply a transformational agenda at our leisure. Besides, couldn’t the Iraqis see that we meant well?

In the end, we had far less time than we thought—though, like every story about nightmare guests, that didn’t prevent us from staying on and on, each new month seeing the enmity against us deepen and our own missteps multiply. Xenophon, Herodotus, Thucydides and others devoted a lot of time to thinking about blunders big and small that, once committed, could not be undone. Shakespeare and Machiavelli also pondered what we might call, taking liberties, “occupation best practices.” And passages in the classical Indian work Arthashastra, often compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince, describe how every misstep costs a conqueror time. In politics, as in sailing across the Chesapeake Bay, course correction requires ever more strenuous efforts to regain the true course.

Like the big clock ticking in High Noon, time’s rapid passage hung over the brief ORHA experience. Garner’s instincts for a quick departure collided with bigger ideas about an Islamic Reformation. As the Russians say, there’s nothing as dangerous as a Big Idea. The notion that we can impose democracy by bayonet is one of these, a very persistent weed in our garden. With the neocons and humanitarians, it became last decade’s prime example of that mischief for which, several centuries ago, the French coined the perfect phrase: “Treachery of the intellectuals.”

Now the bombardiers are at it again, finding new reasons to rain death on recalcitrant regimes—meaning, of course, other human beings—and expend the lives of youth from our deindustrialized valleys and rust-belt states. One lesson looms large: the harder a place, the shorter the Golden Hour. No supine or subject people squirmed under our boot in Iraq. None do in Afghanistan. Acting as if we were overlords, we quickly showed our ignorance of Iraqi history and culture. Our invasion excised a tyranny of quite unbelievable sadism, replacing it with mere incompetence and a vacuum of authority that neither we nor the Iraqis could fill. Nor have they done so in the ten years since we shot our way into town.

Each time we blunder into an intractable situation in which those responsible opt to dig yet deeper—for reasons of personal prestige or “national honor,” pouring yet more good money after bad—we opt for another settled truth. Well, we sure won’t be doing that again, will we? And yet we probably will. America and its closer allies—the Australians, British and now, perhaps again, the Canadians—are expeditionary countries. In the 1991 Gulf War, we nailed down our prestige and power for a decade, demonstrating competence and, when we ceased destroying the Iraqi Army, a type of wisdom in the form of statecraft and restraint. Yet we have no shortage of zealots for intervention in Washington, despite the Iraqi invasion’s mixed outcome. There’s always a good reason, as seen by one lobby or another, to send our armed services out for another expeditionary adventure. Today, Senator John McCain and many others seem tireless in their advocacy of using force abroad.

I remember Iraqis complaining about American naïveté. “Weyn Abu Naji?”they asked. Literally, this phrase meant, “Where is Naji’s father?” but in practice, it meant, “Where are the British?” Then they would always say how “clever” Abu Naji was. The implication was clear: by comparison, the Americans were clueless. There was ample evidence of “cluelessness” on everyone’s part that April, but I do remember episodes of U.S. occupation practice in which we seemed to come off second best.

Permanent conquest carries its own bloody rule book, but we have mostly—not always—shied away from absolute dispossession, though as noted the lands acquired in the Mexican and Philippine wars do show a certain side of us. Singapore’s longtime prime minister Lee Kuan Yew once remarked that the “world of states shares many characteristics of the world of beasts.” Even so, let’s be careful about the places we shoot our way into and the ways we do it. I have never managed to get out of my mind the memory of those prone bodies, wounded soldiers in unreachable repose strapped down in a C-130 cargo plane ten years ago. Like the proverbial coal-mine canaries, their injuries seemed to signal that the Golden Hour was ending. If only we had known.

James C. Clad was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security affairs from 2007 to 2009. He now advises the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia.

Image: Pullquote: Gene pulled a little Beretta revolver out of his holster and placed it on the table. "Any more democracy talk today?" he asked.Essay Types: Essay