January 17, 2011
U.S. war planes flying over burning oil wells during Desert Storm, 1991
The U.S. war against Iraq, fought largely under the command of two presidents from the Bush family and Dick Cheney (Secretary of Defense 1989-1993), is now twenty years old. Michael T. McPhearson, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, who later served as executive director of Veterans for Peace, wrote this piece about the 20-year-war in Iraq.
A New Jersey veteran’s hope for Iraq
Michael T. McPhearson
Star-Ledger, 16 January 2011
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. That campaign ”” which was to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait ”” began on Jan. 16, 1991.
I remember wondering how many of us would die, how many would return home scarred or broken. Would I ever see my wife and 5-year-old son again? I never imagined U.S. troops would still be fighting there ”” 11 years into the next century.
After I left the Army in 1992, I paid little attention to U.S. activities in Iraq, although I knew that our forces never ended military operations there. Containment was the policy.
Operation Southern Watch, begun in August 1992 to enforce a no fly-zone over southern Iraq, did not officially end until 2003. 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 Dec. 16, 1998.
One summer day in 2001, I saw activists in New York City holding a sign reporting that half a million Iraqi children had died, due in part to U.S.-led economic sanctions. I began to feel some responsibility. Then, 9/11 happened and the drum beat for more war on Iraq began anew. By that time, the United States had been dropping bombs on Iraq for 10 years.
Today, when most Americans think of Iraq, the March 20, 2003, invasion is the date they remember. That is far from reality.
In December of that year, as part of a peace delegation of military families and veterans, I visited Baghdad. The city was bustling with people going about their lives, yet bombed-out buildings served as a backdrop and access to basics such as water and electricity was unpredictable. Sectarian violence had not yet exploded, but many people ”” especially women ”” feared for their safety.
The delegation met with an Iraqi human rights activist who, through an interpreter, shared the perspective of many Iraqis. The man, who appeared to be in his late 50s, told us 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, boasted back then of having U.S. help. He went on to remind us of the 1991 invasion and the following decade of misfortune under U.S.-led economic sanctions. He spoke of the March 2003 invasion and occupation mounted by the United States to remove the dictator it helped put into power. Our nation, he said, has meddled in his country’s affairs for more than 40 years. His feelings were reiterated by many other Iraqis I spoke with over the course of my visit.
Since then, I have returned to Iraq seeking peace, my 5-year-old son grew up and, like his father, served a tour waging war in Iraq. In 2009, the Obama administration declared the end of U.S. combat missions in Iraq, U.S. troop levels have been reduced to 50,000 and the United States has pledged to remove all troops by the end of this year.
We helped place Saddam Hussein into power and supported him, expecting him to act in our interest, and the Iraqi people have paid a high price for his removal. Today, unemployment in Iraq is estimated as high as 30 percent. Electricity continues to be sporadic and, in many parts of the country, clean water is not readily available. Birth defects in areas of heavy fighting, such as Fallujah, have increased due to the use of uranium munitions by U.S. forces. Sectarian violence, while low compared to 2004, continues to take lives and destroy families.
Forty years of meddling and 20 years of war are enough. We must not allow the Obama administration to drag its feet or back out of leaving Iraq.
Freedom is the ability to chart one’s own destiny, not have it decided by a power thousands of miles away. We owe it to the Iraqi people. They have suffered enough.
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