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World

15 Years Since The U.S. Invaded Iraq

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the fall of 2003, Andrew Exum was leading a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq. His team's mission was to find high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. He remembers approaching a house one night. Intel suggested a target lived there, but something felt off. And then, he realized they were at the wrong house.

ANDREW EXUM: I went into the house where the assault team was. And, of course, the door had been blown off the hinges. The furniture was being upturned, and you had this very frightened Iraqi woman.

KING: Exum pulled his team out, and they drove a block west to where they should've been. But by then, nobody was home.

EXUM: And I think about that night a lot because I think about that woman. And I'm sure the next morning, somebody dropped by a couple hundred bucks to pay her for her trouble. But in the next year, in 2004 and then in 2005, when we really started facing this persistent violent insurgency and Iraq descended into civil war, I wonder how much she really cared that more U.S. soldiers were dying in the streets.

KING: Exum wrote about this in a piece for The Atlantic. This week marks 15 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. And he says, for him, that night raid really encapsulates how chaotic the first year in Iraq was.

EXUM: We, the Americans, were there trying to do the right thing. But we really didn't know what we were doing, and we were causing a tremendous amount of suffering.

KING: You write in your piece - Iraqis simply didn't believe that we were so incompetent, we didn't know what we were doing. And you say they felt sure that we were abusing them on purpose. Fifteen years later, what do you think that means for how the U.S. is perceived in Iraq and in the region?

EXUM: You know, U.S. military officers talk about the man-on-the-moon problem, which is that other countries, they look at the United States. And they say, you know, you guys were the ones that put a man on the moon. And you're telling me that you don't know what you're doing on the ground here? You're telling me that this was an accident that you kicked down the door of my house? And I don't think that the Iraqis ever really accepted that no, we just really didn't know what we were doing. And we bumbled into the war. And we also stumbled into an insurgency that caused a lot of pain and suffering for not only the Iraqis but for the U.S. forces ourselves.

KING: How big a mistake was it for us to go to war in Iraq?

EXUM: We didn't really think through what the second- and third-order consequences of our actions, what those might be. We also quite frankly didn't think through our own limitations. And so I think that there was a national abdication of strategic responsibility. And I don't think we ever pause to think about, well, how much is this really going to cost. What if things go wrong? And how are we going to leave, precisely? And I think we've been wrestling with the strategic implications of the war in the 15 years since.

KING: When you look back and you think about the sacrifices that U.S. troops made, the sacrifices that Iraqis made, what do you think about?

EXUM: Well, it's possible on the one hand to look back on those sacrifices. And you can honor them, and you can appropriately laud them. And you can also say that the war itself, the one that we initiated in 2003, was at the very least pointless and was in all likelihood one of, if not the greatest, strategic mistakes that the United States has ever made.

KING: Andrew Exum led a platoon of Army Rangers in Iraq. He wrote about his experience in a recent piece in The Atlantic called, "One Morning In Baghdad." Andrew, thank you so much for coming in.

EXUM: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEWARE OF SAFETY'S "FIRST SLEEP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.