Most high school students spend their prom nights at a series of endless after-parties. But in April 2003, my date parked his car a few hundred feet away from my house and turned off the headlights. My dress, pink and strapless, bunched underneath my 15-year-old frame as he loosened his tie and turned on the radio.
"You hear that?" he asked, turning up the volume. The announcer spoke in harried tones, over loud crashes and the sound of sirens. "It's happening right now."
The U.S. Army — our parents' employer — was invading Baghdad.
There's a famous video clip of that day. As tanks rolled in, Iraqi men and young boys clapped and danced in Firdaus Square, rejoicing that their former dictator, a mass murderer, was finally gone. A man slammed a sledgehammer into the base of a statue of Saddam Hussein, slung a noose around its neck, and with the help of U.S. forces, toppled the statue to the ground. The crowd kicked and stomped Saddam's iron form, sending plumes of dirt into the air, and their liberation into the history books. I remember feeling proud.
As the daughter of a retired U.S. Army colonel, I have a lot of conflicting feelings about the war in Iraq, and in particular the civil war that is raging there today. In recent weeks, a militant coalition called ISIS, which stands for the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria, has taken over swaths of Iraq in an attempt to create a terrorist state. Many experts describe ISIS as the "third generation" of Al-Qaeda, a group that is as disciplined as it is fanatic, as swift as it is brutal, and as uncompromising as it is ruthless to those who might oppose it. From mass executions and child kidnappings to sophisticated air assaults, ISIS is on the verge of its own invasion of Baghdad — something its leaders announced via Twitter, along with ads for $10 T-shirts bearing the ISIS logo.
A lot has changed in a decade.
Today, when I listen to the news on the radio, a heaviness fills my chest. A sickness rises, borne by an endless barrage of questions: What is happening in our world? Why did we get involved in Iraq in the first place? Will this happen again in Afghanistan? What will this mean for our safety moving forward?
It's difficult to answer those questions because for me, policy has never been just policy. It's people. It's my sister, exhausted by the three years she spent as a single mother with her husband deployed. It's my Sunday-school teacher, killed by a roadside bomb in 2008. It's countless friends and sisters and brothers and fathers, wounded inside and out, by the war required to combat an enemy that carries no national flag.
Though it's been years since I held a valid Army ID card, my friends and family in the military still answer my calls, emails and Facebook queries. They know I want to understand. But the questions I have are the ones they're asking too.
Some remember loved ones. Others recall Vietnam in 1975, when Communists from the North overran the South within months of the U.S. departure. (Although they note the Viet Cong weren't planning assaults on the West the way Al-Qaeda and ISIS will certainly continue to do.) Some say an Iraqi civil war was inevitable. Others say we should never have pulled out.
But from what I can gather, they agree on one thing: There is no sense in playing the "what-if" game.
What-if is a luxury of pundits. It's a pastime fueled by fear and doubt. It holds onto a false hope that there is an alternate reality, and in that world there could have been peace. For better or worse, the military and the democracy that writes its orders are tasked with a much more difficult question.
What do we do now?
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