Mosul's Civilization and Its Discontents

An Army veteran looks at the fall of Mosul and recalls his own time there trying to civilize the land with guns and money.

06.14.14 9:45 AM ET

Mosul is in the news today.  

Not many people in the United States know where Mosul is.

I know it is in Iraq because I left the United States in ’07 when I was sent there to help stabilize Mosul.

Mosul is in the news because it fell to a jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Online there are pictures of Iraqi soldiers shedding their uniforms and abandoning their posts. You can also see pictures of massive highway traffic jams.

As more Iraqi cities fell yesterday, it looks like they might succeed at establishing its Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. This is terrible news for the people of Mosul and Iraq—hundreds of thousands have fled ISIS held cities already—unless, of course, you support the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria, then this is a day of rejoicing for you.

My unit tried to bring stability to Mosul. We were part of the surge that was finally going to win the war in Iraq. We’d kill terrorists and strengthen the Iraqi army and police so they could keep killing terrorists after we left.

As you can see, our efforts were not entirely successful.

I look at the pictures of the exploded vehicles, the people wandering disoriented through the streets, the shuttered shops and think: “Christ. Like old times.”

An inside joke. But Mosul goes back to even older times.

Ever heard of ancient Nineveh? The Assyrian city? It’s ancient, it gets name checked in the bible.

That’s Mosul. A city of ancient buildings with a world famous university. Mosul: the “Cradle of Civilization.” I know they taught me about the Tigris and the Euphrates in grade school, so I’m guessing they did the same for you.

“That’s the Tigris,” I said to my gunner as we drove along its banks, “the Cradle of Civilization.”

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“Well, that’s a lot of bull,” said my gunner.

We laughed. We’d come to civilize the cradle of civilization. To us, it looked like a backward dump.

Because, you see, the joke is, civilization had nothing to do with Mosul. Civilization was a strip mall in Wisconsin.  Mosul, logically, had no civilization, for if they knew how to act civilized, we wouldn’t have been there at all. Civilized cities don’t have wars in them. This assumption, by and large, was a fair one, justified by our particular experience. Civilized cities don’t need to be stabilized. They don’t need American soldiers training former prisoners how to fire rifles. They don’t need curfews. They don’t need a big rich country like ours to help them.

Civilized countries have their act together.

I doubted many things my superiors told me, but I believed this: someone had to get Mosul back on its feet, put it on the path to civilization.

So we set to work.

We busted into houses with shotguns, cleaned up decapitated bodies, harangued local authorities.

Sometimes we tried guns, and sometimes we tried money, but most of the time we tried money and then guns, or, depending on the week, guns and then money.

“Get your act together,” we said real manfully like, eye to eye, with a firm handshake.

We tried very hard to diagnose the malady. Why was Mosul so sick? What crime had it committed? Where had it gone wrong? Was the disease hereditary? Did it have any obvious enemies we could kill for them? Any obvious friends we could give money to?

We pressed here and watched it kick and then we pressed there and watched it flinch. We sat around all night in briefings discussing what each flinch and kick meant for its recovery and if we could save it in time.

I was in Mosul for a while. Over a year. Many interesting things happened during that year, very war-like things that Americans dream about when little boys and tell war stories about in movies: close-call shootouts, massive explosions, dead friends, exhausted survivors, etc.

But, in all this excitement, I found few clues as to the nature of the disease. Though I did stumble across some curiosities that I’m still trying to make sense of.

For example:

One day, as we ransacked a house where the owner, an old ugly lady, screamed gibberish at us the entire time, I found a post card that had a picture of a civilian jet plane. An American looking plane, like Airtan or Jetblue. I asked the interpreter what the scribbles said.

“It says, Welcome to Majestic Mosul,” he said.

And then he crumpled it up. He was from Kurdistan and did not like Mosul.

Another evening, the kind with all those beautiful stars war poets wax nostalgic about in memoirs, we dragged an older couple into their overgrown courtyard and demanded they tell us secrets about their neighborhood. To my surprise, they spoke English.

“We have no secrets,” they said, “we are doctors, not terrorists.”

“You are liars,” I said.

Doctors would not let the Cradle of Civilization come to this.

“Don’t you care for your people, your nation, and your history?” I thought.

But they asked me about America—for they had been there—and I relented. I told them about the White House and the Empire State Building. We laughed about getting lost in New York City and had chai.

Still, I did not like them. I’m a simple man. I do not like anyone not willing to fight for their country, not willing to put their life on the line to clean the place up.

One day, toward the end of our investigation, we shot a man by accident. I don’t know his name. I never asked. It was a warning shot. We didn’t want to hurt him but he got near us and we couldn’t risk him spreading his sickness to us. So my gunner tried to shoot near him to scare him but missed and hit him.

He crumpled up like the postcard.

“Sorry, we shot you,” I said.

I decided then and there that I would never understand Mosul. I gave up. I was ready to go home to civilization.

Leaving Mosul was relatively easy because the TV told us we were winning the war. The Sunni Awakening had been successful in the South we had been told, and it was now working here as well, so we should be proud.

And the casualties did go down. We felt a tentative sort of control. We could, for the most part, drive around where and when we felt like driving around. Maybe we just got better at violence. Maybe we just used to living in a world with violence.

When we lost another officer to an IED late in the deployment, we shrugged our shoulders. Everyone knew if you drove down that section of Route Tampa, the main highway that runs all the way from Baghdad through Mosul and into Syria, you were asking for trouble. Having grown up in DC, which had a certain part of the town you just didn’t go into, this made sense on a practical level. We simply learned how civilization actually works. How a workable civilization is less about perfection and more about strict zoning.

We left that part of Tampa alone and advised the next unit to leave it the local authorities.

“It would work itself out,” my superiors said.

So, for the most part, it seemed like we had won. There was a tentative sort of peace. Of course, what we participated it in was hardly a kind of war, more of a concerted police action against very well funded and motivated gangs. Yet, if the celebration was muted so was our disappointment, and this made the leaving easy enough. My soldiers held their heads up high and handed the city over to the next unit.

I know Mosul’s streets perhaps better than any city I have known and will ever know. I know which ones will get you shot at and which ones will get you blown up. I know the neighborhoods that reminded me of the most affluent in the US, houses with multiple courtyards, stocked liquor cabinets and well-tended gardens. I know the poorer neighborhoods where the people slept on the roofs and would look at us in awe when we asked for their help.

Today, watching Youtube, the cars jammed up on the highway, a burning truck on every street corner, families listlessly wandering, clutching suitcases, I see that these people, the ones in the lavish grand houses and the ones in the simple un-air conditioned ones, no longer have hospitals, churches or schools to clean up. They no longer have ancient ruins to protect or sanitation to maintain. They no longer have the invisible traditions, the subtle negotiations and intricate associations that truly define civilization, a definition we could not fathom as we handed out our guns and money.

In Mosul, it seems, the civilization we decided was lost years ago and set out to recover with much good will and little common sense, is finally being destroyed. And I wonder. I wonder that after considering them barbarians for so long, after a generation of shaking our heads with despair over what has happened to the Cradle of Civilization, if anyone will recognize what is being lost.