by Michael T. McPhearson
Twenty years ago this month I sat in the vast wilderness of the Arabian Desert as a Captain in the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division waiting to invade Iraq. I remember wondering how many of us would die, how many would return home scarred, broken. Would I ever see my wife and five year old son again? I never imagined U.S. troops would still be fighting in there eleven years into the next century. Today when most people think of Iraq they think of the 2003 invasion, justified as the appropriate response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. People think March 20 will mark eight years of U.S. war on Iraq; this is far from the reality.
In December 2003, as part of a peace delegation of military families and veterans, I visited Baghdad and sat with an Iraqi human rights activist who spoke the truth as many Iraqis see it. The man, who appeared to be in his late 50’s, told us through an interpreter that “…all the Iraqi suffering is because of the Americans.” He explained that Saddam Hussein’s Baath party cronies, who came to power via a 1968 coup after a failed 1963 attempt, boasted of having U.S. help. He went on to remind us of the first invasion and the following decade of Iraqi suffering under U.S. led economic sanctions. He ended his comments citing the March 2003 invasion and ongoing occupation mounted by the U.S. to remove a dictator that the U.S. helped put into power. According to this Iraqi in Iraq, our nation has meddled in his country’s affairs for over forty years. His feelings were confirmed by many other Iraqis I spoke with over the course of my visit.
After I left the Army in 1992, I paid little attention to U.S. activities in Iraq, although I knew that U.S. forces had never ended military operations there. Containment was the policy. Operation Southern Watch begun in August 1992 to enforce the no fly-zone over southern Iraq did not officially end until the 2003 invasion. There were Operations Vigilant Warrior in 1994 and Desert Strike in 1996, which expanded the no fly-zone to parts of northern Iraq. There was Operation Desert Fox, a four day bombing campaign launched on December 16, 1998.
According to GlobalSecuritiey.org, between 1992 and 2001 allied pilots entered the no fly-zone over southern Iraq 153,000 times. I remember hearing about some of these actions, but rarely, and news outlets and politicians seldom discussed or questioned our Iraq policy.
Then one summer day in 2001, I was confronted by activists in New York City holding a sign reporting that half a million Iraqi children died due in part to the U.S. led economic sanctions. This made me take notice. I began to feel some responsibility for my role in my nation’s foreign policy toward Iraq, so I began to learn more. A few months later, boom; September 11 happened, and the drum beat for more war on Iraq began anew. By that time, counting from the day of my invasion, the U.S. had been dropping bombs on Iraq for 10 years.
Since then, as I mentioned, I have returned to Iraq seeking peace, my five year old son grew up and like his father, served a tour waging war in Iraq, the Obama Administration declared the end of U.S combat missions in Iraq, U.S. troop levels have been reduced to 50 thousand and the U.S. has pledged to remove all troops by the end of this year.
Is this 20 year nightmare for the Iraqi people about to end? I don’t know, but I do know that after 20 years it is time for the U.S. to leave the Iraqis alone. Do not let media spin and labels like Gulf War and Iraq War distort the truth. January 16, 2001 was the real start of our invasion of Iraq. From the time of the Baath Party coup through Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and now Obama, U.S policy has meant nothing but hell for the Iraqi people.
Forty years of meddling and 20 years of war is enough. We must not allow the Obama Administration to drag its feet or back out of leaving Iraq. We owe it to the Iraq people. They have suffered enough.
Michael T. McPhearson was a field artillery officer in the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during Desert Shield /Desert Storm, also known as Gulf War I. A Newark resident, Michael is currently the Co-convener of United for Peace and Justice and former Executive Director of Veterans For Peace.