Best Defense

Babylon Revisited: Melancholy Thoughts After a Short Trip to Washington, D.C.

As a young reporter in political Washington in the late 1980s, I noticed that there was a type of person who thrived in the driven, transactional environment of the capital.

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

As a young reporter in political Washington in the late 1980s, I noticed that there was a type of person who thrived in the driven, transactional environment of the capital. These were people who somehow, as I thought of it, “enjoyed the game.” I liked interviewing members of Congress and their staffers who conveyed that sense of pleasure in the daily doings of the place.

I decided that theirs was the way to go, and also to maintain some perspective. For me, enjoying the game meant seeing the city’s machinations as a grand Shakespearean show. That is, notice the character types. Enjoy the insiders’ distinctive patois. Admire the deftness of the political tap dances. Step back and watch the daily pageant pass. It was often comedy, and sometimes tragedy, but it was almost always interesting.

This approach worked well for me for almost two decades. I scurried around Washington, from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon, from K Street expense account lunches to off-the-record dinners with powerful people, and from Hanoi to Rome to Riyadh and Seoul as I covered the travels of top officials. I marveled one bleary morning in Brussels that when my suitcase was delivered to my hotel room fresh from our Air Force flight, it had moved so fast from the military airport that the toothpaste was still cold from its time in the cargo hold.

I remember in particular one day when we had lunch aboard an aircraft carrier in the hot Persian Gulf, listened to the defense secretary address some of the crew, and then helicoptered back to land, where we boarded a big Air Force jet for a flight to Moscow. Midway there, we were advised to go downstairs into the cargo hold, find our suitcases, and bundle up for the Moscow winter. On arrival late that night we checked into a snazzy new hotel in Moscow where the American co-owner, we were told, had been shot on the front steps by his Russian partner. It was after midnight and only the bar was still open for food, so I went there for some mushroom ravioli and a glass of red wine. Sitting next to me was a Russian man packing a pistol who identified himself as “investment banker.” Given the rules of the game there, he might well have been. The next morning, we bussed out to a military deconstruction site. (This was back when the United States and Russia were cooperating on nuclear de-escalation.) We stood and waited for an hour or two in a tent pitched in the subzero Russian winter. The cold seeped into my bones, so much so that seemed to feel it linger in my marrow for weeks.

Even the boring times could be fun. I was once in Seoul to cover a fairly routine meeting between South Korean and American officials. Not much was going on, so while I waited for the concluding press conference, I sat in my five-star hotel room, drank good tea, and finished writing a novel. This was life on a global carousel.

But early in the 21st century, around 2004, I stopped enjoying it all. Part of this was fatigue — I worked nonstop after 9/11 for months, perhaps years.

But mainly I think it was the invasion of Iraq, and what followed there. The Iraq War broke my heart. I never thought my country would invade a country so recklessly, with so little understanding of the culture of the place or the politics of the region. Why did not we see that taking over Iraq and insisting on American-style voting inevitably would empower Iran? Plus, we went to war on false premises. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke of the unknowables. But I think that we didn’t want to know what we should have known.

On top of that, I was powerfully disappointed by the U.S. military I saw in Iraq. I had covered it for years, both in Washington and on the ground in operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. I covered the armed forces objectively, but I generally had been impressed by the character and competence of our soldiers.

So, I wondered, how could our military then operate so clumsily, so counter-productively, and at times so cruelly, in Iraq? How could the army that I had seen deal so well with the tortuous problems of the Balkans operate so stupidly as to allow soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison to taunt, torture, and humiliate their captives? Didn’t American leaders see that this angered Iraqis and inflamed the insurgency? Most of all, the fact that something so wrong occurred showed how misbegotten the whole American enterprise in Iraq was.

In response to all that, I wrote the book Fiasco, about the first few years of our war in Iraq. Then, a couple of years later, out of a sense of obligation to stick to the story, I then wrote a sequel, The Gamble, about Gen. David Petraeus and the “surge” in Iraq in 2007. Finally, to answer my own lingering questions, I next wrote The Generals, examining the lack of accountability among senior Army officers.

But I was finished with Washington. I had seen too many people suffer in and from Iraq. I had lost friends. I saw good reporters struggle with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. I felt some of this myself. My dreams were black, and I would awake covered in sweat. My family was unhappy. I was twisted by stress.

In short, I no longer could see the capital’s actions as a “game.” Washington’s actions had gotten hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed. It made me sick, and worse, made me sad.

I didn’t see it so clearly at the time, but I needed to leave Washington. I was done. My wife and I had vacationed in Maine for years, and I had gone there to finish writing books, doing the intense work of completing first drafts. She pointed out that I was spending so much time there that instead of renting, we could make a down payment on a house.

We soon learned we couldn’t afford buying near Portland, or indeed anywhere within a weekend’s drive of Boston. But there were lovely harbor towns farther up the coast. We bought on an island we liked, and settled in. We kept our house in Washington, and initially spent our winters there, heading south after Christmas.

The more time we spent in the new house, the more we liked it. And while in Washington, we always pined for Maine. One January, as we were packing up to leave Maine, we decided instead to spend the winter there, and see how it went.

We loved it. The summers are lovely, but there also is great beauty in the fall’s sunsets, the winter’s storms, and spring’s mists. I’ve counted nine shades of green from a spot on one of my favorite walks — in lichen, two mosses, a fir, a spruce, some granite, two types of seaweed, and the translucent sea. I revel in the panorama of nature. Almost every day, I see a wild animal — fox, deer, seal, heron, eagle, osprey, and so on. I follow the phases of the moon, partly because the huge tides affect how I use my boat, but one side effect is that when I awake in the night I can tell roughly what time it is simply by judging the angle of the moon shadows. I don’t have an alarm clock, I have chickadees and doves. In Washington, I felt every day was like climbing into the boxing ring for another few rounds. In Maine I look forward to my day with eagerness.

So, for the last several years, we’ve lived in Maine year-round. We enjoy the community here, especially in the winter, when many of our friends, preoccupied in the summer with taking care of visitors, or feeding or housing or teaching them, have time to socialize.

Then came Trump. Now, I feel like we got out just in time, before the slow-motion train crash began. Even from here, I find Trump disorienting and disgusting. I don’t know how I would be able to stand being in the same city with him. It is a great time for journalism, but it wouldn’t be for me. I admire people like Peter Baker, an old colleague now at the New York Times, for their stamina and persistence. I would not be able to do it.

I’ve been thinking about this because a few months ago I flew down to Washington to be interviewed by C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb about my recent book on Winston Churchill and George Orwell. As I walked around Capitol Hill, watching the conservatively attired young staffers hurry to and fro (the prevailing mode of those associated with Congress is “small town bank branch president”), planning their next moves, the thought occurred to me: “This is no longer my city.” I didn’t enjoy it at all. It wasn’t just disoriented, I was alienated. I’d see the staffers chuckle as they walked and I would think, What are you people doing? What events will break your hearts?

I couldn’t wait to get to the airport and head home.

With this column, Tom has decided to put the Best Defense on hiatus for the Thanksgiving week. He hopes you all have a good one. He plans to hike and read ancient history.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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