Few want to remember the Iraq War. It’s dangerous to forget

The sky over Baghdad was “lit up like a Christmas tree”.

The phrase, despite its joyous connotations, was often used in the first hours of the attack – which the US military dubbed Operation Shock and Awe – by news anchors struggling to describe the alternately dark and explosive scenes being broadcast from Baghdad. 20 years ago today, a US-led coalition invaded the Iraqi capital, dropping bombs in the middle of the night, decimating buildings and bridges before our eyes and lighting palm trees like angry torches.

The opening salvo of the Iraq war, watched by millions of Americans, was an attack we thought we would never forget. A terrifying sign of the times, like the September 11 attacks. A formative event of the new 21st century.

Except that, unlike the nationwide commemorations of 9/11, the 20th anniversary of the start of the war has crept up on us like an unwanted memory, hidden behind news of bank failures and miraculous weight-loss drugs. There is hardly a moment of national reckoning. No big saves. No commemorative stamp. It is the war no one wants to remember – and as an Iraqi American I will never forget.

The invasion irrevocably changed the course of my life and that of my family, and its aftermath continues to change our lives and destinies – from cousins ​​who are still displaced in the Middle East to their children, who lack anything but Iraqi citizenship was denied even though they were never there Iraq. It tore us apart and brought us back together, changing the identities of those lucky enough to survive seven years of war; the destruction of clean water, electricity and health care infrastructure; the rise of violent extremism; the return of rampant corruption; and the neglect of those who promised to help. For US troops who fought in the war, forgetting is no easier: though their scars and memories are markedly different, Iraq is one of them.

It’s understandable why people choose to overlook what is seen as a shameful chapter in American history. First, it became clear that the invasion was based on false information that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was colluding with Al Qaeda and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Then, after tens of thousands of lives lost and millions of Iraqis displaced, we left the region in a far worse state than we found it. It’s unclear when or if the region will ever recover.

My father’s family tree had roots in Baghdad that went back centuries until severed by war. My father was born in Iraq during the British Mandate. He learned to swim in the Tigris and honed his business acumen in his father’s tea shop off Rashid Street before setting up his own business. He was the first of his family to attend college at Baghdad University and the first to leave Iraq. In the late 1950’s he immigrated to Los Angeles where he attended USC, 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 was actually a real place, despite what they saw in Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Cancer took dad in the late 1980s; Ironically, it was caused by schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease caused by flatworms found in the rivers of North Africa and the Middle East. While Baghdad had come back to claim him, his death meant that we – the only American Alis – lost our connection with Iraq, and that rift grew with the discord of world politics. Hussein’s dictatorship, the Gulf War of the early 1990s, the US-led embargo and our poor knowledge of Arabic pushed us further away from our aunts, uncles and 35 first cousins ​​abroad. Despite this, my sisters and I thought that family would always stay in Iraq and Baghdad would always be there for us.

When Operation Shock and Awe hit Baghdad, I saw neither a lit Christmas tree nor spectacular fireworks. I imagined losing people I loved forever. It marked the beginning of a journey to find my family wherever I could: Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and, yes, finally Baghdad, in an attempt to pull us back together as the region fell apart. What I found was life-affirming and heartbreaking.

My Iraqi family has been, and continues to be, shaped by every phase of the conflict. They hid in bathtubs and under stairs during the bombing raids and watched in horror as antiquities were looted from Iraq’s National Museum in the first month of the war. They fled across closed borders with terminally ill children by bribing border guards in 2006 and narrowly escaped a mass execution by Islamic insurgents after US troops withdrew. Even today, they pay extortionate fees to transport the bodies of loved ones back to Wadi al Salam, a holy cemetery for Shia Muslims in Najaf, Iraq.

Iraqi soldiers surrender to US Marines in this March 21, 2003 file photo

Iraqi soldiers surrender to US Marines in March 2003.

(Laura Rauch / Associated Press)

If that sounds like a sob story, that’s because it is. It’s hard not to cry when I remember the last conversation I had with my uncle Mahdi before he died outside his home country. He was sick and languishing in a hot apartment in a refugee enclave in Syria. The banter of children who should have been at school in Baghdad punctuated our conversation as they played soccer out in the wasteland. I sat by Mahdi’s bedside for days and heard stories about his childhood and the fall of a city he loved. He asked me to write about what I saw him going through—the expulsion, the loss—so the rest of the world could understand. If only I had this power.

But here I am now asking: Please don’t forget Uncle Mahdi, or any of the others whose lives were ended and changed forever by a war that no one wants to remember.

However, the imperative to remember does not only refer to blame. It is both about analyzing our intentions in the moment and recognizing the consequences of our actions afterwards. The invasion was sold to the American public as a patriotic and corrective measure, punishment for attacks on American soil, and protection against future conspiracies. Despite a bewildering lack of evidence implicating Hussein, the country came together around a common goal: stop the bad guys.

At the time of the invasion, I was working for Newsweek magazine, where even the veteran senior editors discussed the events like abstractions on a map: where are the critical strategic points in the city? The government headquarters? TV channel? oil refineries? It was perhaps the last time the US media and the US public united behind something, and as the facade crumbled so did our confidence in a system that accorded war architects so much unilateral power.

Acknowledging the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war requires some pretty rigorous introspection. As in Vietnam, the US invaded Iraq with no idea of ​​what was to come after the initial bombing and lost the war in a slow drip of missteps. We must recognize these patterns of the past if we are ever to change them. And we must be ready to concede its counterpart in the present – as Russia, a huge military power, invades Ukraine, a small sovereign country, under its own false pretense of liberation – to hit back.

Baghdad may have looked deserted in that early feed of “Shock and Awe” footage we all saw 20 years ago. But now it’s clear what was missing in the frame: people. For those of us who experienced the Flood or who were in touch with the frightened people below, this day is not something we have to force ourselves to remember. It is a tragedy that we cannot and should never forget.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2023-03-19/iraq-war-20th-anniversary-remembrance Few want to remember the Iraq War. It’s dangerous to forget

Alley Einstein

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