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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1100 There are no winners in war. It never ends. Everyone who was involved will have to live with it

Day 1100: Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

There are no winners in war. It never ends. Everyone who was involved will have to live with it for the rest of their days.”

(Large banner created by St. Leo's and Pax Christi to oppose the Iraq War. Carried in many protests in the Bay Area)

Many people have forgotten about the Iraq War but a lot of people from Emmaus, St. Leo's, Pax Christi and so many other religious and citizen organizations who opposed the war remember all too well. The frustration about the lies being told about weapons of mass destruction. The lies Colin Powell told to the United Nations. The endless demonization of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people. And fear grew.

Folks from St. Leo's joined thousands of other people of all faiths, and none, in demonstrating, marching, and writing our elected representatives and the president. But President Bush was determined to punish Saddam and destroy this administration. In the end our voices didn't matter. And the war came.

The plan was to depose Saddam and dissolve the army. But after that? Nothing.

I tried to convince as many young men as I knew -- many of whom had been in my CCD classes at St. Leo's - to sign up as conscientious objectors to the war. Some did. Others didn't. A few went to war.

They carried weapons and decks of cards with names and faces of "the bad guys." Imagine. Young men sent to fight in a country they knew nothing about with no knowledge of its culture, history, religions or language. We broke that country, started a civil war which took hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and opened the door to ISIS.

As Christians, who espouse the non-violent Jesus as our brother and mentor, we stand against all forms of war. We need always and everywhere to surge peace and to explain that war is never the answer. Love is.

Here's a reflection from someone who was there: journalist Lulu Garcia-Navarro

It was supposed to be a farewell party.

Young soldiers and their barely older civilian government colleagues were dressed in swimming trunks, cannonballing into a palace pool that had once been a symbol of the deposed dictator Saddam Hussein’s power. Other young Americans were chowing down on corn on the cob and burgers. I was one of only two journalists on hand, having been sneaked in by a friend who was working with the American-run Coalition Provisional Authority, which was the transitional government in Iraq for the first year after the U.S.-led invasion.

It was emblematic but not surprising that there were no Iraqis there for the occasion, which was being billed as a celebration of the formal end of the Iraq war.

Paul Bremer, the American viceroy who had presided over a year of mismanagement and hubris, shed a tear as he told the crowd, “We’ve made Iraq a better place.” President George W. Bush showed up via video link to offer platitudes and then told everyone in his Texas twang, “Enjoy your barbecue.”

It was June 2004. The real killing had barely begun.

I spent almost a decade covering Iraq, first arriving in 2002 when the country was still under Mr. Hussein. It has now been 20 years since the start of the war, with all of its shock and awe. But on this anniversary, instead of thinking about how the war began, I’ve been contemplating whether wars end for the people who lived through them.

By the time I got there, Iraq had been suffering for decades. Hundreds of thousands of people had died in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; then came the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, followed by brutal U.N. sanctions and a program that gave oil to the energy-hungry West in return for food for an economically devastated Iraqi population.

American tanks rolling into the country in 2003 seemed, to many of the Iraqis I met at the time, only the latest calamity to befall them. Some, like the oppressed Shiite Muslims and Kurds, were initially ecstatic to have their enemy Mr. Hussein, and his Sunni elites on the run. But the haplessness of their new rulers quickly overcame that initial optimism.

A few days after the Americans took over Baghdad, I stood in front of the Ministry of Information as it burned, Iraqis looting whatever was left. I asked a group of American troops who were standing nearby why they weren’t doing anything. They looked at me as if I were crazy. They’d done their job, they’d “won the war,” they said, and now they were waiting to go home.

Over the next decade I would see the same cycle repeat itself: an America desperate to wash its hands of the tragedy it had wrought by downplaying the continuing violence or declaring short-lived victories. All while thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands, of Iraqis died, though an accurate tally may never be known.

In 2006, at the height of sectarian bloodletting fueled by power struggles between Shiite and Sunni militants, when the morgues were filled to bursting with those tortured and killed, I called an Iraqi friend who had fled the country because she had been threatened for being a Christian. She was part of an exodus that eventually numbered in the millions — people escaping so that their own experience of the war could end.

I was working for NPR at the time and I wanted to interview her, to hear what it was like to have left. She told me from the safety of a Scandinavian country that even though she was away from the violence — that her Iraq war had ended — she couldn’t let go.

“I’m just like crazy as each hour I rush to the TV. Sometimes I hear that there are explosions in the place where my colleagues used to work, or where my family lives,” she told me. “You know, my body is in Sweden, but my soul, and my heart, is still in Baghdad, you know? It’s so hard.”

It’s often fairly clear when a war begins. A trigger is pulled, a tank rolls over a border, a missile is fired. But how do wars end? In many ways, they don’t.

In the two decades since the start of what was at first called Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now known simply as the Iraq war, Americans sent as teenagers to fight in a war launched under false pretenses have been killing themselves in large numbers. An estimated 17 U.S. veterans, many who served in Iraq, take their lives every day.

For Iraqis, alongside the deaths at the hands of insurgents, militias and American troops, there were the tens of thousands injured, left to cope under an inadequate health care system with little support. A generation of Iraqi children scarred by what they lived through as they tried to rebuild their country. Hundreds of thousands of widows, many of whom ended up begging on the streets after their husbands were slaughtered.

And too many people who lived through the conflict came away with some kind of mental trauma. (My own PTSD would affect me for years. Even after intensive therapy, I still flinch and shudder when there are fireworks.)

More than seven years after the triumphant poolside barbecue, the last American troops formally pulled out of Iraq in December 2011. The headlines could finally be written that the Iraq war had ended.

“It’s hard to put words to it right now,” Lt. Col. Jack Vantress told CNN at the time. “It’s a feeling of elation,” he said, “to see what we’ve accomplished in the last eight and a half years and then to be part of the last movement out of Iraq.”

As it turned out, U.S. troops, alongside Iraqi forces, would be back battling ISIS fighters for control of Mosul, in northern Iraq, until 2017, ending with the jihadists routed and the ancient city laid to waste.

Americans who never went to Iraq do not think much about what happened there. According to a recent survey, the Iraq war is “largely invisible and out of mind" for a majority of us. Even young Iraqis are hopefully putting the war behind them.

But amnesia or a will to move on can’t erase what was a colossal and catastrophic mistake.

Wars don’t end the same way they begin. A retreat across a border doesn’t erase the legacy of what transpired. Every person who lived through the Iraq war is haunted by it. The wreckage it caused lives on.

A slip-up by the man who started it all only underscores that point.

Last May, Mr. Bush was giving a speech in which he mentioned President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In a glaring Freudian slip, he condemned the “wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq” when he meant to say “Ukraine.

Mr. Bush shook his head, then quickly blamed his age for the gaffe. The crowd laughed. The clip went viral. But all I could think was: Maybe his Iraq war had never ended, either.

I put that thought to an Iraqi friend and former colleague.

He told me he took some comfort in what he saw as a confession and an acknowledgment — even if subconscious — of all that had been lost.

“I think he lives with that guilt, too,” my friend said. “There are no winners in war. It never ends. Everyone who was involved will have to live with it for the rest of their days.”

By Lulu Garcia-Navarro

Ms. Garcia-Navarro is the host of the Times Opinion podcast “First Person.”

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