How the Iraq War Helped Spread Soldiers for Hire Around the World

What I am describing is one small portion of a system of warfare. In confronting the world made by the Iraq War, the story of Maund and his lover isn’t an isolated morality play, but exists at the intersection of individual evil and something far more complex, related to geopolitical realities, new technologies, political calculations, entrenched bureaucracies and cultural shifts in relation to war-making. The ways we chose to make war over the past decades shifted how violence is done around the world, and the story of Maund is simply one of the more outrageous examples of an individual taking advantage of the structures our wars put in place.

That’s why the “lessons” of the Iraq War, even when they’ve been assimilated into public consciousness, don’t always have much of a cash out in terms of policy. In Iraq we “learned” the limits of the use of military power. In practice, we understaffed the State Department while developing the most sophisticated military targeting operation the world has ever seen. We “learned” the dangers of an overextended military, voting in an isolationist president who promised to sweet-talk adversaries like Russia and North Korea rather than treat them as axis-of-evil-style adversaries. In practice, we put a persistent special operations presence in nearly every European country on Russia’s borders to “deter or respond to aggression,” as General Raymond Thomas later testified to Congress.

Americans “learned” to be wary of overseas entanglements and with Donald Trump voted in a president who would buck Republican orthodoxy by promising an end to our “ridiculous & costly Endless Wars,” a pledge with such bipartisan popularity Joe Biden would later adopt a version of it. But that, too, hasn’t really happened. Our military presence in Syria started in 2014, without explicit authorization from Congress. Obama promised there would be “no boots on the ground.” But in 2018 we had 2,500 troops in Syria, and an unknown number of contractors. Trump ordered a withdrawal, but eventually agreed to keep around 200 troops to “protect the oil,” a number that was well exceeded (by the middle of 2020 there were a reported 500 U.S. troops). “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” the former ambassador to Syria, Jim Jeffery, later admitted. “What Syria withdrawal?” Jeffery asked Defense One in 2020. “There was never a Syria withdrawal.”

What’s notable here is that some of these outcomes are easy to feel happy about, while others pose obvious dangers, but all are happening outside the realm of democracy politics which are supposed to determine the state’s employment of lethal force. I’m glad we prepared countries bordering Russia for possible aggression and developed relationships with local military units — every town Ukrainian forces were able to prevent going under Russian control is a civilian population that wasn’t subject to murder, torture, forced deportations and rape, and the U.S. role in helping equip those forces and providing them with actionable intelligence is honorable and good. Likewise, I’ve visited refugee camps in Northern Iraq and spoken with Syrian Kurds who feel betrayed by Trump’s decision to withdraw our forces from their region, and I have no illusions about the importance for tens of thousands of other Kurds in the regions of Syria by the continuing U.S. presence there. “They’re ‘protecting the oil,’” I heard a Kurd say, wryly, back in 2019. “I don’t care what they’re supposed to be protecting, as long as they stay there.” It’s a perspective I appreciate.

And yet. And yet. What are the long-term implications of America privatizing and professionalizing war? These days, America does not wage war, institutions within the American government wage war, along with external institutions propped up and financed by America.

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