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Iraq War anniversary and shades of deja vu

Wire • Mar 19, 2013 at 9:07 AM

The 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq stirs up feelings of deja vu. There’s talk that Iran already has a nuclear bomb. And the United States is offering aid to Syria’s rebels and getting involved in another distant conflict. These developments recall the $1 trillion war, built on an incorrect premise.

We can’t help but ask why did we believe the claims of weapons of mass destruction, or that Saddam Hussein had ties to the Sept. 11 attacks? And we ask why the two main groups, military and civilian, had to pay such an enormous price for this war.

The total numbers of the dead are still uncertain. The number of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq is 4,486. And though official U.S. position is to not keep track of Iraqi civilian deaths, the conservative total puts that figure at 121,736.

The most common excuse given is that there was bad intelligence. Recently on a documentary called “Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War” was shown on MSNBC, a major planner of the war, Colin Powell’s chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson, said there had been a hoax Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. We wonder whether his “stuff happens” explanation is acceptable.

Personally I was opposed to the war not because I had any inside information but because I worried about my relatives in Iraq. Most of them told me they were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and soon after the invasion, I tried to give the new Iraq a chance. However 10 years on, those same relatives, who were comfortable before the war, still don’t have electricity, water or security. Car bombs explode fairly regularly and kill innocents at markets, schools and other civilian locations. Human Rights Watch charges that the regime is violating the rights of vulnerable citizens, especially women and Christians.

They agree life under Saddam Hussein was difficult, but it has become more difficult under Nouri al-Maliki. On the anniversary, the Iraqi people I know are asking why their choice must be limited to the two evils of tyranny and chaos.

As a U.S. citizen, I worked for the U.S. government in the Green Zone. I translated for some diplomats, and I worked with a lot of soldiers. It was a difficult position at times. At least one colleague occasionally asked me what kind of passport I carried, “regular or squiggle”? He meant a U.S. passport or an Arabic one. But the majority of the guys I worked with were fine young men and women proud to serve the United States. Sadly now they are home, and some feel abandoned.

A lot of soldiers have been unable to find a job. Many face the struggle of going from doing something important, serving our country and being treated with respect, to nothing.

It may have been easy to return to normal life after serving in a popular war such as World War II. But it’s hard, as we learned after Vietnam, to return home after serving in an unpopular war. So unpopular is the war that today our politicians don’t wish to say “Iraq,” perhaps hoping that it will disappear on its own. President Obama did not mention Iraq during his State of the Union speech. If he doesn’t talk about it, who will?

Clearly there is a need to talk about it. The number of unemployed veterans is 20 percent. While it’s a good start that a national department store chain announced its plans to hire 100,000 vets over the next five years, some fear it is not doing enough. The Veterans Administration reports that 30 percent of the troops treated have PTSD.

One veteran wrote a song about his experience. He called it, “I’m Evil.” I told him he was one of the kindest people I have ever known and could not possibly think of him in those terms. Regardless, that’s how he feels.

I asked him about the title of the song, he said: “You feel guilty, ashamed, lucky and cursed.”

I asked him why? Maj. Frank Vassar answered: “You can’t undo what you did. You wish you didn’t do what you did. But if you didn’t do what you did, you wouldn’t be here today,” he said. “It’s a circle. You never find an answer.”

Vassar is still with the Air Force. However, many soldiers are out of work. Vassar said potential employers should give the vet “a second look,” because ex-military types are good workers.

“Because of the way we’re regimented,” he said. “The way we stick to our times, we’re used to accomplishing things in a certain time periods. We develop a resolution from point A to point B.”

Companies might listen to the major’s advice and help the soldiers reintegrate after their service. But what of the others who had to pay for mistaken intelligence? Must Iraq’s civilians be reduced to a footnote?

As we hear the nervous talk about Iran and Syria, the answer to the question of whether the war was worth it, might well be no. But that should not diminish the contribution of the veteran. Maj. Vassar said, “I take my hat off to anyone who went over there. I definitely acknowledge that.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yasmine Bahrani is a former editor for McClatchy-Tribune and worked at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the Iraq War. This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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By Yasmine Bahrani (MCT)

© 2013, McClatchy-Tribune

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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