Col. Darron Wright thought he knew who the bad guys were on his first deployment to Iraq. They were Sunni Muslim insurgents giving his soldiers hell in the communities around Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
During his last Iraq tour six years later with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade, Wright found himself sharing tea and meals with leaders of some of the same groups – men he blamed for those early fatal attacks on American soldiers and vicious assaults on Iraqi civilians.
“This dude had so much blood on his hands,” Wright, 44, remembered from a 2010 meeting with one sheik. “And here I am shaking his hand, breaking bread. That was awkward for me.”
That’s what success looked like at the close of a confusing war: Bringing former enemies to your side and moving on for the sake of a fresh start.
Wright, now a senior officer in Lewis-McChord’s 7th Infantry Division, chronicled the Army’s hard-earned lessons in a new memoir, “Iraq Full Circle” and in an interview with The News Tribune.
The DuPont father of three and 28-year-Army veteran aimed to present something different from all the many military memoirs from Iraq – a complete look at the war as seen through his three deployments between 2003 and 2010.
He jokingly says the title should be a play on the Clint Eastwood western “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
America’s experience in Iraq was more like “The Ugly, the Bad and the Good,” he says.
For the most part, Wright contends the Army adapted to a kind of war its civilian leaders did not expect when they launched the mission to topple Saddam’s government almost 10 year ago. He says he left Iraq with his head held high and hope for the country’s future.
“As a military, our job is done,” he said.
But his book is not a boosterish ode to military success. He faults senior civilian leaders for misrepresenting the dangers in Iraq and for disbanding an Iraqi army that the American taxpayer would have to pay to rebuild.
He’s critical of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who in 2004 insisted in the face of rising sectarian attacks that “any remaining violence is due to thugs, gangs and terrorists.”
“This statement was patently false,” Wright contends, arguing the defense secretary was “in denial” about the state of the war.
His book begins at a final training exercise just before the war that revealed how unprepared American troops were for a long-running insurgency. That drill took place against a fictional army called the Krasnovians that could “out-think and out-gun” any U.S. force.
They were a mechanized foe that would have been a good model for Iraq if Saddam had maintained a well-trained and equipped military.
Instead, the Iraqi forces of 2003 melted away. Insurgents and trained foreign fighters took up arms against U.S. troops and blended into the civilian population.
“We thought it was going to be like Desert Storm,” Wright said, referring to the 1991 Iraq invasion in which U.S. forces did not stick around long enough for an insurgency to develop.
His first Iraq tour was in 2003-04 with the 4th Infantry Division under the command of then Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno.
His unit, the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment, became one of the best known units of that period. Its commander, a rising star named Lt. Col. Nate Sassaman, lost his post when an Army inquiry revealed he told soldiers to withhold information in an investigation into the death of an Iraqi detainee. He’s sometimes held up in the press as an example of a commander alienating the Iraqi population by making short-sighted decisions and using too much force.
On one hand, Wright noted that force brought immediate results. On the other hand, a heavy footprint made enemies among Iraqi civilians. Wright contends that using force was all the Army knew how to do at that point of the war.
“Through no fault of our own, we were doing more to disrespect and alienate the population than we were to garner their support,” he writes. “Bottom line: We were figuring out this war on the fly.”
The picture is complicated by Sassaman’s embrace of civilian-centered programs later championed by Gen. David Petraeus, such as hosting local elections and doling out projects to improve the quality of life in friendly communities.
Those innovations, Wright suggests, show that soldiers on the ground were finding the right way out of Iraq years before Pentagon doctrine caught up with them.
Wright returned to Iraq in 2005-06 for a mission he remembers as exceedingly violent. American troops did not have enough resources to “clear, hold and build” in contested areas.
“What really wore you down was this was at the height of the sectarian violence. The Baghdad morgue, they couldn’t put any more bodies in there,” he said in an interview.
Wright’s last tour in Iraq took place with Lewis-McChord’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He found a changed Iraq in that 2009-10 Stryker deployment.
He said U.S. surge forces in 2007-08 tipped the scales to let Iraqi institutions develop. By then, Iraqi security forces were more capable.
He rolled out of Baghdad for a mission now known as the “last combat patrol” in August 2010 and lit up a cigar once he hit Kuwait.
“It was a proud day for me and all of us,” he wrote. “I was just glad it was over.”
Today, Wright has a role in the oversight and training of Lewis-McChord’s main combat units. The 7th Infantry Division has one Stryker brigade in Afghanistan now.
Wright says he’s nurturing enlisted soldiers and officers who can share combat lessons with younger troops who might not deploy for a war in the foreseeable future. He spent 17 years in the Army before his first combat deployment, and the military could be heading into a similar era.
The big lesson from Iraq, he said, is that senior officers must insist on planning for what happens after an invasion.
“You’ve got to think about the end game.”