The final combat troops of the U.S. war in Iraq left that country Sunday morning, The New York Times reported, in a 110-vehicle convoy that rolled in darkness through the gated border with Kuwait.
The final moments of the war came with little fanfare, The Times reported. In contrast to the war-ending ceremonies held in recent days by Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the final act was simple and understated: trucks rolling at dawn across the border, without even time for formal goodbyes to the Iraqi allies the U.S. troops would leave behind.
For security reasons, the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents, interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone.
Many troops wondered how the Iraqis, whom they had worked closely with and trained over the past year, would react when they awoke on Sunday to find that the remaining American troops on the base had left without saying anything.
“The Iraqis are going to wake up in the morning and nobody will be there,” said a soldier who only identified himself as Specialist Joseph. He said he had immigrated to the United States from Iraq in 2009 and enlisted a year later, and refused to give his full name because he worried for his family’s safety.
Many Americans will remain, however. Security contractors abound in the country, despite unfinished efforts to clarify how they will operate under Iraqi law, as opposed to the aegis of an American war effort.
It fell to some of the departing troops to begin their accounting of the question that has dogged the Iraq war from its 2003 opening salvos: was it worth it?
Troops were "whooping, fist bumping and hugging each other" as they passed the Khobari Crossing into Kuwait, the Associated Press reported, an event that "marked the end of a bitterly divisive war that raged for nearly nine years and left Iraq shattered, with troubling questions lingering over whether the Arab nation will remain a steadfast U.S. ally."
The mission cost nearly 4,500 American and well more than 100,000 Iraqi lives and $800 billion from the U.S. Treasury. The question of whether it was worth it all is yet unanswered.
Capt. Mark Askew, a 28-year-old from Tampa, Florida who was among the last soldiers to leave, said the answer to that question will depend on what type of country and government Iraq ends up with years from now, whether they are democratic, respect human rights and are considered an American ally.
"It depends on what Iraq does after we leave," he said, speaking ahead of the exit. "I don't expect them to turn into South Korea or Japan overnight."
The Predator video feed does not show chaos at the border. There is no insurgent assault seeking to chase the U.S. military out. Nor is there a panicked helicopter flight from an embassy rooftop. Instead, as the final trucks calmly cross into Kuwait, the Predator watches border guards shut a gate, providing a sense of finality.
It may not be so final. The U.S. leaves behind a massive embassy in Iraq guarded by up to 5,500 armed security contractors. Little is known about that hired army — when, for instance, it can open fire on Iraqis to protect U.S. diplomats — but it amounts to a privatized residual U.S. force. And in addition to Iraq’s lingering political problems, the country is still a battleground for competing U.S. and Iranian interests. Still, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little tweeted on Sunday morning that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has “approved the order officially ending the Iraq war: EXORD 1003 Victor, Mod 9.”
So, did we win. The AP quoted President Barack Obama's response, from an interview earlier this week with Barbara Walters about the end of the war. It's a fittingly convoluted attempt to say the right thing about a mission of tragically little clarity and foresight. He doesn't use the word "victory."
"I would describe our troops as having succeeded in the mission of giving to the Iraqis their country in a way that gives them a chance for a successful future," Obama said.
Update: The Washington Post reports that the departure of the last troops provides the answer to a grim question.
The answer: Army Spec. David Emanuel Hickman.
The question: Who was the last of the U.S. troops sent to Iraq to die. Hickman, The Post writes, was number 4,474.