Afterwards: The War Ends in Iraq

10/22/2011 02:55 pm ET | Updated Dec 22, 2011

So how does it end? It ends when we are exhausted, when we're broke, when we tire of killing more Americans and more Iraqis, when we get thrown out, when we can't remember why we started it, when we try to think of what all of that gained us.

The war in Iraq will end soon for the 40,000 some soldiers still there, giving them a chance to be home maybe for Christmas, abandoning the computers and T-walls and DFACs to the Iraqi desert. One by one, or in bands, they'll board planes and fly home.

For me, somewhere in the fourteen hours between leaving Iraq and boarding a commercial flight in Kuwait and arriving in Washington, I passed through some sort of black hole, and became just another passenger. Into Kuwait via military air, I remained in the control of megacontractor and valet for the war KBR for hours, outprocessing, the movie I saw a year before run in reverse. While my film clattered through the projector, other films played out simultaneously -- the soldiers still stuck in Kuwait through their twenties with some paperwork problem, the last tranche of newbie contractors still arriving bug-eyed. But for me it was the last day of school and I was a senior.

The old feelings stuck, like the powdery sand that had worked its way into the seams of my clothing, and there was no sense of release even as I transferred to the civilian airport and switched from discourteous KBR employees to discourteous United employees. Neither knew nor cared of the importance of my time with them -- I was going home -- and even if I said something they'd still have looked at me as if I was a fifth grader claiming credit for the green border on the classroom bulletin board.

On the plane I recognized the tribes, the contractors, the temps, the journalists, the Embassy people, though the sorting us back into the world process began as some settled into Business and the rest packed into Coach. The oddities of ticket classes and frequent flyer miles started to civilianize us, putting a low-level KBR guy in Business because he ran up a bunch of miles last year while dumping an Embassy hot shot into Coach with her cheap unchangeable government fare. Our Iraq roles melted into our United Airline roles, as some started in on free booze while others began the Escher-like cycle of trying to get comfortable in seats too small for moon-shot chimps.

Either seating, the flight took fourteen hours, leaving Kuwait in the dark and arriving in Washington in the dark of the next day's morning. We were not who we were anymore; the flight had bathed us. I remembered that American feeling of being tempted to apologize for existing as I begged someone at U.S. Customs to just do their job task minimally enough so I could get away. After a year among soldiers, the sloth of American service remained the most obvious sign of being back. It was an odd kind of homecoming, at variance with the multiple streams of reality now petering out at the taxi rack. I didn't matter anymore, and it took a third world dispatcher at the American airport denying me a speedy ride home to push the new ink deep under my skin. It was Monday and my family was entrapped in school and work. Unlike the soldiers, who deployed and returned as a unit, with ceremonies, however contrived, at each end, most of us on the plane ended it alone. In my case, alone in a taxi driven by a nervous immigrant from Afghanistan. He played somewhat familiar music too loud, interrupted by a constant stream of cell phone calls that he responded to in a screaming language that was unfamiliar in all but tone.

Much is said about American Empire, and while we certainly gave it a good shot in the Cold War days, returning home from a failed battlefield of the 21st century edition offered few trumpets and less confidence. We had greatness thrust upon us and, when it felt scratchy and uncomfortable, couldn't make up our minds whether or not to shrug it off. Washington wasn't a city at war. Unlike Orwell's capital city, there were no posters or projection screens celebrating our victories. Fox made half-hearted attempts to keep the old game alive -- Muslims were still scary -- but it sounded now like Grandpa Simpson's stories rather than Bush's call to arms.

The taxi took me past government buildings in downtown D.C., where the most common sight was clumps of overweight Federal workers smoking out front. Except for signature buildings like the Capitol, most of the structures were WWII-era, and looked that old. A flaccid renovation project at the Voice of America building where we beat Communism with jazz music clogged the street. The project seemed more patching up crumbled concrete than erecting statues or installing reflective glass. The Empire needed Botox.

The bored commuters backed up at the CIA gate, or the pasty, hunched over people walking into Foggy Bottom, certainly didn't seem like the administrators of Empire. Instead, it all seemed just tired, a chore, a burden, another thing to have to do before the long commute. Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam, had tired us out. Dad had a great time when he was stationed in Korea, but that was the 1950s. My daughter's math teacher occasionally mentioned his tour in 'Nam, though Jesus, was it 40 years already? Desert Storm kicked ass on CNN, though even that was already almost two decades old. Wolf Blitzer, then in the field, now telepromptered away afternoons.

What was the war in Iraq worth? There never were any WMDs (remember that?), little oil flows even today, the country is far from a democracy and more just another autocratic Arab regime, newly established and already tottering. The news that the Iraq War would finally in some sense end was eclipsed by the bloody photos of a dead Gaddafi, soon displaced by grotesque cheering over another death in this sad part of the world. The World's Largest Embassy, America's palace in Baghdad, remains like a vestigial limb, an odd monument to eight years of hubris. Iraq will bumble forward, its problems unresolved by America -- Sunni-Shia rifts, Arab-Kurd disagreements, unresolved oil revenue sharing, and empowered Iran.

What is true is that now, after eight years, 4478 American lives, a lifetime of rhetoric, op-eds and editorials, America is now irrelevant in Iraq. The war fades now, even in my memory.