Sunday Morning Meditation – War Were Declared
This story has been updated.
I wore a suit the day the war in Iraq began in 2003. I held a job at the University of Alabama college library at the time and the drum beat of cable news had become a rapid tribal thumping.
War. War. War.
“Why did you wear that suit,” a friend asked.
Because, I said, if the world’s going to end I might as well look nice for it.
At that point I’d given up. I’d spent months holding signs and shouting at the top of my lungs, along with millions of other people around the world, about how incredibly stupid this idea was. No one listened to us. We were right, unfortunately.
That same evening, more than six thousand miles away, a young Marine sergeant named Todd South was on the march toward Baghdad. He was in a reconnaissance unit and drove a Humvee. We wouldn’t meet until several years later when he was an intern at The Anniston Star, where I worked as a reporter. We’ve remained friends since.
He works at the Chattanooga Times Free Press now, where I worked for a year before moving to Atlanta. He covers courts and the military.
When I spoke to him last week, Todd said he’d recently read an article from a paper in New Jersey that asked Iraq War veterans about their feelings now that Iraq has officially come unglued.
The vets in New Jersey said that the war was a mistake. Todd decided to write the same kind of story for the Times Free Press. He said the vets in Chattanooga told him we should’ve committed more resources to keeping the country stable.
“It was complete black and white,” Todd told me.
The warmongers were right about one thing, even all these years later. War was inevitable. It was inevitable the day George W. Bush became president, even before 9/11. The president and his advisors were obsessed with Iraq, always had been.
It’s hard for me to imagine now how hard I hated that man, George W. Bush. Since leaving office he’s wisely kept his mouth shut, something he wasn’t able to do as president, since it’s a job that by necessity requires a great deal of talking.
Our current president is a good reminder that being good at public speaking doesn’t always mean you’ll be good at delivering results.
Bush has become almost frail since leaving office, something to be pitied. While I have forgiven him for his grating Frat boy back-slapping style, I’ve never quite gotten over Iraq. I truly love this country and having my patriotism questioned left a deep wound that hasn’t healed.
We’ve never had a proper reckoning for Iraq as a country. There’s been no soul-searching about why we did it or whether anyone should be held responsible for it. I believe its architects should’ve faced criminal charges. Sending someone into war under false pretenses for some shady purpose can’t be legal.
The night the war started, everyone back at my dorm watched the news on the television in the basement. I remember the night-vision cameras trained on Baghdad. The anchors held their breath, waiting for a bomb to drop.
For the weeks leading up to the war, the press ate whatever the administration and its allies spoon fed them. Even the New York Times sold its objectivity for access, writing silly stories that said Saddam Hussein was actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.
I hadn’t fully committed to becoming a journalist at that point. I didn’t know what I wanted to be. But I think that’s the time that I made up my mind that there’s nothing good that can come from the media being too cozy with government. The problem with trading integrity for access to scoops is that you can get unlimited access, but you have a limited supply of integrity.
With the notable exception of Judith Miller, none of the media cheerleaders have seen their careers suffer as a result of their journalistic malpractice. And even Miller got a gig over at Fox News, which is like a refuge for the disgraced and incompetent.
After about an hour of watching nothing happen, I went to bed. The world hadn’t ended.
A few days later, I went on a road trip for spring break with my friends Daniel and Brady. We drove all the way to California, staying at KOA’s every night.
Todd was driving too, toward Baghdad.
Todd said he hadn’t paid much attention to the news before he was deployed to Iraq. He had planned to get out in March. Even in the run up to the war, he didn’t take it seriously.
“We’d gone to Afghanistan and my unit didn’t get called,” he said. “We went to Afghanistan in 2001 and we just wiped shit out. The Taliban was on the run. We were hunting down Bin Laden. There was only a few thousand American troops. … It was very successful in those terms. I remember being in the military thinking it was going to be another desert storm.”
Then in January of 2003 he got three days’ notice that he would be leaving for Kuwait.
“I didn’t believe in the war necessarily,” Todd said. “I didn’t read newspapers or watch TV news or anything at that age. You were very much more engaged as a protester. I was like, ‘I’m a marine. I’m trained to do this.’ It wasn’t about patriotism, it was more about this is my obligation. I’m trained to do it and I’m going to go do it. Thankfully, I didn’t have to kill anybody.”
From Kuwait, the marines drove their Humvees up to the Iraqi border. They slept in the desert for weeks with little or no information about what was going on. Then one morning they loaded up their gear into the Humvees.
“You start driving across the border in the middle of the night and just kept driving,” Todd told me. “For the next four months, we were constantly driving.”
Daniel, Brady and I stayed at a rest stop out west somewhere. There was a woman with a flat tire who asked us for help. We had a spare tire, but hadn’t brought a jack. We knocked on the door of an RV. A man with sleepy eyes emerged and we convinced him to help us help the woman. She had a little boy with her. I remember him hooking his finger and jabbing it at the little boy’s stomach.
“If you were in Saddam’s torture room, he’d hook you,” he said.
We realized that our spare tire wouldn’t fit. She had to spend the night there until someone could rescue her the next morning. We went to bed.
Todd said he didn’t get much time for the niceties in the desert, like showering and sleep.
“You get a bucket of water once a week to take a shower,” he said. “The first week of the war I don’t think we slept for five days.”
We got to California, finally, after pulling an all-nighter driving.
Daniel and Brady set up camp and went to bed. I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift, so I had slept in the back. We were in San Clemente. I walked through the tall sharp grass and stopped to look out at the Pacific ocean.
Everywhere we went in California the television was on and tuned to Fox News. It had been that way for the whole trip, on every television at every place we stopped.
Todd’s unit was at the Battle of Nasiriya.
“They were bombing the shit out of the place,” Todd said. “You’re sitting around piles of trash. You’re watching the city get blown to shit.”
Todd said the heat was on to get to Baghdad. He said he hadn’t expected to do much fighting as part of a reconnaissance unit. “Instead, because they were in such a rush to get to Baghdad we went ahead of everybody. If we got shot at, we shoot back”
Our road trip was on a tight schedule. We’d planned to leave California after a day and head to Breckenridge, Colo., a ski resort where Daniel’s friends had a time share. We were sitting around the room, eating pizza and watching the news when we saw Saddam’s statue fall.
Within weeks, the President would declare victory. But the war wasn’t over. It never was, and still isn’t.
“That’s what people forget about Iraq,” Todd said. “There were really three to four different wars.”
There was the invasion, the Battle of Fallujah and then The Surge, which settled things for a time, he said.
Todd got out of the Marines in July of 2003. He became a civilian again and went back to school. He said anyone who’s been reading the news lately shouldn’t be shocked by what’s happened in Iraq.
“Just because people quit watching it on TV, doesn’t mean shit didn’t stay bad,” Todd said.
We talked for a while about what it meant to us, more than 10 years later. I voted for Obama because he opposed the war and Hillary Clinton hadn’t. No other policy position mattered to me. He was standing on the same side of the line that I was, and I believed leaving Iraq was the right course of action.
Honestly, I’m not so sure about that any more. It’s not that I’ve changed my opinion about the war. It’s just that I’ve come to realize that elections have consequences, and we share in the responsibilities for those consequences whether we voted for the guy who screwed everything up or not. It’d be too simple to say, “Well, that’s Bush’s problem, you deal with it.”
The Republican Party didn’t go to war. America did, and we are obliged as a nation to do whatever we can to stabilize that place. Of course, that’s assuming there’s anything we can do at all.
I asked Todd if he thought it was worth it, the nearly 4,500 U.S. troops killed, the nearly 40,000 Iraqis killed, the countless injured soldiers and civilians. I asked him if we should be doing more than sending in “advisors” and drones to quell the violence.
“Probably not,” Todd said. “You’re pouring more shit in and hoping it gets better. That’s called Vietnam. We played that game for a decade. What was the point? I feel real bad for the guys who really believed the message, really believed in their leadership and gave the best years of their lives, watched their friends die. There’s no f*&!$ng logic to this. It’s all chaos.”
Our obligations to Iraq may not be enough to fully fix what we have broken. But there is an obligation that is much easier to keep, one that would be infinitely more useful in the long run. We are obliged to remember.
We shouldn’t forget that our elected leaders manipulated us with threat of terror and the pride of patriotism. People should remember the names of the news anchors who waved pompoms and cheered bombs. Why do they have jobs again?
Never forget that Dick Cheney, the man who got deferments to avoid Vietnam but never hesitated to send other people’s kids into a senseless war, is still given opportunities to criticize others for the mess he created.
Don’t let the people who now preach fiscal responsibility off the hook for supporting a war that will take generations to pay off.
We shouldn’t forget that thousands of people died because of the choice we made as a country. We elected a man who believed that America’s power is measured in tanks and bombs.
Look what that got us. You’d think we’d know better by now, but there’s still a little too much zeal in our culture for killing.
Killing someone, or getting them killed, is a decision you can’t take back.
You can’t take back your vote either, but you always have another chance to get it right.
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained a typo regarding the year Todd South got his notice to leave for Kuwait. It was 2003. Also, he wasn’t visiting his in-laws in New Jersey when read the article in the New Jersey paper quoting Iraq war veterans.