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 in his latest post, “How Not to Reconstruct Iraq, Afghanistan -- or America,” 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.