Iraq and the City of Man


Humans have been storytellers since time immemorial. Stories are how we make sense of our world. We reduce complex events to digestible, quite often self-indulgent, narratives. I heard one of those the other week when, speaking at a public change of command, Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos said, “If I were to give us a letter grade for Afghanistan… I’d say we did pretty darn good.” He paused, considering his words, and continued, “Iraq is going to turn out how it is going to turn out, but we sanctified the ground there. We sanctified the ground in Afghanistan…”

Sanctify. To make holy. To purify. Sanctificaret per suum sanguinem. One might imagine that with our blood, we purified the ground. There were certainly enough cases in which the cause of death was exsanguination. Disembodiment — a euphemism for death in a blast so violent that it resulted in the proverbial pink mist — must have also had a role in sanctification then, too. We are moved deeply and forever changed by the many selfless sacrifices that occurred on these grounds. In the end, though, most of these sacrifices came down to random pieces of bad luck that were never seen coming and nothing could have been done to avoid. Under the sun, especially the brutal, incessant sun of Mesopotamia, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong … but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster.”

On the rare occasions when men chose the time of their dying, they chose it not to sanctify the ground, but for the sanctity and love of each other. Any sanctity to be found under the sun lies not in the grand abstractions that echo off of Roman revival marble ceilings. Politics, and their continuation by other means, have nothing to do with sanctity. Likewise, the “collapse” of the Iraqi army has little to do with battle, training, equipping, or really anything the United States could have done after dismantling Iraq in 2003.

What is happening today in Iraq has been years in the offing. The flashpoints and pitfalls were already apparent to many commentators when I began writing a book about Iraq’s challenges in 2005. Published in 2009 under the title Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy, the book remains sadly relevant. The transition has progressed little, if at all.

The story, vastly simplified, is that Iraq is a cobbled-together country, like Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Despite all the discussion of Iraq’s seams, it really is not all that unique. For a time, the pieces of the country were relatively cohesive and the various peoples coexisted and even prospered in the urban centers.

But bad governance turned to disastrous governance. Saddam Hussein and his henchmen played groups against each other, using patronage, tribalism and even a re-Islamization campaign to shore up support, while brutalizing the Kurds and Shia who could not be bought. This supercharged atmosphere of terror and mistrust ignited quickly in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Once-routine, even cordial sectarian intermixing quickly fell apart as the extreme violence of a minority forced segregation and xenophobia. From 2004 through 2008, Iraq descended into chaos, even as over 100,000 American and coalition troops fanned out into the cities to keep the peace and kill the killers. When a fragile calm began to return, some imagined that eventually things would turn out livable.

This is what we all hoped for. Closure. Validation. Peace. Sanctity. Humans reach for the City of God, but it is not to be had here on Earth. As Augustine wrote, “the earthly city is generally divided against itself by litigation, by wars, by battles, by the pursuit of victories that bring death with them or at best are doomed to death.” The city of man:

desires an earthly peace… and it is that peace which it longs to attain by making war. For if it wins the war and no one survives to resist, then there will be peace, which the warring sections did not enjoy when they contended in their unhappy poverty for the things which they both could not possess at the same time. This peace is the aim of wars, with all their hardships; it is this peace that glorious victory (so called) achieves.

When politics fails to produce agreement, men turn to violence to force a peace on their terms. More often, the war serves only to alter the factions’ cost calculations; and this often only temporarily. In the absence of a complete victory, the factions must once again resort to politics to find an agreement deeper than a ceasefire. Furthermore, in the case of an insurgency, insurrection, or civil war, the very viability of the state is at question. We most commonly turn to the German sociologist Max Weber to explain that an entity is “a ‘state’ if and insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order.”

None of these things happened in Iraq. The sacrament of national elections — which were crippled from the get-go for a host of reasons including being held under occupation and an effective Sunni boycott — failed to bring about the neo-conservative end of history. More fundamentally, elections do not a democracy make. After Saddam spent years eliminating Iraq’s potential leaders, Iraqis were left with a choice between a few, well-organized Shia parties based on the one hand, and a cacophonous mass of individual candidates on the other. It is no wonder that the conservative Shia oppositionists gained power and set about ensuring that they would never again lose it.

The minority Sunnis rejected these results and voted overwhelmingly against a new constitution that they saw stacked against them. In the intervening years, the Sunnis have seen nothing to indicate that a more inclusive Iraq was in the offing. The sides, instead, have grown steadily farther apart. The Kurds, meanwhile, tolerated the political process as long as it did not interfere with their autonomous and relatively well-functioning region.

The entrenched Shia leadership never made an effort to bring the Sunnis and the Kurds more fully into the political process. In contrast, they exacerbated tensions, going so far as to charge the Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashimi with murder the day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, then sentencing him to death in absentia. Even intra-Shi’i politics have been fraught, and fighting between Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish factions has been deadly on several occasions.

The overwhelming challenge is political, yet our limited introspection focuses single-mindedly on tactical-level military issues: counterinsurgency, security force assistance, and the Surge. If we examine the events of 2007-2011 through a political and grand strategic lens, we can see that the great “success” of the Surge actually portended today’s tragic failure.

Certainly, the surge of U.S. troops, their increasingly distributed deployment into troubled Iraqi cities, and their partnership with more capable Iraqi security forces and other local groups had an effect. A number of other factors contributed, but in the end, none of these factors pointed to an Iraqi government that was winning the loyalty of its people or to a growing monopoly on the legitimate use of force on the part of the state.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr brigades, that had been battling for control of portions of Baghdad and a number of southern cities, agreed to a truce in October 2007, recognizing that over three years of fighting, both between Shia factions and Shia-Sunni conflict, had been successful in Balkanizing Iraq’s relatively intermixed cities by sect and political affiliation.

Critically, the truce had nothing to do with Iraqi government control, influence, or legitimacy. In fact, the division of spoils went as far as to allocate control of whole ministries to one bloc or another. When Maliki did use his security forces to go after the Sadrist Mahdi army in the south, particularly in Basra, the move was seen more as a sign of Maliki’s creeping authoritarianism and attempts to marginalize his Shia opponents than a campaign aimed at restoring the Iraqi state’s control.

In the case of the Sunni Triangle, some argue that the Surge enabled the Sunni Awakening in which the tribes rose up against the jihadists, while others assert that the Sunni Awakening predated the Surge. The debate is strategically irrelevant because the one sure thing is that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi government were not only unable to exert a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence there, but the campaign was led by the U.S. and reliant on tribal militias allied with and paid by the occupying coalition to bring calm to the area. While there were some Iraqi army units that fought valiantly in the Sunni triangle — one of which was compellingly portrayed in Owen West’s book The Snake Eaters — calm was forced there by a combination of American stubbornness and the final exhaustion of the Iraqi tribes both with fighting the Americans and with the excesses of the jihadist extremists they eventually drove out.

Finally, the calm in the majority Kurdish areas of the north owed to the autonomous governmental organs, the loyal and capable Peshmerga force, and the cohesive political identity of the region.

While the likes of Elliott Abrams have the audacity to claim that the Middle East was largely at peace in 2009 and Obama was “the man who broke the Middle East,” the theme of the above narrative is that the peace was at best fragile, and more importantly, it had nothing to do with a growing coercive or popular legitimacy of the Iraqi state. There was, perhaps, a moment of opportunity to begin to build “an Iraq,” but not without addressing a host of issues that were very clearly laid out years ago. The Iraqi Parliament even formed a constitutional amendment committee to address a list of hot-button issues, including the de-Baathification edicts that so alienated the Sunnis, the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk, the allocation of oil revenues and other issues regarding the federal balance between the regions. In the end, there was little enthusiasm for compromise and the effort came to naught.

The Iraqi parliament’s inability to resolve these issues and Maliki’s resolute refusal to craft a more inclusive Iraqi politics heightened most Iraqis’ disillusionment with Baghdad to the breaking point. It is only in this context that the events of the last weeks and months can be fully understood. Reports of the Iraqi military being “routed” or “defeated” by ISIS give a wrong impression. This is not a military triumph of ISIS akin to the North Vietnamese Army’s roll south to Saigon in 1975. While the Iraqi army is not a world-class organization by any stretch of the imagination, the trail of discarded uniforms leading south away from Mosul tell the true story. There is no Iraq and therefore, boys from Basra and Sadr City are not about to die for people in Mosul who largely hate them anyway. No amount of training and equipping can fix that problem. Nor can drone strikes or carrier air. Nor did nearly a decade of sanctification by the blood of America’s youth.

The Islamic “State” in Iraq and al Sham can run off Iraqi army units and it can take border posts, banks, motor pools, and the like. It can give small minds endless fodder for finger pointing and recriminations. But, it almost certainly cannot create anything resembling a state in the lands it is currently pillaging. And until someone or some group — through some combination of charisma, a legitimating narrative, and credible force — creates anything resembling a state or several states in the lands we currently call Iraq and Syria (or Sham), we will continue to have a situation reminiscent of a time when raiders swept back and forth around the outposts of feudal fiefdoms.

I hope that you’ll recall my statement near the beginning of the piece: “Iraq is a cobbled-together country… like Germany, Italy, France, and Spain.” The situation in Iraq and Syria is nothing new under the sun. It took centuries and a great deal of bloody sanctification for boys from Dresden and Munich, from Verona and Naples, from Nantes and Nice, from Barcelona and Sevilla, to see themselves as part of one and the same entity, to keep their uniforms on, and to defend that entity, all of that entity, from some “other.” This is an internal, historical process. No matter how much we’d like to imagine we Americans can set history’s course in an instant, we cannot.

In 1964, presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson vowed, “We are not about to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.” But we couldn’t help ourselves. We were America. We were going to put men on the moon, to pay any price, to bear any burden. So, five years later, while Neil Armstrong was making one giant leap for mankind, American boys were sanctifying the ground in Vietnam. In the story “July ‘69,” Tim O’Brien’s 2LT David Todd lies bleeding and full of morphine styrettes amid the wreckage of his platoon, listening to the hallucinatory commentary of an Armed Forces Radio announcer in Da Nang.

Amazing, isn’t it? All that firepower, all that technology. They put those two peckerheads up there, let ’em jump around, but they can’t do shit for the lost souls down here on planet Earth. Pathetic, isn’t it?

Forty years later, Iraqis would make the same observations. “You put a man on the moon, but you can’t get the power on? You can’t stop the insurgents?” In their minds, only conspiracy could explain it. But there is no City of God to be had here on planet Earth. Only the city of man. “Here, we have no lasting city.” And the city of man is, by nature, divided against itself. We cannot undo this. Only the people of these cities of man can work out a way to co-exist. Though he was speaking of the Communist regimes of Cold War Europe, Czech novelist Milan Kundera provides a warning to all of us about the evil deeds that men do under the sun.

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: The criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army