The papers and the Internet are full of good retrospectives today on the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. A lot of them are worth reading. But I also want to add my personal history to the narrative today.
The New York Times focuses on the costs of the war, which have been far greater than (almost) anyone expected them to be.
I posit that each year of the war has been characterized by a central lie by the Bush propaganda machine.
Year 1: “There is no guerrilla war.”
Year 2: “Iraq is a model democracy.”
Year 3: “Zarqawi is causing all the trouble.”
Year 4: “There is no Civil War.”
Year 5: “Everything is calm now.”
I also suggest that John McCain is pushing for:
Year 6: “Total victory is around the corner.”
In Slate Fred Kaplan explains how, in the grand scheme of international politics, Iraq is not a war we should have started:
A civilized nation should never decide to go to war simply because a stable peace is hard to maintain. Yet that is what we did in the spring of 2003…
If we are going to fight a war essentially by ourselves, as we have done in Iraq, our vital interests must clearly be at stake. If we are going to fight a war that does not involve vital interests, as has also been the case with this war, we must form a genuine coalition—to share the burdens but, more than that, to provide legitimacy to the cause. And if we can’t do that, we shouldn’t go to war at all.
So what brought Mr. AQI to Iraq? At the mosque, he met a man who could tell Mr. AQI just wanted to belong to something. That man told Mr. AQI he had something Mr. AQI needed to see. Very often, according to Colonel Bacon, it was an image from Abu Ghraib. Or it was a spliced-together propaganda film of Americans killing or abusing Iraqis. The narrative that weighed heavily on Mr. AQI, Colonel Bacon said, was that it was his “religious duty go to Iraq,” where he would serve as “an avenger of abused Iraqs.”
But Iraq wasn’t what he thought it would be. Mr. AQI wasn’t an infantryman, where he’d bravely stand and fight Americans, he was pressured into being a suicide bomber. Nor were his targets the Americans he wanted to hit — they were the Iraqis he came to avenge. According to Colonel Bacon, in some cases, Mr. AQI was happy to be in American custody, where he would no longer cause Iraq any more pain.
I can’t offer this kind of analysis. I don’t have Ackerman’s access to colonels or the Times’ ability to look at data, or Fred Kaplan’s wisdom to offer any great global perspective. I just have my memories of a war that has been going on for almost a quarter of my life.
The Iraq War, whether we realize it or not, is the war of my generation. The war, the Bush presidency, and the post-9/11 paradigm have defined the last seven years of my and my friend’s lives. And for someone my age, 21, those are probably the most formative ones. Iraq probably doesn’t hang over my teenage years the way Vietnam did for my father, but it’s been there.
I remember “shock and awe”. I remember that first terrible night of war. I was at a concert and the band came out and said, “Well, our country is at war,” and it just ruined the whole show. I went home that night and watched bombs explode in the green sky like fireworks. For four nights I watched that green sky on CNN.
I remember the elections and the purple ink on the fingers. That January was probably the only time I felt good about the war. But it was exciting. I bought into it for a few weeks. The whole Hegelian thing, the idea of history is a movement towards progress and freedom… almost made sense for a few weeks.
I remember Abu Ghraib. That image of the hooded man with the wires, standing on a box, looking like some sort of bat-creature is indelible. That is one of the lasting images of our generation. It represents something about America during the first decade of the twenty-first century. That photograph will be a cultural turning point in America, the darker side of iPods and An Inconvenient Truth.
I remember Haditha. I was at home that summer while the story developed. I was taking a geology class at Montclair State University and one of the guys in my class was in the National Guard. He had just gotten back from Iraq. During breaks we would stand in the hot sun and smoke cigarettes and he would tell me about the energy drinks and the sweating and the war. In the afternoon I would go home and read the latest on the Haditha investigation in the newspapers and think about my new friend.
I could go on through to 2008, through when I was in Jordan, of course. I won’t. You get the point. The Iraq war doesn’t animate people of my generation the way other wars have in the past. I’m not working hard as a member of any organization to stop the war. I oppose it vocally, but that requires little sacrifice. Because of this, I think that people, especially older people, assume that Iraq isn’t important to us. I see how they can think that, but I feel like it is an unfair assessment.
The war in Iraq has left a serious mark on the last quarter of my life. It began when I was sixteen and will probably continue through when I graduate college. I am not unique.