Five years after the end of Bill Hyde's deployment in Iraq, the place still weighs on him. Nothing seems able to resolve his sense of disillusionment—not even his younger brother's best efforts to persuade him that the war wasn't all a huge mistake. "I think Patrick wants me to be able to walk away from it, to let go," says Bill, who's now a reservist working for his M.A. in East Asian studies at Stanford. "But I don't think there's anything that would give me a sense of closure—except maybe going back to Mosul one day and finding out what happened to some of those people I met."
Patrick Hyde is sorry to hear that. He says he understands, but there's hesitation in his voice. Ever since his own Iraq deployment began last fall, he's offered Bill a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls, trying to tell him about all the positive signs he's seen. But the reality is that the visit Bill describes is not even possible. The northern city of Mosul remains one of the deadliest places in the country. Bill probably couldn't get there even if he returned to active duty, now that U.S. forces have been pulled out of the urban centers. Still, Patrick holds out hope that his big brother might see how Iraq has changed.
The Hyde brothers' struggle to make sense of the war is also America's. There are those, on both sides, whose minds have been made up about Iraq for years. But today, a majority of Americans—58 percent according to a Gallup poll—are convinced the war was a mistake. The dominant emotions associated with it now are apathy and exhaustion. We are tired of the political combat; we are tired of reading about the bomb attacks; of debating exactly when the last troops will come home, or what will happen when we leave. At this point we are witnessing the beginning of a slow, unsatisfying end. And like Bill and Patrick, we are grasping for some sense of closure and asking the inevitable question: when we look back, was Iraq worth it?
At the start there were no such qualms for Bill. He was a born soldier—squared away, driven by a sense of duty. From childhood his ambition had been to follow his Vietnam-veteran father, Bill Sr., into the Army. In late 2003 the young man went to war as a second lieutenant with an unfaltering faith in America's mission, certain his sacrifices would make this country safer and bring freedom to the people of Iraq. But what he saw during his deployment drained him of his red-white-and-blue idealism. The euphoria of the successful invasion gave way to the bleak beginnings of the insurgency. Like thousands of American troops, Bill Hyde came to feel a sense of futility. In phone calls and e-mails home, he told of a deepening distrust of the Iraqis he encountered.
Patrick was different. He had a defiant streak, especially when it came to testing the strictures of military life. Back when their father was stationed at Fort Monroe in Virginia, all the local MPs quickly learned young Patrick's name. He dreamed of becoming a pro soccer player and seeing the world, not standing in formation and learning to shoot an M-16. "He was never the one to say, 'I'm going to join the Army,' " says Bill. But he did. Perhaps, his sense of duty kicked in, or maybe he just wanted to show that he could outdo his older brother. He arrived in October 2008, after the American surge, along with the Awakening movement and the drawdown of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, had largely pacified Iraq. It was then that he found himself in the position of reassuring his older brother that it hadn't all been a waste.
Growing up, the Hyde brothers and their two sisters spent much of their childhood on a succession of Army posts, hearing about Army life. Bill Sr. was a career military man, like his father before him. At Sunday brunch he would regale his family with tales of Vietnam, where his battalion commander had been none other than Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf. If there was one thing Bill Sr. tried to teach his sons, it was the importance of duty. It almost went without saying that Bill Jr. would include West Point in the schools he applied to after high school.
The acceptance letter sealed Bill's fate. But when he got there in July 1996 he discovered how relentless the pace was. Bill got four hours of sleep a night and by September was dozing off in class. Do that at West Point and you get sent to the back of the room, and you stand there until you learn to stay awake. Bill fell asleep standing. Still, he was determined to be an Army officer. He transferred to the University of San Francisco and joined ROTC. "I always wanted to be a soldier," he says. "Back then there was never anything that came along to change my mind." He graduated in May 2002, and after basic training, he began active duty at Fort Lewis in Washington.
When Baghdad's night sky exploded on March 21, 2003, Bill's mother, Marina Hyde, knew he would go. She was scared as only a mother can be, but she suffered that fear in silence. "[Bill Sr. and I] wouldn't tell him we were worried," she says. "We'd talk about it, but never to him. It was always, 'Oh, you'll be fine.' " As a Vietnam vet, Bill Sr. was careful not to discourage his son, but he worried "it was déjà vu." "In Vietnam we didn't have a strategy for winning the war [either]," he says. "Simply put, it was a question of, 'Was this war thought out?' "
Second Lt. Bill Hyde could only hope it was. He awaited his orders at Fort Lewis and did his best to get ready. As solemn and methodical as ever, he plowed through a stack of books on the history and culture of the Middle East. He went over everything his father had taught him about the lessons of Vietnam. He broke up with his girlfriend, telling himself there was no room for emotions where he was going. And as a devout Roman Catholic, he prayed that when the time came, he'd do the right thing by the people of Iraq.
His time came in November 2003. By then the war seemed all but over. Saddam Hussein's army had been disbanded, and the dictator was a hunted man. Bill and his platoon rolled into Iraq in a convoy of Strykers with the Third Brigade, Second Infantry Division, headed for the heart of the Sunni Triangle. Concrete billboards along the highway still displayed pre-war images of Saddam's face, now riddled with bullet holes. The brigade set up its headquarters, Forward Operating Base Pacesetter, at an abandoned Iraqi airbase a few miles outside the city of Samarra. The platoon slept in a big canvas tent, and generators provided the only electricity. There were no phones or e-mail, but the first couple of weeks were mostly quiet.
Then one night someone in the darkness started firing heavy weaponry into the camp. Bill and his men climbed into their Strykers and searched until morning for the source of the attack. Finally, on the way back to Pacesetter, they spotted about 100 rockets among a neighboring farmer's groves, their noses pointed toward Pacesetter. Bill and his men couldn't understand it. "We had nothing to do with anyone in the area, we weren't going into anyone's homes," he says.
Over the next few months, Bill's doubts about Iraq only deepened. After his unit transferred north to Mosul, they were ambushed or attacked on several occasions. And the day he and other soldiers visited an Iraqi-run clinic in a small town east of the city to check on delivery of some donated prenatal equipment, the meeting quickly turned ugly. The clinic's director served tea and thanked the Americans, saying it was all wonderful—the ultrasound machine, the incubators for babies, everything. The Americans asked how many women had been treated with the new machines, and the Iraqis answered vaguely that they didn't have exact figures. The Americans asked where the head of the neonatal unit was. Out sick, the director said. As they left, an old Iraqi man quietly pulled them aside. "The doctor isn't sick," he told them. "He went to Fallujah to help the insurgents." The Americans stormed back inside, demanding to see the equipment. The clinic chief led them to a storage room. Most of the machines had never been unpacked.
Back home, Patrick was only dimly aware of his brother's loss of faith. "He never really mentioned to me anything other than security problems," Patrick says. "Or how much he didn't like about the culture." Broadly speaking, Bill Sr. could see that the American strategy in Iraq would not work. "Kicking down doors and putting hoods on faces was going to alienate a lot of people," he says. "Arabs are proud folks." Yet the father had made his philosophy clear to both sons: You might not agree with the war. It may be a mistake, but your place is not to wonder. "You're a soldier, and you do what your country asks you to do." Both sons took that as simple fact. But no one was asking Bill to like what he saw.
That June, military police detained two Iraqi translators on base. Bill heard that an Iraqi training-bus schedule and a sketch map of the FOB had been found in their personal belongings. He had seen the two around the base—young guys who traded American movies with some of his soldiers and liked saying, "What's up, man?" or "How's it going?" They later confessed they were selling information. "We had a bus [full of Iraqi trainees], right around the time we got there, that was ambushed and all the guys on board were killed," he says. "I thought, if they're willing to sell out their own countrymen, then there are some real issues here."
Long before Bill rotated out, he had, like many Americans, practically given up on Iraq. "The best Arabic proverb I've heard, in terms of shedding light on their mentality, is "I against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin, my brother and I against the world," he wrote home in late July. "Sadly, I think the U.S. doesn't have anywhere near the political will necessary to change the culture into one where Western-style democracy and human rights are possible."
In October 2004, the month he left, a CIA report concluded that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S.-led invasion. Bill volunteered for another tour, still bound by his sense of duty, but the Army said it needed him in South Korea instead. When his hitch was over, he joined the Reserves and enrolled in grad school. But his brother saw how Iraq continued to eat at him even after he'd come home.
Patrick had never wanted to be a soldier, and yet, as he witnessed Bill's service, he began to change his mind. He liked the way his brother took charge and admired his sense of mission. He also knew that if he wanted to be an equal in the Hyde family, he'd have to serve his country, too. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, he joined the ROTC program, knowing that he would most likely be sent to Iraq as well. He wanted to go. In part because he wanted to see for himself what had changed Bill and maybe find a way to undo it.
Four years after the end of Bill's tour, Second Lt. Patrick Hyde arrived at Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, near Balad. After years of violence—the worst of the insurgency, the sectarian civil war, the surge—a relative calm had descended. In an e-mail Patrick described a sense of wonder: "6 years, 1 month and 26 days of training and preparation have finally been justified as I went on my first combat patrol in Iraq," he wrote home on Nov. 11, 2008. "The purpose of the patrol was not a raid or an ambush ... We simply were walking the streets of Balad interacting with the people and children ... This was truly remarkable and is something that I will never forget."
Near FOB Paliwoda stood an elementary school that had reopened after being closed for two years. The place still had no doors, and the walls were riddled with bullet holes because insurgents had once used it as a base. But now the classrooms were packed with kids. Patrick was particularly struck by how many of the students were girls. "It was amazing how far it was from the picture I had in my mind," he says. "I was like, 'Wow, I really need to make sure I tell Bill how much of a difference they'd made.' "
"That was a great e-mail." Bill wrote back. "Sounds like the Iraqis you're meeting are much better people than the ones I met ... Stay safe, and thanks so much for serving. Love you, bro. Billy"
That kind of response only spurred on Patrick's determination to share what he saw with Bill. "I think you most of all would be satisfied at the improvement," Patrick later wrote him. "All that you did back in [']03-[']04 is starting to pay off [in] dividends." He also made sure to tell Bill about the dinners of lamb and rice in the homes of tribal sheiks, boisterous men who loved all things American. And how at one sheik's house they even tuned into The Oprah Winfrey Show; Kenny Rogers was her guest. "I guess we are winning the war," Patrick wisecracked in his next e-mail.
All this was fresh and surprising to Patrick—but not to Bill. During his tour he too found hope in the kids who wanted a picture with an American soldier, and recalls accepting a plate of lamb and pita from an Iraqi housewife while on patrol, ignoring warnings not to eat food from Iraqis in case it was poisoned. For him, such gestures eventually got lost in the violence.
Bill's aware this point of view may sound pessimistic, but in reality he still cares. Now, what concerns him is how the eventual American pullout will change Iraq once again. "If we leave Iraq, and it's a stable democracy and it's working then that's great. Nobody wants to come home more than soldiers," he says. "But if we're leaving because of some political timetable and the Iranians move in, or Iraq falls into civil war, or Al Qaeda starts causing havoc again, then we've wasted six years, billions of dollars and thousands of people's lives for nothing."
Even Patrick's resolute optimism hasn't blinded him to the country's troubles. "I remember talking to one guy who watched his father and brother gunned down in their car because they were the wrong people in the wrong neighborhood," he recalls. "Almost everyone you meet here has a story of someone they loved or knew being killed."
But that is the narrative of combat—on the battlefield and at home. Nothing is ever the same again. "Of course war changes you," Bill Sr. says. "You just don't want it to happen to your sons." Except it has. Patrick and Bill Jr. now know that in war—whether it's worth it or not—there are some things you can't finish and some wounds that never completely heal.