BAGHDAD — This is the way a war ends — not with a bang but a chai tea latte.
At Victory Base Camp in Baghdad, soldiers from the last American combat brigade in Iraq are packing up their coffee grinders, their pirated DVDs and their tangled memories for the long journey home.
They line up outside the Green Bean coffee shop ("Honor First, Coffee Second") in 90 degree evening heat for the smoothies and lattes that have replaced the packets of instant coffee dissolved in purified water that were popular in the early days of the war back in 2003.
Most of them haven’t fired a shot in combat during their entire deployment over the past year. Most, but not all, are happy about that.
Over the past seven years, the military invaded a country, denied there was an insurgency, fought an insurgency and largely subdued it, but some of these latest soldiers to serve here have never made it off the base.
The U.S. has closed down more than 400 bases, shipped out tons of equipment for the more urgent fight in Afghanistan and sent home almost 120,000 soldiers in the last two years. The last combat troops of this war — a Washington state-based Stryker brigade — will be home by next week.
Some of those troops have seen the very worst of this war at the forefront of the surge — their buddies numbered among the more than 4,400 soldiers killed in this war.
But the end of the combat mission here — Aug. 31, the last date in President Barack Obama's withdrawal plan for combat troops to be out of the country, will be merely symbolic.
“It’s not going to be a big shock on the first of September,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, deputy commanding general of U.S. forces here. He describes the Iraq they’re leaving as a "relatively stable security environment." For the U.S., if not for Iraqis, that appears to be a relief.
Outside Victory Base, beyond the concrete walls, guard towers and notices warning visitors that deadly force is authorized, the city lurches along.
Iraqi armored vehicles, rather than American MRAPs, careen through the streets with sirens blazing and guns drawn. Baghdad, now carved up with concrete wall blast barriers that were to come down but for the most part never did, is in almost constant gridlock.
For those lucky enough to have air-conditioned cars, the traffic jams are almost preferable to being at home, where electricity comes on for an hour and disappears for another four or five. Government clinics and offices with no city power and no generators limp along in the stifling summer heat. Iraqis have long since given up.
The sectarian cleansing of the country’s civil war has left its legacy in a jigsaw puzzle of once-mixed neighborhoods that are now reduced to mixed streets. More than 1 million Iraqis who fled the country, a disproportionate number of them Sunnis, wait for a reason to come back.
Chaos is a constant. In March, Iraqis went to the polls in a national election billed as crucial to Iraq’s stability. There are vital decisions to be made here — how to share oil revenue, who controls disputed territories, how to restart the economy and create jobs for the one in three Iraqis who are unemployed.
But there is still no government — the two major political leaders, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite with wide Sunni support, are locked in a death grip over who should be prime minister.
One of the things that’s being lost in the meantime is that essential component of the democracy that the U.S. wanted to instill — a belief that the system works and that risking your life to vote actually matters.
“They’re all just fighting over positions,” said an Iraqi policeman trying to get through a 24-hour shift in sweltering heat on a street where 15 people were gunned down two weeks ago by Al Qaeda in Iraq. The police and army, like most Iraqi citizens, blame the politcal vacuum and lack of a government to deal with it for much of the recent political violence.