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"Own It"

One lesson regarding classic nation-state invasions. If successful, be prepared to own it. In the old days, when invading was more of a thing, owning it was the whole point. Territorial acquisition was all the craze.

Wait a minute.

Allow me a reboot.

One lesson regarding present-day nation-state invasions. If you are unclear about the ownership part, sort it out before you pull the trigger, otherwise you will own it. U.S. leadership provided us with an impressive list of reasons to invade Iraq in 2003 but territorial acquisition was conspicuously absent from their blueprints.

(Okay, defining Iraq as a nation-state is problematic. Let it go. Not the point.)

Let’s recall some popular Iraq invasion motives touted then: the presence of WMD; oil; bad guy leader; death squads; oil; liberating a subdued population; oil; building democracy; and oil. Pick two. Point is, the reasoning for our invasion and the following occupation changed as time passed. Remember, there were known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns…

Holy moly. Hard to remember why we were there.

But there we were. One of my known knowns was when the civilian piece of the equation arrived in April/May 2003, we were not at the owning it phase. We talked a big game, but WMD soon faded away, or better splained, went undiscovered. Don’t own, pivot. Nation building became a thing. We could now establish a cornerstone for democracy in the Middle East and change the world.


But to do that, we had to start owning it.

This Iraqi family was outside a health clinic in Al Qaim, a small town on the northern Iraqi border with Syria. We arrived in Al Qaim after a mostly sketchy four-hour, two-Suburban trek through the Syrian desert originating from a U.S. Marine base in Al-Rutbah, which was a very sketchy camp site. We were all about sketchiness during those early invasion days.

I apologize for the photo quality. It’s messy because it was shot through a murky driver’s seat window using an even dirtier Suburban side door mirror as the focal point. I was slumped down trying to be invisible, which I propose is less sketchy. More like sneaky.

Excuse the sneakiness. These were early invasion times and pointing a camera at someone was more dangerous than pointing a hand weapon. Plus, I hate health clinics. Not in my gene pool. I stayed in the vehicle.

As I posted earlier in “The All Star Five,” I was the food dude. The health dude, another sketchy hombre on our assessment team, went inside the clinic. Brave fellow. I remained safely within the vehicle claiming someone had to stay behind. You know, asset protection.

In Al Qaim, on this day early on the invasion/occupation timeline, we were assessing, not delivering and certainly not owning. I suggest that is apparent in the photo.

Grant you, there are few joyous photos snapped outside an Iraqi clinic. People go there because they must. I saw these two exit the clinic and struggle towards our vehicle. The day was miserably hot. April is hot in Iraq. Every month is hot in Iraq. As they approached the vehicle, I felt there was a photo there, but had no way to take it. Until I saw them in the grimy side mirror.

The despair I see in this women’s face is more apparent to me now. Though I tried to capture an emotion on that day, I did not see, nor understand, the deeper relevance of her anguish and the immensity of the problems we, the invaders, were facing. Silly me. Although we were looking, we were not seeing the burgeoning crisis underway.

This day in Al Qaim was not a good day for me. Afterall, it was my first invasion. I don’t recall our clinic assessment that day, but if it came close to miserable, it was spot on. But it was early. We can fix miserable. Can’t we?

Fast forward to August, 2003.

According to George Packer in his book, “The Assassin’s Gate,” it was in August 2003 when the chief executive of the American authority in Iraq visited a maternity hospital in Diwaniya, a major city in southern Iraq. He declared then that, “All of Iraq’s two-hundred and forty hospitals are now operating…” and, “Ninety percent of health clinics…are now working.” He also promised a three thousand percent increase in health spending this year and an increase in hundreds of tons of drugs to soon be delivered.

Then he went upstairs to inspect the maternity ward. As reported by Packer, the visit ended abruptly with the administrator declaring, “I don’t like seeing this at all.”

Smack! A truth kick to the face.

Visit was an epic bust. Not really all his fault. Faulty planning, misleading and insufficient information, truth-hiding “yes” people. Plenty of blame to go around.

The story of the Iraq invasion is told exhaustively. I’ve read many of the post-Iraq accounts, including Packer’s, and most reveal the tragedy and failure of what happened during the first year of occupation. My point is not to pile on, just to suggest one contributing factor and the chief executive’s visit in Diwaniya was a perfect exposé.

Dishonesty. Nobody was owning it.

Face the problem. Solve it. Don’t dodge and weave with people’s lives. As modern-day invaders, we owed health care provision to the vanquished. In my opinion, we failed… er...miserably. And lying about it was one reason why.

Iraq is still there. I worked on Iraq issues through the mid-2000s and traveled there until I didn’t. I returned in 2021 to help the recovery effort from ISIS-inflicted violence. At some point, we disowned the if you invade it, you own it dilemma and just decided to help them own it. Despite it all, I remain very proud of my colleague’s efforts to help, yet it still fries my ass knowing those in power then did not own up to the truth.  

Sorry for being preachy, but own up people. Stop lying. It matters.

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