Few people want to remember the war in Iraq. It’s dangerous to forget
The sky over Baghdad “lit up like a Christmas tree.”
The phrase, despite its joyous overtones, was used frequently in the first few hours of the attack, which the US military called Operation Shock and Awe, by news anchors who struggled to describe the macabre and explosive scenes broadcast from Baghdad. On this day, twenty years ago, the US-led coalition invaded the capital of Iraq, dropping bombs in the dead of night, destroying buildings and bridges before our eyes, setting fire to palm trees like many angry torches.
The first salvo of the Iraq War, watched by millions of Americans, was an assault we thought we would never forget. A frightening sign of the times, like the 9/11 attacks. The defining event of the new 21st century.
In addition to the 20th anniversary of the start of the war, in contrast to national memorable dates of September. elevencrept up on us like an unwanted memory hidden behind news of bank failures and miracle weight loss drugs. It is unlikely that the moment of national reckoning will come. No big parades. No commemorative postage stamp. This is a war that no one wants to remember, and which, as an Iraqi American, I will never forget.
The invasion has irrevocably changed the course of my life and that of my family, and its consequences continue to change our lives and destinies, from cousins still displaced throughout the Middle East to their children who were denied everything but Iraqi citizenship, although they never was not in Iraq It tore us apart and brought us back together, changing the very identity of those who were lucky enough to survive seven years of war; destruction of infrastructure for clean water, electricity and healthcare; the rise of violent extremism; the return of rampant corruption; and the neglect of those who swore to help. For American soldiers who served in the war, it’s not easy to forget: although their scars and memories are markedly different, Iraq is also part of them.
It is understandable why people prefer to ignore what has come to be considered a shameful chapter in American history. At first it became clear that the invasion was based on false reports that then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein colluded with al-Qaeda and stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Then, after tens of thousands of lost lives and the displacement of millions of Iraqis, we left the region in a much worse state than we found it. It is unclear when the region will recover, or if it will recover at all.
My father’s family tree goes back to Baghdad, going back centuries before being interrupted by war. My dad was born during the British Mandate of Iraq. He learned to swim in the Tigris River and honed his business acumen in his father’s tea shop on Rashid Street before starting his own business. He was the first of his family to go to college at the University of Baghdad and the first to leave Iraq. In the late 1950s, he immigrated to Los Angeles, where he attended the University of Southern California, met my mother, married, and settled in the San Fernando Valley. There, his three girls spent much of their childhood trying to convince their peers that Baghdad really existed, despite what they saw in the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Cancer took dad in the late 1980s; ironically, it was caused by schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease caused by flatworms that live in the rivers of North Africa and the Middle East. Although Baghdad returned to take him, his death meant that we – the only American Alice – had lost touch with Iraq, and this chasm grew with divisions in world politics. Hussein’s dictatorship, the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the US embargo, and our poor knowledge of Arabic have further alienated us from our aunts, uncles, and 35 cousins abroad. However, my sisters and I believed that the family would always be in Iraq, and Baghdad would always be with us.
So when Operation Shock and Awe began in Baghdad, I didn’t see an illuminated Christmas tree or spectacular fireworks. I imagined losing the people I loved forever. This began a journey to find my family wherever I could: Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and, yes, finally, Baghdad, in an attempt to glue us together as the region fell apart. What I found was life-affirming and heartbreaking.
My Iraqi family has been and still is at every stage of the conflict. They hid in bathtubs and under stairs during the bombing and watched in horror as antiquities were looted from the Iraqi National Museum during the first month of the war. They fled across closed borders with terminally ill children in 2006 by bribing border guards and narrowly escaped a mass execution by Islamic insurgents after the withdrawal of US troops. Today, they still pay extortionate fees to transport the bodies of their loved ones back to Wadi al-Salam, the sacred cemetery for Shia Muslims in Najaf, Iraq.
If this sounds like a tearful story, it’s because it is. It’s hard not to cry, remembering the last conversation with my uncle Mahdi before his death outside of his homeland. He was sick, languishing in a hot apartment in a refugee enclave in Syria. The banter of children who were supposed to be at a school in Baghdad punctuated our conversation as they played football in the wasteland outside. I sat by Mahdi’s bed all day, listening to stories of his childhood and the fall of the city he loved. He asked me to write about what I saw him go through – displacement, loss – so that the rest of the world would understand. If only I had that kind of power.
But here I am now asking: Please don’t forget Uncle Mahdi or any of the others whose lives were interrupted and forever changed by a war that no one wants to remember.
However, the need to remember is not just about blaming. It is as much about analyzing our intentions now as it is about recognizing the consequences of our actions after the fact. The invasion was presented to the American public as a patriotic and remedial measure, a punishment for attacks on American soil and a defense against future conspiracies. Despite the staggering lack of evidence of Hussein’s involvement, the country came together for a common goal: to stop the bad guys.
During the invasion, I worked for Newsweek magazine, where even experienced senior editors discussed events like abstractions on a map: where are the critical strategic points in the city? Government headquarters? TV stations? Oil refineries? This may have been the last time the American media and the US public were united in one purpose, and as the façade collapsed, so did our faith in the system that gave the architects of war so much one-sided power.
Recognition of the 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq requires a rather tough soul-searching. As in Vietnam, the US invaded Iraq without foreseeing what would happen after the initial bombing and lost the war due to slow errors. We need to acknowledge these patterns of the past if we are ever to change them. And we must be ready to recognize their counterpart in the present – as Russia, a huge military power, invades Ukrainea small sovereign country, under its false pretense of liberation – to fight back.
Baghdad may have looked abandoned in that early Shock and Awe show we all watched 20 years ago. But now it is clear what was missing in the frame: people. For those of us who survived the flood or who were associated with the frightened people below, that day is not something we have to force ourselves to remember. This is a tragedy that we cannot and must never forget.