Later, when we came upon the three Sons of Iraq, Captain Walker—seeing my interest in interviewing them—moved off so that they could speak without inhibition. An Army interpreter (an Iraqi who wore a ski mask to conceal his identity) remained by my side. The three Sons, in tattered beige uniforms, seemed eager to talk. Dora, they said, “had died” while in Al Qaeda’s grip, but now “everything has changed.” The Americans, they added, “are doing good things.”

What more, I asked, remained to be done? Providing jobs, they replied. One of the men pointed to a row of half-finished buildings across the way. Three hundred people could be put to work completing them, he said, but the Iraqi government had little interest in helping out—it was “too sectarian.” I couldn’t tell if this last remark came from the interpreter or from the Sons. The interpreter’s next comment—“Every house we’re in, the people say, ‘Can you help us?’”—clearly came from him, and as the interview wound on, it became increasingly hard for me to tell where the Sons’ views left off and the interpreter’s began. Even if the interpreter had been more careful, I’m not sure how much I would have learned, for interviewing former insurgents while surrounded by U.S. troops (within earshot or not) hardly seemed conducive to getting at their true thoughts.

My inability to talk frankly with Iraqis was all the more frustrating given the many comments the Americans were making about them. The soldiers never said anything overtly negative. They made no references to hajjis or towel-heads. Rather, they spoke incessantly about how much help they were providing the Iraqis. On the ride down to Dora, for instance, Lieutenant Colonel Watson told me how hard the U.S. military was working to boost the capacity of the local government. With violence down, he said, it was essential that the delivery of basic services be improved, and he and his soldiers were straining to figure out the lines of authority among various Iraqi agencies and to get them to work together. He told me of the satisfaction he felt when the local municipality picked up the trash in the Dora marketplace. “We consider it a huge success when we get the Iraqis to do the job themselves,” he said.

At Forward Operating Base Falcon, Captain Emiliano Tellado, a field-artillery officer turned government-fix-it man, told me with great enthusiasm about all the work he was doing with neighborhood councils to streamline the delivery of services. He spoke with pride about how his unit had helped open the first bank in the area and how it was trying to find ways to help the Iraqis improve the pickup of trash, the control of sewage, and the supply of electricity. The Iraqi government, the captain said, “is making a lot of strides.”

And so it went throughout my embed. The overall impression conveyed was one of American know-how, expertise, and efficiency and of Iraqi bumbling, idleness, and ineptitude. And, without quite realizing it, I absorbed this perspective. The Iraqi government is almost universally loathed for its disorganization and dysfunctionality, and the soldiers’ earnest descriptions of their efforts to mend it jibed with my own preconceived ideas about American competence and can-do spirit.

It was only the day after my embed, while I was interviewing American officials in the Green Zone, that I had a chance to reflect on what I had heard and to place it in broader context. I recalled the nonstop looting that had occurred in the wake of the invasion, a spasm of anarchy that had resulted in the razing of eighteen of twenty-three government ministries. I recollected the de-Baathification order that had been issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority, a sweeping and (most now agree) disastrously ill-conceived decree that had resulted in the dismissal of 120,000 officials, bureaucrats, and civil servants. And I thought about the acute security vacuum that had opened up on the Americans’ watch, a catastrophic breakdown in authority that had resulted in the slaughter or flight of virtually the entire Iraqi professional and technocratic class. To the extent that Iraq was broken, the U.S.’s many missteps were certainly a major factor.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.