As of Jan. 1, 2012, they're gone: the U.S. soldiers who walked and drove, fought and bled, cursed, joked, cried, screamed, negotiated, interrogated, smoked, slept, ate, defecated, exercised, and did much else all across Iraq for the preceding 8 years, 9 months, and 12 days—ever since Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 19, 2003.
The giant forward operating bases they created—mini-Americas complete with PXs as stocked as your average Walmart, chow halls and gyms as big as airplane hangars, coffee bars and fast-food restaurants straight out of your local mall, even cops with radar guns manning speed traps—all will either stand shuttered or be occupied by the Iraqis. Before long, one suspects, many of them will fade into the desert whence they rose, like a giant mirage. The passions aroused by their presence—the arguments between pro- and antiwar advocates that defined American politics as recently as 2008, when Barack Obama's opposition to the war carried him to the Democratic nomination and then to the presidency—have already faded, replaced by a pervasive sense of numbness and exhaustion. The notoriously fickle media spotlight moved on long ago to fresh wars (Afghanistan, Libya), fresh political developments (the Arab Spring), fresh disasters (the debt crises in Italy and Greece—and America).
It's far too soon to say definitively what U.S. troops did or did not accomplish in Mesopotamia. Were the sacrifices of more than 4,400 service members' lives and the wounding of more than 32,000 others worthwhile? The answer will not be obvious for years to come, as the ripples of America's presence slowly fade and Iraqi politics finds its own equilibrium—or doesn't. The Korean War hardly looked like a success in 1953, when the guns went silent on a deadlocked peninsula. Nearly 60 years on, with South Korea having become one of the freest and most prosperous countries in the world, the outcome looks rather better. Contrariwise, as eager as some Americans may have been to claim victory in Vietnam by the time they left in 1973, Hanoi's capture of Saigon two years later made a mockery of such boasts.