I often joke that I first grew interested in the Middle East by invading countries about whose history and people I knew nothing, but that’s not entirely true. For one, I missed the actual invasion of Iraq due to a freak training accident that blew out my knee.
After months of rehabilitation, however, I finally deployed at the end of September, and once in Baghdad, I set about planning and executing missions to either capture or kill the last remaining high-ranking regime loyalists. The Holy Grail was Saddam himself, who our task force finally found in December, but the effort to find him was equal parts tragedy and comedy.
In the fall of 2003, we did not yet have a well-developed human intelligence network on the ground in Baghdad, so finding Saddam involved chasing a lot of leads and dragging people only tangentially connected to him out of their homes in the middle of the night while their families cried in the adjoining rooms.
Sometimes it wasn’t even the right people. One night, I looked down at the small satellite picture of our target house for the night that I always kept strapped to my left forearm, like an NFL quarterback with his plays. (On my right forearm, I always had a picture of the person we were looking for—along with their name and description.) Looking at the picture of the neighborhood and then back at the neighborhood itself, something seemed off.
I turned to my forward observer, Collin McMahon, who was a fairly typical Army Ranger in that he had the drive and intelligence to have been doing any number of things other than kneeling next to me on a street corner in Baghdad at two in the morning. Collin had been captain of his university’s baseball team and had been admitted into law school when he shocked his family by enlisting in the Army. The two of us later served in the Obama administration together.
“Collin, pull out your map. Does it look like we’re in the right place?”
Collin looked at his map under a streetlight. “No. No, it looks like we’re a block off.”
“Shit. That’s what I thought. Come with me.”
We walked into the target house, where the assault team was interrogating a very confused and scared Iraqi woman and her family. The hinges of the door had been blown off. The furniture was all overturned, and a team of massive, heavily armed commandos was tearing the house apart.