The Iraq War Unleashed an Age of Grift. We’re Still Living in It
T he quote that would secure Jim Mattis’ reputation as the most celebrated Marine general of his generation came during meetings he hadn’t wanted to attend. It was April 2004, a half-mile east of the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which had exploded in an insurrection that threatened to doom the American occupation after barely a year. Mattis hadn’t wanted to take Fallujah, recognizing that flattening the City of Mosques would throw gasoline on a smoldering nationwide insurrection. But he followed White House-pushed orders to invade, and after roughly a week of intense urban fighting — leaving 39 U.S. troops dead, an estimated 616 Iraqi civilians killed, and Fallujah untaken — he followed orders to stop.
The first order was stupid, he thought, but combining it with the second was risible. It sent the message that America was not only idiotic during a crucial moment of challenge but also weak. Still, no matter how disastrous the order, no Marine general would ever resign his command as his Marines went through such a crucible, so Mattis reached for a different kind of weapon: his mouth.
In his 2019 memoir, Call Sign Chaos, Mattis recounts sitting down to discuss the future of Fallujah with local notables enlisted to guarantee its security. One of the sheikhs, evidently frustrated, “demanded” to know when the Americans would leave. Mattis replied that he had bought property on the Euphrates River, where he would “marry one of your daughters and retire there.” Then he warned the Iraqis: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
It was quintessential Mattis: a threat of ultra-violence wrapped in a wit quick enough to make him as quotatious as Shaquille O’Neal. As reports of the comment spread, Mattis became something of a folk hero in American military circles and back home. One of his nicknames, much promoted by journalists, was “Warrior Monk,” emphasizing not only his martial expertise but also his devotion to his craft. Years later, the “kill you all” line would take pride of place in an adoring Twitter hashtag, #Mattisisms, celebrating not so much his deeds as his attitude.
The adulation obscured the fact that Mattis’ swagger didn’t really work. “The sheikhs did not act on my warning,” Mattis writes in Call Sign Chaos. “They were allowing their sons to be recruited by the insurgents while they were talking to me — unwittingly abrogating their own authority.” Maybe. Or perhaps they didn’t like a foreign invader pledging to fuck their daughters and kill everyone they know.
The Iraq War was supposed to showcase American potency after 9/11. But the fuck-around stage gave way within months to a finding-out stage that lasted for years. A war partially predicated on dealing a lethal blow to terrorism instead prompted the creation of the Al Qaeda affiliate that would become the so-called Islamic State. America’s 100-plus years of experience with imperial policing were no match for widespread Iraqi rejectionism. At home, the humiliations of the War on Terror were political fuel for those who said America needed to be made great again. As we approach the 20th anniversary of one of the most unjust and calamitous wars the U.S. ever waged, #Mattisisms read like a way for Americans to save face amid self-inflicted disasters that revealed their weakness.
Mattis, who through a spokesperson declined an interview request, doesn’t even crack the top 30 list of people culpable for the Iraq War. As a division commander, he was several rungs down from the decision-makers of George W. Bush’s administration. Mattis’ tour ended months before the Marines began another operation to take Fallujah — a grueling, bloody, urban battle that has passed into Corps legend. Yet his example is illustrative of an age of American hubris. Even when Mattis saw through the pretexts of the war — he suggests in his memoir that Saddam Hussein was “boxed in” before the offensive even began — he, like most officers, chose to serve rather than walk away, and expressed greater displeasure at the prospect of withdrawal from the war than the initial invasion. Ten years later, he was no more an obstacle when he joined the board of another doomed-to-fail enterprise based on deception.
Theranos was a Silicon Valley “unicorn” valued at $9 billion, a startup that claimed to have a proprietary machine that could perform a dizzying array of health analyses from a single drop of blood. The business press ate it up — with the exception of Wall Street Journal writer John Carreyrou, whose reporting revealed that the company’s technology just didn’t work. Founder Elizabeth Holmes had browbeat her lab technicians to deliver impossible results — just as Dick Cheney pressured the CIA to connect Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden. (Theranos lead scientist Ian Gibbons committed suicide in 2013, a tragedy his wife laid at Holmes’ feet.) The prospect that Holmes’ concept could work became a certainty that it would, a rationalization that transformed lies into pre-truths; vindication awaited, as long as everyone stayed the course. It was the same sort of refrain offered by overseers of the Iraq War and repeated by their media tribunes: The war was constantly on the verge of “turning a corner.”
The consensus now is that the Iraq War was a mistake, a deviation born of post-9/11 madness. In reality, it’s an endeavor that captures the spirit of an age of grift. It was a big con that heralded a thousand more.
Mattis should have served as a guardrail for this kind of malfeasance. A corporate board is, in theory, responsible for oversight. That was certainly the sort of reputational validation Holmes sought in assembling her board with statesmen of Mattis’ caliber, including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. But as the general had done in Iraq, he went along with an ill-conceived scheme. One of Mattis’ problems with invading Fallujah in 2004 was poor intelligence: They were tasked to take the city “without knowing where the enemy was hiding,” he wrote. Yet at Holmes’ trial in 2021, Mattis testified that for all his time serving on the board of Theranos, Holmes was his “sole source” of information about the company.
Today, Holmes is serving an 11-year prison sentence for fraud, a very rare example of a corrupt CEO doing time. Mattis went on to serve under Trump, loyally standing by through the Muslim ban, Charlottesville, and family separations. Meanwhile, the type of public deception the Iraq War helped rationalize, license, and unleash has only compounded and escalated in corporate America, from schemes run by Goldman Sachs to the insurance giant AIG and the crypto superfund FTX.
Perhaps it has worked out that way because so few people deceiving the public have paid any appreciable legal, political, or reputational price. Paul Yingling, an Army armor officer who served in Iraq’s Nineveh province, wrote in 2007 that “a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war.” From the vantage of 2023, it feels quaint that anyone ever thought it would be otherwise.
Bush and Cheney have been functionally rehabilitated by the Trump presidency rather than viewed as its preconditions. One of the most important Democratic validators of the war is our current president. Cultural cues like these function as permission, something Holmes’ prosecutors evidently understood: They said they weren’t just seeking to convict Holmes, they wanted to deter “future startup fraud schemes.” The distance of 20 years makes it easier to see that the disaster of Iraq, combined with the impunity its architects enjoyed, proved that lying and scheming and enabling at ever-greater scale would result in no real reprisal for the powerful.
The prevailing consensus now is that the Iraq War was a mistake, a deviation born of post-9/11 madness. In reality, it’s an endeavor that captures the spirit of an age of grift. It was a big con — built on cherished myths of American power, greatness, and justice — that heralded a thousand more.
THE BIGGEST LIES of the war, both self-deceptions and outright deceits, are indelible: Saddam Hussein had illicit stockpiles of the most dangerous weapons on the planet, meaningful ties to Al Qaeda, and a willingness to hand his secret weapons to the terrorist group responsible for the mass murder of 9/11. Bush stopped short of implicating Saddam in 9/11, but not by much, claiming a year after the attacks, “You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the War on Terror.” Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and 4,500 U.S. troops died for lies that the majority of American journalists, with the rare and important exceptions of Warren Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, promoted rather than debunked.
But the occupation, once underway, floated on a raft constructed from other, less conspicuous lies. The Pentagon initially denied the existence of an Iraqi insurgency and called its adversaries Saddam dead-enders or, more astonishingly, “Anti-Iraqi Forces.” Bush’s portrayal of our foes as people representing “violence and innocent death” papered over those same disgraces brought about by the Americans, from torture and sexual assault at the Abu Ghraib prison to the massacres of civilians at places like Haditha, Samarra, and Nisour Square. At least one unscrupulous service member even understood a #Mattisism as permission for atrocity. In 2004, a Marine lieutenant named Ilario Pantano wrote one of Mattis’ favorite refrains, “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” — attributed to Sulla, one of the men responsible for destroying the Roman Republic — on cardboard that he left on the windshield of a car containing the bodies of Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Ahmead Hanjil, two unarmed Iraqi men he executed.
Through it all, the U.S. resisted acknowledging that its presence was the central cause of the violence it encountered. Americans had no shortage of obstacles to identify, from the scars Iraqi society bore from Saddam’s fear-based rule to the psychotic religious fanatics who rushed into the post-Saddam vacuum, but it was harder to admit that we were the problem and not the solution. In 2005, Ahmed S. Hashim of the International Institute for Strategic Studies spoke with a fighter battling the Americans at Tal Afar. Prior to the U.S. invasion, the man had been a teacher. He explained to Hashim, simply, “What would you do if I had invaded your country?”
The Iraqi novelist Mortada Gzar told me that Iraqis are more likely to describe the U.S. presence as an occupation today than they were during the formal occupation of 2003-11. “It will not sound neutral if I don’t use the term ‘occupier’ in my social media, unlike 10 years ago,” explains Gzar. I didn’t initially understand that, having reported from Iraq back then, when it was indisputably a country under foreign occupation. But Amal al-Jubouri, an Iraqi poet, reminded me that I didn’t see Iraq through Iraqi eyes.
“Many Iraqi writers who were inside Iraq did not dare to name the American invasion as an occupation,” al-Jubouri says. The word was dangerous. “That may lead those who dared to utter it to a tragic fate through the unknown informers of the new Iraqi political process and the occupiers who reacted immediately by arresting and torturing Iraqis if they received any such reports.” The Western press, she continues, “called it ‘the insurgency’ instead of ‘resistance.’ ” I certainly did.
ABOUT EIGHT YEARS after Mattis left Iraq, an Army officer responsible for ensuring Theranos’ compliance with medical regulations, Lt. Col. David Shoemaker, came on the receiving end of a #Mattisism. Mattis wasn’t yet on Theranos’ board. He was by then a military celebrity — commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia — and having met Holmes after giving a speech in San Francisco, he sought to test Theranos’ blood analysis on troops in Afghanistan. Shoemaker, who played a key role in the process by which that would happen, grew concerned that Holmes was looking to route around certification from the Food and Drug Administration. He told Holmes he couldn’t approve a test without it.
When Shoemaker went to the FDA himself, prompting an FDA inspector to show up at Theranos’ office, Holmes erupted to Mattis, according to Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood. “Who is LTC Shoemaker and what is going on here?” Mattis emailed staff. The general referred to Shoemaker’s due diligence as “this new obstacle” and took personal umbrage at it. Shoemaker’s colleagues presented him “with a ‘certificate of survival’ for having the courage to stand up to Mattis in person and emerging from the encounter alive,” Carreyrou writes. Though he didn’t even work with Holmes at the time, Mattis directed more skepticism at Shoemaker than he ever would at her.
Mattis joined Theranos’ board after retiring from the military, which was an unremarkable transition. Several generals who had made their names in Iraq and the associated post-9/11 wars matriculated to corporate America. Surge architect David Petraeus became a partner at private-equity giant KKR. NSA director Keith Alexander took a board seat at Amazon. Stanley McChrystal of the Joint Special Operations Command started a business consultancy. After generations of a revolving door between the defense industry and the military, generals going corporate was normal. Businessmen believed that they were generals of capitalism. Generals, enjoying a worshipful post-9/11 climate, could be forgiven for believing that it was time to collect a reward after all they had given America.
And corporate America was more than ready to give them their payday — and reap the reputational rewards. Holmes attracted the enthusiasm of bipartisan titans of American statecraft for her big con. “Theranos has assembled what may be, in terms of public service, the most illustrious board in U.S. corporate history,” Fortune enthused in 2014. In addition to Mattis, who invested $85,000 of his own money, Shultz, and Kissinger, Theranos boasted Defense Secretary William Perry, GOP Senate leader Bill Frist, and Adm. Gary Roughead, who had been the Navy’s senior officer. Their high standings in elite circles contributed to the misperception of Theranos’ probity.
Donald Trump, a rare soul who truly merits the term con artist, sought to exploit that same perception. Enlisting Mattis as his defense secretary, Trump boasted that he was teaming up with a guy known as “Mad Dog.” It was a nickname Mattis had let his chosen media interlocutors know he used ironically, but Trump wasn’t known for reading between lines. Unlike his rapport with Holmes, Mattis had a fraught relationship with Trump. He cast his own arrival at the Pentagon as a force of continuity, and the foreign-policy establishment, fearful of Trump’s chaotic potential, cheered. Mattis escalated the Afghanistan war once again, intensifying the bombing of Somalia and, to his credit, arguing Trump out of torturing detainees. But along with his White House ally H.R. McMaster, Mattis also pivoted U.S. foreign policy in a crucial way, issuing a defense strategy for the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition.” To bipartisan acclaim, it recontextualized American foreign policy as an imperial struggle against Russia, which Trump resisted, and China, which Trump embraced.
Beyond that, the line between resistance and complicity for Mattis was blurry. When Trump signed an infamous order preventing people from several Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the U.S., he did so at the Pentagon, with Mattis applauding over his shoulder. Mattis acquiesced to Trump’s ban on military service from transgender troops and deployed roughly 5,800 service members to the southern border in support of an election-timed hysteria over migration. He finally quit in 2018, because he believed Trump to be insufficiently committed to the American empire — not, say, a year earlier, when Trump hailed a white-supremacist riot in Charlottesville.
Mattis’ resignation gambit worked, in a way. He stepped down to stop Trump from withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and Syria, and Trump backed off. The result has been that U.S. troops remain there without any defined mission. Sometimes a vague backstop to an ISIS resurgence, sometimes an insurance policy to another Iraqi military collapse, something like 2,500 U.S. troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria face attacks from an evolving list of enemies, most recently militias backed by Iran. It’s a version of the residual force Mattis and many others sought from the beginning. And it leaves Iraqis with the contradictory legacy of Americans who neither leave nor deliver on their grandiose promises of a brighter future. The U.S. presence is beyond the reach of Iraq’s political institutions, as was proven when the U.S. refused to abide by a 2020 parliamentary vote to expel the troops.
This is all out of mind for American elites, who have long since moved on. Iraqis, who have paid the cost of Americans’ delusions, don’t have that luxury. “The war has created a country of multiplied mafias,” al-Jubouri says. “The middle class totally disappeared, and there are now two categories of people. Those who participated in the American political process and their adherents became the new Iraqi elites … the ordinary people from all backgrounds, the majority, are living under the poverty line.”
Meanwhile, a familiar form of capitalism has reshaped “liberated” Iraq. “The streets and gardens of Baghdad were the lungs for its inhabitants to breathe the blessed smell of their flowers and blossoms of their trees. Gardens were the identity of their capital,” remembers al-Jubouri. “The gardens after the invasion turned into investment projects for the new investors. The large houses of the Baghdadis have been sold with overexaggerated prices due to money laundering, to the extent that no Baghdadi citizen can afford to buy even a studio there.”
She continues: “It’s the greed of the new Iraqi capitalism, which turned everything into an open auction, excluding only the oxygen; and if they can get it controlled, then even our breath will be for sale.”
OBVIOUSLY, FRAUD IN AMERICA didn’t begin with the invasion of Iraq. The country that gave the world P.T. Barnum, Ivan Boesky, junk-bond king Michael Milken, and Trump (who pardoned Milken) is no innocent babe constantly committing well-meaning blunders. Iraq belongs in a lineage of wars, American and otherwise, waged on false pretexts, from President Polk’s 1846 lie that “American blood has been shed on American soil” to invade Mexico — that’s how we got California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and parts of five other Western states — to the inciting Gulf of Tonkin non-event in Vietnam.
So, to be clear, Iraq didn’t cause Holmes to lie about Theranos’ ability to perform a battery of tests from a single drop of blood. But it supercharged an impulse that was already there. Capitalism, particularly its current incarnation, isn’t much interested in the difference between truth and deception. Both Apple and Microsoft stole the windows-based graphical interface from Xerox, as University of Chicago economic historian Jonathan Levy recounts in his recent book, Ages of American Capitalism. When Steve Jobs confronted Bill Gates about Microsoft naming its operating system Windows, Gates shot back, “We both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set only to find that you had already stolen it.” That was who Holmes modeled herself after, down to the black turtlenecks Jobs favored. She was hardly unique in not caring about the distasteful aspects of one of modern America’s greatest corporate success stories.
Theranos appealed to Mattis because, he said, “in triage, this could be very, very helpful.” A far easier way to save troops’ lives would be not to wage imperial wars like the one America launched two decades ago.
As the Iraq War persisted, the fraud cycle back home accelerated. Bush’s invasion roughly coincided with the era of accounting frauds at corporate giants like Tyco and WorldCom, which now seem like footnotes. Eclipsing them all was a massive scheme in which banks turned their questionable loans during a housing bubble into financial instruments that concealed the fundamental toxicity of these assets. It devastated peoples’ homes, savings, and nearly the entire global economy in 2008. The subsequent Wall Street bailout reinforced the lesson of elite impunity that Iraq taught.
Carreyrou’s exposure of Theranos seemed to reveal a generational corporate deceit. Lately, it seems more like a new normal. Three years after Theranos’ collapse, Tesla CEO Elon Musk baselessly tweeted he had “funding secured” to take the electric-vehicle company private, swelling and then crashing Tesla’s stock price and seemingly violating the Securities and Exchange Act. “His lies caused regular people … to lose millions and millions of dollars,” argued an attorney for Tesla shareholders in January during a class-action trial. Even as his trial was set to begin, Musk sold $3.6 billion worth of Tesla stock, The Wall Street Journal reported, weeks before the company announced that it delivered significantly fewer vehicles in 2022 than it had forecast. In an unsurprising turn, Musk was acquitted of wrongdoing on Feb. 3.
Last November, as Elizabeth Holmes waited for Judge Edward Davila to sentence her, another dizzying fraud began to unravel, this one involving the cryptocurrency exchange platform FTX. Pitched as a trustworthy exchange of a new and often unstable asset, FTX siphoned money to a crypto-trading firm co-owned by Sam Bankman-Fried, prompting an $8 billion solvency crisis. Like Holmes and Musk, FTX founder Bankman-Fried had enjoyed years of fawning media coverage that amounted to a cult of personality. He had thrown huge amounts of money into Democratic politics and media organizations like Vox, ProPublica, and Semafor, in the apparent hope of convincing an audience presumed to be skeptical of a digital currency favored by the right that crypto — and specifically FTX — was a safe bet. Even a federal indictment has not stopped Bankman-Fried from publicly insisting upon his blamelessness. After all, people like him usually get away with it.
None of these economic and geopolitical disasters have persuaded America to dim its global ambitions. The Biden administration, unencumbered by Trump’s fondness for Putin, has embraced “Great Power Competition,” outlined in the Mattis Pentagon’s defense strategy. With Biden decoupling the U.S. economy from China’s and rallying Europe against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Great Power Competition is coalescing into a commitment to wage two Cold Wars simultaneously, a global struggle for control of the 21st century.
Theranos appealed to Mattis because, he explained in court, “in triage, where you have casualties going in, this could be very, very helpful for medical personnel if it could do what she said it could do.” A far easier way to save troops’ lives would be not to wage imperial wars like the ones America launched two decades ago, and that continue to this day.
“Most of the Iraqis see the occupation has yet to end properly,” says Gzar, who tried to illustrate this twilight state between occupation and sovereignty in his 2020 novel, Fadhel and Abass. “One of the characters describes the case to the leaving U.S. troops,” he summarizes in an email interview. “He told them, what you are doing is just like a doctor who opened up an ill body. He removed the cancerous tumor, and instead of closing the open body, the doctor just left, celebrating that his job is nicely done! But they left the hollow body to die.”