Here’s another post that’s been sitting on my hard drive that was supposed to get published somewhere else.
Suddenly, people are interested in Iraq again.
Violence in Iraq has steadily spiraled out of control for the past year, long before the black flags of al-Qaeda flew over Fallujah. 2013 was the worst year in Iraq in terms of violence since 2008, when US forces were at the tail end of the “surge.”
But the image of those flags has suddenly made Iraq relevant again, especially for American veterans who fought there. Symbols matter, and until Fallujah was decisively captured in November 2004, it stood as the chief symbol of resistance to US forces in Iraq.
There is something very selfish about watching the violence in Iraq and wondering how Iraq war veterans feel about it. It is the Iraqi people after all, who are suffering in this growing wave of violence, and it is the Iraqi military who will be charged with going ‘house-to-house’ this time. Having left Iraq in 2011, we have the luxury to wax nostalgically about Operation Phantom Fury and ‘what it all means.’
If history is any indicator, this sudden interest in Iraq will be short-lived, and as a country we will soon go back to ignoring it, along with that other war.
That is unfortunate. Whether we like it or not, whenever we hear the word ‘Iraq’ it will forever carry that same dull sting we feel when we hear the word ‘Vietnam.’ We will not be able to think of Iraq except through the lens of war. Our histories are cosmically intertwined. And instead of ignoring it, we should embrace it. Especially the men and women who served there.
Last year, as we approached the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, I felt a strong need to get it all out. I deployed during the invasion and that experience of being a part of it and the subsequent occupation was formative and everlasting. I always imagined that when I came home, I would sit down at the kitchen table with my parents and layout all of the pictures I took and explain to them how the whole experience went down. From start to finish. A long night of beer and emotion. Laying it all out, once and for all.
That never happened. Instead, the war dripped out, slowly, over years and only in short, meaningless anecdotes. Boasting at the bar with friends after a few drinks. In the field eating MREs with soldiers who weren’t there. At the mall with my wife, a familiar smell or sound jarring me into revealing a fading memory from Karbala or Baghdad as we lazily walked from store to store.
A few years ago, I was interviewing Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War for my dissertation. They confessed to me that they had never really spoken to anyone about their war experiences. Terrible, formative experiences – bottled up and ignored for decades. I watched them and scribbled notes, realizing later that I was doing the same thing with my own war experiences.
My sister served. My best friend served. But we never talked about it, not in a serious way. The research I did convinced me that the healthiest thing to do was share the experience in a serious manner.
The anniversary came, newspapers ran retrospective ‘ten years later’ pieces. I wrote about my perspective as a young soldier in Kuwait, learning that the war had begun from an overeager soldier who had learned it from the television in the chow tent.
I decided I would gather up all of my pictures and letters home and go through them and put them on my blog. I tried my best to time it right to get the relevant posts up exactly ten years later.
The project became engrossing. What I initially imagined as a weekly post with a picture or excerpt from a letter became a time-intensive undertaking. I spent my weekends researching my own life, matching pictures to letters and talking with old friends to get details right. I woke up early on the weekends and wrote the posts for the week, scheduling them to go live at as close to the exact moment, ten years later, as I could.
Friends who served with me cheered me on, saying that I captured the way they felt back then, even though to me the war felt very personal. Their laudatory comments compelled me to treat even more seriously the events that held a special place in my experience. Like the Battle of As Samawah. Or the day we swam in Saddam’s pool. Or the week we spent at Baghdad Airport playing Halo.
Writing about Iraq every day forced me to relive things I’d long forgotten. It also forced me to pay closer attention to what’s happening there now. While I wrote about R&R in Qatar and Brazilian belly dancers in 2003, car bombs detonated in Baghdad in 2013. I wondered about the Iraqis in my pictures, children who were now young adults. I wondered if they remembered me, or if they were even still alive.
I hung in there and continued on into the boring last few months of the deployment.
And now I’m done. I came back from Iraq on January 23, 2004. My year-long project is over. It was fun and interesting and now it’s done. I’ll go on and Iraq will still be there, smoldering.
It is peculiar to me that Iraq is suddenly interesting again. The headlines coming out of Iraq the past ten years have always been grim. Dead bodies and explosions. More killed there than other places. If I had to guess, people just expect that from Iraq. We have grown numb to it. It took the silly raising of a flag – a symbolic gesture – to wrestle the attention of a media-saturated American public to care, if even for a moment.
I hope that people will pay more attention this time. I’m not holding my breath.