I was eating breakfast when I read that the Iraq war had formally ended. It was last Thursday, a day off between quarters, and I was over at Rocket Bakery because I can barely seem to sign a receipt of late, let alone write anything. My wife Liz thought it might be good for me to go get some “me time”; she said this and of course I readied snappy rejoinders about indecent exposure charges, but she quickly clarified, with a roll of the eyes, that what she meant was coffee and a bagel.
So I was sitting at Rocket when the news came in: they’d officially cased the guidon. Rolled up and put away the flag. Signified the end of America’s occupation of Iraq. Just like that, a whisper over wi-fi, and a conflict which had defined so much of my early adult life was over. Like that. Like a switch turned off, a feeling I know very well by now but which one never quite gets used to.
I’ll admit it: I felt like something of a cliche, receiving the news from the comfort of a favorite coffeeshop, where I sat with my long hair and my latte and my MacBook Pro. Then again, had perhaps my fortunes proceeded very differently, I might have instead been receiving the news from a television in a chow hall somewhere, perhaps in Afghanistan. The military is a vortex — it draws you in and holds you, for as long as it can persuade you to stay, until ten or twelve years in you look up and realize you’ve got no other education, no career prospects and no real choice but to wait until you’ve put in your twenty and can retire. The decision to leave the military by choice is a rare one; if you’re not a dirtbag or injured beyond use, your leaders and colleagues pour a great deal of effort into keeping you around. There’s no jobs out there, they say, or here’s a twenty-k signing bonus for six more years. So yeah — if it weren’t for my decision to ignore my leaders and exercise a little free will, I might be still rocking the high-and-tight instead of a ponytail; instead of a coffeehouse in the Northwest I might be hearing the news while sitting inside a trailer run by Green Beans, the US Forces equivalent to Starbucks.
Then again, were it not for those same leaders, I might not have survived my own fifteen-month deployment to Iraq. I might not be able to afford the luxury of being antiwar. I might not even have an education to pursue.
It’s still weird for me to consider that the war in Iraq is actually over — partly because, well, Mission Accomplished, and partly because that conflict shaped so much of my own experiences and perspective. At the same time, the war’s been over for me for a while — I frequently avoid the news now for the sake of my blood pressure, and aside from one or two trusted battle-buddies I hardly keep in touch with anyone from my old unit. It’s just strange to see it nailed down so officially. The war’s over, but what does that even mean? There are still other wars going on elsewhere — ground wars, drone wars, cyber wars. We still have a class war going on here at home, the “job-creators” versus the jobless, and then the more troubling truth beneath it all: that for many people the war in Iraq is still not over — will never be over. And what do we say to those people?
There is a blog I used to read while I was deployed: Baghdad Burning, it was called. It was written by a 24-year-old Iraqi woman, a computer programmer educated in the U.S. She wrote under the English-language alias Riverbend, and at the height of the war both my old blog and hers were compared as opposite (though sympathetic) ends of what was then a very topical conflict. Since then her blog has long fallen silent; in 2007 Riverbend fled with her family north into Syria, which of course now is embroiled in a bloody political crackdown. No one knows what’s happened to her. As for myself, I’ve returned home, grown my hair out, become antiwar and gotten published and gotten into grad school. Yesterday I learned that I’m to be paid for an essay I wrote about Iraq while still an undergrad, an essay which an editor over at Pearson described as “the most powerful student essay” he’d ever read. I want to take that statement as high praise, and yet as I scan Huffington Post or the Guardian, seeing articles about the end of operations in Iraq, it feels hollow somehow. One conflict, I think, many fates, many fortunes. And now it’s over. Or is it?
There is a lesson I learned on Election Night 2008, after we’d gotten Obama into the White House and my generation was sure, absolutely sure, that the worst was over. And the lesson is this: nothing is over. Nothing is ever over. It simply changes. And then, when enough time has passed so we can forget, it happens again.