December 23, 2011

In March 2003, with American troops bogged down on their way to Baghdad, then-Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus turned to a reporter and uttered the five most famous words of the Iraq war: “Tell me how this ends.”

Recently, only a few miles from the spot where Petraeus posed that question, I got a firsthand look at the U.S. military’s attempt to answer it.

We expect our wars to end in iconic moments. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865 revealed the exhaustion the country felt at the end of the United States’ bloodiest war. The 1945 Life magazine photo of a sailor planting a kiss on an unsuspecting woman in Times Square captured the joy at the end of World War II. Thirty years later, helicopters evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Saigon laid bare the tragedy and waste of the Vietnam War.

For most of the past two weeks, the U.S. military and the Obama administration seemed to be searching for a way to sum up a war that stretched nearly nine years, drained close to $1 trillion from the nation’s coffers and led to the deaths of nearly 4,500 U.S. service members. There were presidential speeches, a seemingly endless procession of military ceremonies and, of course, the final convoy out of Iraq by 500 American troops. Just days after the U.S. pullout, Baghdad has been consumed by political turmoil. Images of the withdrawal are being replaced by those of violence as at least 65 people were killed and nearly 200 injured in bombings in the Iraqi capital.

“Maybe we are not going to have this iconic moment to end the war?” said one U.S. official involved in Iraq policy. “It’s going to be a gradual fading away, a fuzzy ending to a fuzzy kind of war.”

We may not have one big moment, but several recent glimpses make up a collage of the war’s end. Here are my favorites: poignant, haphazard andabsurd snapshots of the United States’ quest for closure.

On Dec. 15, the American military’s top brass gathered at Baghdad International Airport to fold up the U.S. Forces-Iraq battle flag and spirit it home. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta offered up the usual praise for the troops. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top American commander in Iraq, pronounced the country a “relatively peaceful environment.” Most of the senior Iraqis invited to the ceremony did not show up.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in attendance and spoke of what “our sons and daughters — I mean, literally, our sons and daughters — have achieved.” He looked at his wife as he uttered those words. Two of the couple’s three children fought in Iraq. The general spent more time in the country than just about any American officer.

Dempsey’s remarks were a poignant reminder of what a powerful and isolating experience the war has been for a relatively small number of U.S. military families. Dempsey’s wife, Deanie, who was making her first trip to Iraq, was moved to tears.

Two days later, on Dec. 17, American and Iraqi officials gathered in the chapel at Contingency Operating Base Adder, the last American base in Iraq, for a signing ceremony to turn over the facility and its remaining property to the Iraqi Air Force. A six-man Iraq band, clad in dirty blue uniforms, played a ragged marching song on dented trumpets and trombones.

An Iraqi military officer cheered in Arabic, clapped and stomped his feet. Soon the mostly Iraqi crowd was chanting and cheering with him. An American military officer sat stiffly on the stage behind a sign marked “colenel.”

“This is the end of the American occupation,” the Iraqi speaker shouted. “May God have mercy on our martyrs.”

At its peak, the base housed more than 12,000 American troops and contractors. It boasted six bus routes, a movie theater and a food court with a Taco Bell, a KFC and a Pizza Hut. As the Americans readied their departure, more than 500 pickup trucks, buses and cars sat in the base motor pool with the keys on the dashboards. The Iraqis eyed the vehicles eagerly; in a matter of hours, they would be in the driver’s seats.

“This place is going to be like Black Friday at Wal-Mart when we leave,” joked an Iraqi American interpreter.

When the signing ceremony was finished, an Iraqi honor guard raised the nation’s flag. Contingency Operating Base Adder was now Imam Ali Air Base. Its only plane was a rusty, white passenger aircraft with no landing gear and a broken propeller.

The last 110 U.S. Army armored vehicles in Iraq began lining up near Contingency Operating Base Adder’s southern gate around 1 p.m. for a secret predawn convoy to Kuwait.

About 7 p.m., television reporters from the big American networks flew in for interviews that could not be aired until after the troops arrived in Kuwait. Soldiers posed for pictures with Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera. Some cooked frozen hamburgers and hot dogs on a makeshift grill. As the television networks’ floodlights illuminated the scene and barbecue smoke wafted past, the evening felt more like an outdoor carnival than a war.

The Americans rolled out of the base around 1 a.m. On Dec. 18., Sgt. 1st Class Rodolfo Ruiz’s armored vehicle led the second-to-last group of 25 trucks. As he passed each of the checkpoints on the way to Kuwait, he radioed his headquarters with a predetermined code word. Each was the name of a sports team: Cardinals, Scarlet Knights, Orangemen, Bulls, Ducks, Bearcats.

The troops in Ruiz’s vehicle talked about their Christmas plans, the movies they wanted to see, the sports cars they intended to buy with their deployment money. The sun was rising across the desert as the last American armored vehicle rolled into Kuwait. A four-star Army general closed the gate on the border, officially ending the war.

In Ruiz’s vehicle, a 27-year-old specialist swatted at a fly.

“It’s an Iraqi fly,” the soldier joked.

“Pretty soon it will start attacking the Kuwaiti flies and the American flies will have to defend them.”

jaffeg@washpost.com

Greg Jaffe is a military reporter for The Washington Post and the co-author of “The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army.”

Greg Jaffe covers the White House for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009.