Lieutenant Clay Hanna looks sick and white. Like his colleagues he does not seem to sleep. Hanna says he catches up by napping on a cot between operations in the command centre, amid the noise of radio. He is up at 6am and tries to go to sleep by 2am or 3am. But there are operations to go on, planning to be done and after-action reports that need to be written. And war interposes its own deadly agenda that requires his attention and wakes him up.
When he emerges from his naps there is something old and paper-thin about his skin, something sketchy about his movements as the days go by.
The Americans he commands, like the other men at Sullivan – a combat outpost in Zafraniya, south east Baghdad – hit their cots when they get in from operations. But even when they wake up there is something tired and groggy about them. They are on duty for five days at a time and off for two days. When they get back to the forward operating base, they do their laundry and sleep and count the days until they will get home. It is an exhaustion that accumulates over the patrols and the rotations, over the multiple deployments, until it all joins up, wiping out any memory of leave or time at home. Until life is nothing but Iraq.
Hanna and his men are not alone in being tired most of the time. A whole army is exhausted and worn out. You see the young soldiers washed up like driftwood at Baghdad’s international airport, waiting to go on leave or returning to their units, sleeping on their body armour on floors and in the dust.
Where once the war in Iraq was defined in conversations with these men by untenable ideas – bringing democracy or defeating al-Qaeda – these days the war in Iraq is defined by different ways of expressing the idea of being weary. It is a theme that is endlessly reiterated as you travel around Iraq. ‘The army is worn out. We are just keeping people in theatre who are exhausted,’ says a soldier working for the US army public affairs office who is supposed to be telling me how well things have been going since the ‘surge’ in Baghdad began.
They are not supposed to talk like this. We are driving and another of the public affairs team adds bitterly: ‘We should just be allowed to tell the media what is happening here. Let them know that people are worn out. So that their families know back home. But it’s like we’ve become no more than numbers now.’
The first soldier starts in again. ‘My husband was injured here. He hit an improvised explosive device. He already had a spinal injury. The blast shook out the plates. He’s home now and has serious issues adapting. But I’m not allowed to go back home to see him. If I wanted to see him I’d have to take leave time (two weeks). And the army counts it.’
A week later, in the northern city of Mosul, an officer talks privately. ‘We’re plodding through this,’ he says after another patrol and another ambush in the city centre. ‘I don’t know how much more plodding we’ve got left in us.’
When the soldiers talk like this there is resignation. There is a corrosive anger, too, that bubbles out, like the words pouring unbidden from a chaplain’s assistant who has come to bless a patrol. ‘Why don’t you tell the truth? Why don’t you journalists write that this army is exhausted?’
But the exhaustion of the US army emerges most powerfully in the details of these soldiers’ frayed and worn-out lives. Everywhere you go you hear the same complaints: soldiers talk about divorces, or problems with the girlfriends that they don’t see, or about the children who have been born and who are growing up largely without them.
‘I counted it the other day,’ says a major whose partner is also a soldier. ‘We have been married for five years. We added up the days. Because of Iraq and Afghanistan we have been together for just seven months. Seven months … We are in a bad place. I don’t know whether this marriage can survive it.’
The anecdotal evidence on the ground confirms what others – prominent among them General Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State – have been insisting for months now: that the US army is ‘about broken’. Only a third of the regular army’s brigades now qualify as combat-ready. Officers educated at the elite West Point academy are leaving at a rate not seen in 30 years, with the consequence that the US army has a shortfall of 3,000 commissioned officers – and the problem is expected to worsen.
And it is not only the soldiers that are worn out. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to the destruction, or wearing out, of 40 per cent of the US army’s equipment, totalling at a recent count $212bn (£105bn).
But it is in the soldiers themselves – and in the ordinary stories they tell – that the exhaustion of the US military is most obvious, coming amid warnings that soldiers serving multiple Iraq deployments, now amounting to several years, are 50 per cent more likely than those with one tour to suffer from acute combat stress.
I have said this is a different sort of war and was taking a much heavier toll on our troops than admitted by the powers that be. Fourth generation warfare demands re-thinking some of our priorities, especially by proponents of global conflict and defense who demand sacrifice. Especially before next April when desparation becomes the rule of the day.
Karl Rove gets to go home now to salvage his family from the long haul. And Mitt’s boys are hard at work in Iowa, keeping us safe from the Dems. My worry is for the citizens.