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A Permanent Scar: The 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the Global War on Terror, and the Irreversible Damage to the American Psyche.

21 years later, how has the legacy of the Iraq War shaped our current day?

By Isaac Escamilla

“My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger. On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign… to all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you. That trust is well placed.”

These were the words of President George W. Bush on March 19, 2003, at 10:16 PM EST, as he addressed the nation. Operation Iraqi Freedom, the operational codename for the Invasion of Iraq, would begin on March 20, 2003, at 5:34 AM. Operation Iraqi Freedom would last 42 days, leaving over 35,000 people dead and the removal of Saddam Hussein, the President and dictator of Iraq from office.

Before the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi government had already fought a war against the United States alongside coalition forces in Kuwait in the Gulf War. The Iraqi government, more so Saddam Hussein, would invade the neighboring country of Kuwait, hoping to cancel the debts that were owed to the Kuwaiti government and accusations of “slant drilling” towards Kuwait, which was the process of drilling and taking oil from Iraqi oil fields. The Gulf War would only last over a month once coalition forces invaded Iraq.

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) was created to ensure the disarmament of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was ordered to ensure the disarmament of the Iraqi nuclear program. Scott Ritter, a member of UNSCOM, stated in 1999 that “Iraq today possesses no meaningful weapons of mass destruction capability.” Ritter also went on to say that “ 1998, 90–95% of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical capabilities, and long-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering such weapons, had been verified as destroyed.”

In the months following the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, members of the Bush Administration, alongside multiple members of Congress, and the media, would bang the same drum. There were reports of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq and the possibility of nuclear weapons. Despite the fact there was proof against that, multiple politicians such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham and the Bush Administration would keep stating that Iraq had WMDs.

From a speech on September 5th, 2002, Bush would give a speech in Louisville, Kentucky. “I take the threat very seriously. I take the fact that he develops weapons of mass destruction very seriously. I remember the fact that he had invaded two countries before. I know for a fact that he's poisoned his people. He doesn't believe in the worth of each individual. He doesn't believe in public dissent. I look forward to a dialogue. I will remind them that history has called us into action, that we love freedom, and that we will be deliberate, patient, and strong in the values that we adhere to. But we can't let the world's worst leaders blackmail, threaten, hold freedom-loving nations hostage with the world's worst weapons.” This was one of many speeches Bush would have both before and after the war, justifying the invasion of Iraq.

There are multiple differing opinions about the invasion of Iraq, but there is one fact. The Bush Administration and many other politicians would repeatedly repeat lie over lie, even in the face of evidence stating that there were no significant WMDs left in Iraq.

“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Colin Powell, who was the United States Secretary of State told the United Nations Security Council about Iraqi WMDs on February 5, 2003.

In late 2002, the United States government began to build a case against the government of Iraq for an intervention, with accusations of expelling UN weapons inspectors for the genocide of their people, which had mostly targeted the Kurdish people of Iraq, most prominently in the Anfal campaign of 1988, which had killed 50,000 - 100,000 people.

Key NATO members, such as France, Canada, and Germany would both denounce and were increasingly critical of the increasing escalation of the conflict, with Jean Chretien, the Canadian Prime Minister 2003 announcing on March 17, 2003, that he would not support a war in Iraq. “If military action proceeds without the new resolution of the Security Council (United Nations Security Council), Canada will not participate.”

Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister at the time, would state at a United Nations Security Council meeting on February 14, 2003, that, “No one can assert today that the path of war will be shorter than that of the inspections. No one can claim either that it might lead to a safer, more just, and more stable world. War is always the sanction of failure.

Would this be our sole recourse in the face of the many challenges at this time? So let us allow the United Nations inspectors the time they need for their mission to succeed… In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The onerous responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament in peace.”

Despite multiple protests, including the largest protests ever in the history of humanity on February 15, 2003, the invasion would continue. From March 20 to May 1, 2003, the United States military and coalition forces stormed through Iraq, successfully overthrowing Saddam Hussein, who was finally captured on December 20, 2003.

The easy part was over, now was the hard part. The United States government would begin their occupation of Iraq, spanning from 2003 to 2011, attempting to install a democratic government while rebuilding Iraq, but this wouldn’t happen peacefully. Coalition forces would fight an Iraqi insurgency composed of former soldiers, religious zealots, and ordinary men who took up arms against their occupiers. Violence between Shia and Shi’ite sects would lead to the Iraqi Civil War which spanned from 2006 to 2008 and ended with an Iraqi government victory.

The occupation would see fierce fighting, most notoriously in the 2nd Battle of Fallujah which occurred from November 7 to December 23, 2004. It was the bloodiest battle in the entirety of the occupation, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead. The 2nd Battle of Fallujah was recorded from multiple angles, becoming one of the most publicized battles of the war.

The occupation of Iraq would kill 4,825 coalition soldiers, wounding over 30,000. Estimates for Iraqi casualties range from 35,000 to 71,000. This occupation would bring home into the United States a trait that hadn’t been much discussed since the time of Vietnam. It brought back the resurgence of the traumatized soldier in popular media and the social psyche, the vision of wounded veterans who had been abandoned by their government. Many veterans felt discontent towards their government, they had felt like they were abandoned.

The most famous incident of discontent towards George W. Bush in recent memory from a United States veteran would occur on September 19, 2021, during a speech in Beverly Hills. Mike Prysner, a former United States Army veteran would confront former president George W. Bush during a speech. “You sent me to Iraq, you sent me to Iraq in 2003! My friends are dead! You killed people! You lied about WMDs! A million Iraqis are dead because YOU LIED! My friends are dead because YOU LIED!”

Iraq was not the only country that had been invaded, Afghanistan had been invaded and occupied since 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. A just war at first, which had turned into a bloodbath, leaving 2,459 American soldiers dead, with 20,769 wounded from their service. Combined, there were over 51,000 American soldiers injured, with 6,890 being killed according to official estimates.

The War in Afghanistan would last a little over 20 years. Upon withdrawal from Afghanistan in late 2021, the American-aligned government would fall in a little under a few weeks. 2,459 Americans died, 20,769 were wounded, while 70,000 Afghanistani civilians were estimated to have died during the war, with at least 75,000 being wounded, an estimate that is guessed to be under-reported due to the extreme conditions inside of Afghanistan.. 52,893 Taliban insurgents were reported to be killed. This is over 221,000 people who have become casualties of war over 20 years.

The advancement in medical and military technology had drastically brought down the death count compared to the Vietnam War, but more wounded men came back home. Images of wounded veterans with missing limbs, plus scandals relating to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, most notably the Walter Reed Army Medical Center neglect scandal, which focused on disgusting and decrepit living conditions for wounded soldiers who had returned from war, and the 2014 Veterans Health Administration controversy, which accused the VA of neglecting veterans in regards of appointments.

The prevalence of PTSD amongst the veterans that came home was at 8% for lifetime PTSD, while 4.8% of veterans had current PTSD according to “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in the US Veteran Population: Results From the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study”, a study assessing PTSD amongst veterans. A study by the Department of Veteran Affairs found that 11-20% of soldiers who served in Iraq developed PTSD, while 40% of veterans who served in Afghanistan developed PTSD according to Berry Law, a legal organization that represents veterans' disability.

According to the organization, “Stop Soldier Suicide”, 125,000 veterans have committed suicide since 2001, the start of the Global War on Terror. Suicide is the 2nd most common cause of death for veterans under 45. If you were to rank the number of suicide deaths in comparison to the deadliest American wars, the number of veteran suicides would place third, only being beaten by World War II and the Civil War.

The invasion of Iraq, the tens of thousands who died directly, and the hundreds of thousands who were affected because of it indirectly, the instability in the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq, plus the 20-year-long occupation of Afghanistan have left a permanent scar on the American psyche, a scar that has many people split. For multiple years, there were movies about wars in the Middle East, video games, books, everything; the insurgents of the Middle East replaced Russians as the villains in popular media.

The scars of the Global War on Terror, which the Iraq War and Afghanistan War were a part of, will affect the peoples of both America and the Middle East for generations, a region that will be dominated by civil wars, strife, and conflict as long as the current conditions still exist. ISIS has come and fallen, the Syrian Civil War is still ongoing, even after both Russian and American intervention, and Afghanistan has fallen again. American interventionism has left deep, permanent scars on the psyche of many people.

“It takes a strong man to deny what's right in front of him. And if the truth is undeniable, you create your own. The truth, Walker, is that you're here because you wanted to feel like something you're not: A hero.” - John Konrad from Spec Ops: The Line, a video game published in 2012, detailing a fictional failed American intervention and rescue operation in Dubai.

"I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will be greeted as liberators.” - Dick Cheney. March 16, 2003.

“Do not yield. Do not flinch. Stand up. Stand up with our President and fight. We're Americans. We're Americans, and we'll never surrender. They will.” - Senator John McCain. August 30, 2004.

“I just want to be normal, live a normal life. I’m sure I’ll be alright. This place, it’ll make you pretty hard, give you some thick skin.” Corporal William Wold during the 2nd Battle of Fallujah. He died from an overdose in 2006 at the age of 23.

“We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.” - President’s Commission on WMDs. March 30, 2005.

The administration, in the face of overwhelming evidence, protests, international condemnation, and the refusal of major NATO allies to invade Iraq, would still make the fateful decision to invade. George W. Bush, his cabinet, and all of the war hawks in the face of undeniable truth, created their truth. This is a truth that killed hundreds of thousands and wounded more.

The scars of our past fade with time, but they will always be forever present in the psyche of the American people. Countless generations bled on the sands of the Middle East on all sides of the conflict, but the memories and scars will live on for many more generations.


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