The List

Iraq's War Stories

As the United States leaves Mesopotamia, these are the articles that defined the conflict.

From a concrete courtyard in Baghdad's international airport, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declared the official end of the U.S. war in Iraq today. And while the final troops won't be out of country until later this month, the occasion doesn't mean the end of war in Iraq: The struggle for control of the country will no doubt continue, largely beyond Washington's ability to control. But it does mark a milestone in the U.S. relationship with Iraq, where over one million Americans served, tens of thousands were injured, and 4,487 died.

Tracking the war has also occupied American journalism for the past nine years, at extraordinary cost -- both physical and financial. The war has claimed the lives of 145 journalists, including U.S. journalists such as The Atlantic's Michael Kelly, NBC News's David Bloom, and freelancer Steven Vincent. But it was also the sheer cost of protecting reporters and moving about the country that drove many media organizations out of the country: At the peak of the war, for example, the New York Times bureau in Baghdad cost an estimated $3 million a year to maintain and featured 45 armed guards, three armored cars, and a blast wall.

As the last U.S. soldiers depart, here are five articles that -- against all odds -- told the story of the Iraq war.

A Tale of Two Baghdads: One sunny day in June 2003, just two months after President George W. Bush had delivered what became known as his "Mission Accomplished" speech, The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid and Tom Ricks joined a U.S. patrol as it moved through a Baghdad neighborhood. Ricks marched with the soldiers, while Shadid followed behind -- talking to the Iraqis who the patrol had passed by. What emerged was one of the first inklings that the U.S. forces would not be greeted as the liberators they evidently perceived themselves to be.

""Everybody likes us," a U.S. soldier told Ricks, assessing that the neighborhood was 95 percent friendly.

"We're against the occupation, we refuse the occupation -- not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent," an Iraqi watching the patrol told Shadid. "They're walking over my heart. I feel like they're crushing my heart."

Mario Tama/Getty Images 

Hells Bells: The Nov. 2004 battle of Fallujah drove home the brutality of the Iraq war, and nobody told the story better than New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins. The book that emerged from his reporting, The Forever War, opens with an account of the beginning of the invasion -- a screeching cacophony where loudspeakers on Fallujah's mosques directed residents to come out and fight the Americans, and the Marines' attempted to drown out the sound by blasting the heavy metal band AC/DC.

"Four men stepped from the darkness," Filkins wrote at the height of the battle, describing a small group of U.S. solders. "They wore flight suits that shimmered in the night and tennis shoes and hoods that made them look like executioners. The four men wore goggles that shrouded their eyes and gave off lime-green penumbras that lightened their faces...I couldn't see their eyes through the green glowing but one of them was on the balls of his feet, bouncing, like a football player on the sidelines. Coach, he seemed to be saying, put me in the game."

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

Versailles on the Tigris: The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran described better than anyone else the self-contained bubble that was Baghdad's Green Zone in his Imperial Life in the Emerald City. In meticulous detail, he painted a portrait of a war effort guided by those who had previously enjoyed connections to GOP powerbrokers or the conservative Heritage Foundation -- but who lacked a rudimentary understanding of what was occurring outside of the blast walls.

"It was the ideal place for the Americans to pitch their tents," he wrote. "Saddam had surrounded the area with a tall brick wall. There were only three points of entry. All the military had to do was park tanks at the gates."

John Moore/Getty Images

Abu Ghraib: The torture scandal at the U.S.-run prison west of Baghdad was first revealed by 60 Minutes, but it was Seymour Hersh's May 2004 New Yorker article that exposed the true horror of Abu Ghraib. Hersh obtained a secret 53-page report written by U.S. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba that described the "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses" committed at the prison complex, and quoted from the document liberally -- in the process, shocking America's conscience.

Hersh would return to the story in 2007, when he described how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld punished Taguba for revealing the truth about Abu Ghraib - and suggested that the ultimate responsibility for the abuse laid higher than the handful of military police who were punished.

JIHAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images 

Iraq's worst picture: In 2005, photographer Chris Hondros was embedded with a U.S. military unit in the northern town of Tal Afar when American soldiers opened fire on a car carrying the family of 5-year-old Samar Hassan. Her mother and father were killed instantly. Hondros -- who was killed this year reporting from the front lines of the Libyan city of Misrata -- took this picture of Hassan, splattered with blood, shrouded in darkness, an American soldier looming out of focus in the background.

After Hondros's death, the New York Times found Hassan outside the city of Mosul and showed her the famous image for the first time. "He was taking pictures of me, I remember," she said. "Then he stopped, and they brought me a jacket and put me in the truck and treated the wound on my hand. And they gave me some toys."

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Foreign Policy on Iraq

The Man Who Would Be King: Ben Van Heuvelen charts Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's consolidation of power, and asks whether he can shake the old habits of secrecy and machination he learned during Saddam's era.

Think Again: Mercenaries: Though not exclusively focused on the use of private security firms in Iraq, Deborah Avent's article explained how everything you know about military contractors is wrong.

Left Behind In Iraq: Kirk Johnson described the horrible fate that may await the Iraqis who helped the U.S. military, and implored the White House to do more to ensure their safety.

Jet-Skiing in the Triangle of Death: After leaving her influential post as an advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno, Emma Sky returns to Iraq nine months later as a tourist.

Checkbook Diplomacy: Peter Van Buren, a State Department employee who led a Provincial Reconstruction Team, catalogued the ridiculous things that the United States wasted taxpayers' money on in Iraq.

The List

Newt Skywalker and the Moon Mirror

A guide to the Republican front-runner's far-out, futurist vision of warfare.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the surging candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has been simultaneously lauded for his devotion to technological innovation, and ridiculed for his warnings about futuristic weapons.

Gingrich, who has dabbled in science fiction and cited both futurist Alvin Toffler and the concept of "psychohistory" in Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels as intellectual inspirations, has long been dubbed "Newt Skywalker" thanks to his vision of future warfare that blends fact and fantasy. This streak of futurism is, by his own admission, rooted in a political and philosophical belief about technology and power. ''I would rather rely on engineers than diplomats for security,'' Gingrich told Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine in 1994, in reference to his support for missile defense.

Not all his futurism is a bad thing. Many of Gingrich's early ideas, such as encouraging the Pentagon to fund bureaucratically stripped-down "Skunk Works"–type innovation are laudable.

Sometimes his predictions have even panned out, sort of. Some 25 years ago, Gingrich promised that "tourism in space is coming." This week's announcement of the Burt Rutan and Paul Allen plan to build a massive commercial space plane is a reminder that such a future, while not yet here, is likely on the horizon. (though it appears that the "Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system" that Gingrich also predicted are not yet in those companies' business development plans).

When it comes to predicting the future of warfare, the devil is usually in the details. Gingrich in 1995 warned of a growing "Islamic totalitarian terrorism." But he was worried about Iran, not terrorists setting up camp in Afghanistan. He also, in that same speech, worried about another attack on the World Trade Center, but his focus wasn't box cutters and commercial aircraft, but a nuclear weapon.

When it comes to futuristic weapons, Gingrich's record is mixed. Here are a few of his more notable predictions:

Electromagnetic Pulse Weapons

Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) has long been Gingrich's pet boogeyman. In a recent debate, he described an "electromagnetic pulse attack which would literally destroy the country's capacity to function" as one of the three greatest threats to the United States -- along with cyberattacks and weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists. The idea is that a pulse generated by a nuclear explosion in the upper atmosphere could fry electronics over a wide swath of Earth. Not only would such a weapon theoretically take out the electricity grid, but it would also turn your computer, smartphone, and pretty much every other electronic device into a paperweight, taking the United States back to the preindustrial age.

A number of scientists have questioned whether an EMP bomb would have the massive effects claimed by Gingrich and others. More importantly, they point out that the threat of a nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is a greater likelihood and much easier given that an EMP attack would likely require a ballistic missile to detonate it at the proper height. For all the ridicule and contempt heaped on EMP bombs, however, an increasing number of scientists are now warning that solar storms could have effects similar to the dreaded magnetic pulse and that many of the same measures for staving off the effects of an EMP attack, such as hardening the electric grid, apply equally to solar storms. At least for Gingrich, the sun makes a less menacing enemy for public consumption than the superbomb.

Space Weapons

In an interview with the television program Frontline in 2002, Gingrich spoke about "directed energy weapons and laser pulsing systems" that would shoot beams of energy from space. The remark wasn't exactly a surprise: In the 1990s, he helped lead the charge to revive Ronald Reagan's vision of a missile shield to include space-based weaponry. But the space-based laser, one of the last elements of the old "Star Wars" vision, was formally canceled in 2002 amid concerns about the cost and complexity of operating a laser in orbit.

Gingrich's prediction that same year was that such weapons would be possible within the next 10 years. It's nearly 2012, and the great, space-based pulsing laser system is nowhere to be found.

Missile-Blasting Lasers

In 2009, Gingrich proposed blasting North Korea with a laser as a last-ditch way of dealing with its nuclear arsenal. "I think you could take it out with very, very minimal risk to anybody," he told Fox News. The idea sounded like science fiction, but it was in fact a notion that had been promulgated by the Pentagon establishment for years. Indeed, by 2009, the Defense Department had already spent billions of dollars building the Airborne Laser, a chemical laser equipped in the nose of a Boeing 747 that was designed to hit a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile in its boost phase. Although the concept of such a laser is not pure fantasy, actually operating one still is. But the prototype in tests has a mixed track record at best.

Not long after Gingrich's proposed North Korean laser strike, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates moved to cancel the Airborne Laser program. In explaining his decision to Congress, Gates said there was "nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept." Actually employing the laser would require a fleet of 10 to 20 Boeing 747s because the concept of operations would require having them fly constantly, ready at a moment's notice to intercept a missile attack. To make matters more complicated, a plane "would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase," Gates said.

 

Smartphones on the Battlefield

In 1995, Gingrich said in a speech at a defense industry conference that by 2010, soldiers on the battlefield would be equipped with telephones that would function as personal computers, "so during lulls they can arrange a date" or, presumably, order in airstrikes. In terms of the technology, Gingrich's prediction was not that far off given the growing prevalence of smartphones in military use (though his idea of parents watching battles live through their children's phones is somewhat disturbing). Writing in the New York Times of the Gingrich idea at the time, Nicholas Wade called it "absurd in its specifics."

 

The Crime-Fighting Lunar Mirror

Gingrich's love of space has long been known. He has mused about moon colonies and honeymooners enjoying the romantic benefits of zero gravity. He has advocated for the constitutional rights of space territories. And he has proposed, somewhat amusingly, for a lunar space mirror that would light up dark alleys to "reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness." "Well, O.K., but I'm still leaving the front porch light on at night," wrote Christopher Buckley in the New York Times in 1995.

The lunar space mirror is more a reflection of Gingrich's science-fiction writing bent than an actual proposed technology. But as physicist Robert L. Park, a well known skeptic of outlandish schemes once wrote: "The danger in writing science fiction is that, like masturbation, if you do too much of it you may begin to mistake it for the real thing."

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