US Iraq embassyThis AP photo of the nearly complete US embassy in Iraq, reported to be the largest embassy in the world, reminded me of a conversation I had recently on a flight to the midwest. I was fortunate to sit next to a young National Guard Airman just returning from a tour in Iraq. He was a very decent fellow, and we had a long chat.

I won’t go into details about who he is or what his specific job was in Iraq, because I didn’t tell him I might write about the conversation, let alone on Firedoglake, and we had a fairly candid conversation. He wanted to talk. And the conversation brought home some realities that are often lost in the discussion about troop withdrawals, timetables, benchmarks and levels of violence.

Back to the AP story about the embassy. Why, you might ask, would we need to build this:

The $592 million embassy occupies a chunk of prime real estate two-thirds the size of Washington’s National Mall, with desk space for about 1,000 people behind high, blast-resistant walls. The compound is a symbol both of how much the United States has invested in Iraq and how the circumstances of its involvement are changing.

The embassy is one of the few major projects the administration has undertaken in Iraq that is on schedule and within budget. Still, not all has gone according to plan.

The 21-building complex on the Tigris River was envisioned three years ago partly as a headquarters for the democratic expansion in the Middle East that President Bush identified as the organizing principle for foreign policy in his second term.

My Airman friend has done three tours in Iraq so far, and he wants to go back. He’s proud of what he’s done. He’s an engineer, and engineers build things. They make things work. And they take pride in making them work and building things to last. They would understand the Bridge on the River Kwai.

If my friend is right — and this is just one anecdote from one Airman, but he’s been there three times, all over the country doing the same thing, building what he builds — we are building a huge, permanent infrastructure in Iraq. We are putting in the latest equipment, and it is not there to support some temporary military presence. What’s going up is not something to be taken down and removed when our troops withdraw or respond to some uncertain Congressional appropriation. And the facilities that are being constructed, and the way they are being linked, indicate a more or less permanent military presence.

We’re spending billions upon billions on this, and it’s not slowing down. My friend has been there three times, and each time he goes back, he marvels at the tremendous change — in how much more there is now than there was last time. Much more sophisticated; more permanent.

We did not talk much about the violence; where he worked, and what he did, did not require him to face that. He knew Iraqis but these were Iraqis who had essentially “joined us,” in the sense that once they were inside the US infrastructure, they stayed there. They were helping to building this American infrastructure in their country. Their families were there, “inside,” and no one talked about going “outside” because it was too dangerous. There are two different worlds: the Iraq we see on our televisions each night, with scores of people being blown to bits and pools of blood under devastated cars and buildings – and the American one “inside” the US infrastructure. A country within a country. America inside Iraq.

I could tell that my friend did not want to talk about the politics here, or the violence there. He gave no indication that it might all have been a waste of time, lives and money. There was no moral judgment. There was only the pride in what he had built, and the desire to go back and keep building it.