Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Five Years of War for What?

I didn’t watch George W. Bush declare war on Iraq that dark and cold night in March. I had prayed for weeks that war would be averted and up until the week before I believed that it would. The “inevitable,” as Bush called it, came when he gave the signal to let the bombs fall on March 19, 2003. Once more, I had to escape my denial of the thing.

The president had made up his mind to go to war and so we went to war.

I sat alone that night imagining the scene at the borders of Iraq where soldiers had been gathering for months and waiting for the action to begin. They kept themselves busy by exercising, readying the equipment, cleaning their weapons, and contending with the swirling sands and howling winds of the desolate, treeless terrain. Sand everywhere and in everything: shoes, clothes, gear, machinery. Mouthfuls of it in their food, in their sleepy snores, and constantly in their eyes and ears.

We were told that Iraq during the summer months would be unbearably hot so our war planners wanted to get on with the war, win it, and bring the soldiers home just as they did in 1991. Back then, coalition forces of 660,000 had successfully pushed Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait in 100 hours. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendered with hardly a fight. Casualties were minimal and our troops returned as heroes and victors.

This time, although we were practically running this war alone, we were still the strongest firepower the world had ever seen. We had the most up-to-date technology and the most disciplined troops. Why shouldn’t we have a repeat performance of the Persian Gulf War?

For months Bush had appeared on TV every night talking about “the evil one” and about how determined he was to rid the world of “the dictator” and his weapons of mass destruction. Bush also wanted to avenge his father’s attempted assassin and garner payback for the dastardly acts of terrorism on September 11.

Polls showed that most Americans believed Bush’s charges. They were convinced and impatient that we should just get on with the war and settle the score.

I was among the 43 percent of Americans horrified by all this bloodlust, especially since the administration said that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons and might use them on our troops. Fear of this happening gripped me as I contemplated thousands of our soldiers breathing in the toxins and dropping dead as they crossed the border into Iraq.

We were also told to expect the appearance of the renowned and fearless Republican Guard. Daddy Bush hadn’t taken them out in ‘91 so they were still out there ready to kill our troops.

The day after war was started the newspapers pictured Bush in the Oval Office. He looked solemn and grave. He sat up straight behind his desk with his hands folded. He appeared very presidential. Later it was revealed that this self-proclaimed man of God was convinced that he was to go forward with this war. Our country was now in Bush’s hands—and God’s—although I wondered who this God was that advocated war.

The newspapers also pictured a soldier seated on a bench, bowing his bare head and praying as a rosary dangled from his folded hands. He was big and strong in his combat garb and he was a well-trained warrior. He looked apprehensive as he prepared for battle as though he knew his life was in God’s hands now, too.

On that somber night in March I imagined the soldiers breaking camp as they readied themselves for the push into Iraq. They solemnly but efficiently packed away their unnecessary gear, put on their flak vests, tied up their boots, straightened their helmets, and adjusted their rifles. These sounds trifled with the cacophony of trucks and tanks warming up their engines.

Once again the Middle Eastern desert, the “cradle of civilization,” would be filled with the clanging of metal against metal and will against will amid the low-pitched shouts of commanders and troops’ cries of “let’s go get ‘em.”

As the soldiers began the ground invasion into Iraq, jet fighter pilots dropped bombs on Iraqi military installations in order to scare the beejeezus out of the Iraqis through a new war tactic called “shock and awe.” The tremendous firepower unloaded on these targets was intended to make Saddam surrender unequivocally. It must have been a glorious sight if it had not been so deadly!

To me, the new war felt like a headache, an intense and splitting headache on the scale of a migraine. What had been unleashed in the world?

At that time no one ever doubted the U.S. would overtake Iraq. Images of victory flashed across our TV screens as our troops moved into city after city in record time. Once again, we would pound Iraqi troops without much loss of life. It looked like another cakewalk against Saddam.

In early April we saw the conquering of Baghdad symbolized in the tearing down of Saddam’s statue. It was reminiscent of our soldiers hoisting the flag at Iwo Jima. We had prevailed and the Iraqis thanked us for ridding them of their tyrant.

The newspapers also showed pictures of our soldiers relaxing in cushy chairs with their feet atop coffee tables as they puffed on cigars in Saddam’s palaces. It was the sweet taste of victory. I’m sure they were relieved it was over and they anticipated their return to the States.

Americans back home were happy, too. Well, some Americans. Those who initially supported the war saw its conclusion in those pictures. They had been right and Bush had been justified in calling for the war—because we had won it.

Those who didn’t support the war remained apprehensive. Some continued their demonstrations on downtown street corners denouncing the illegal, unnecessary, immoral destruction and death. They had been proved wrong.

One war hawk in my town berated the millions of “peace protesters” in a letter to the editor by asking: “Where’s the problem? What’s the worry?”

After five years of war with 4,000 Americans and one million Iraqis dead, the questions now are: when does it end, how and who’s going to do it?

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