Sixteen years and two days ago, the United States invaded Iraq.
Sixteen times this date has come and gone. More and more it does without much more than a brief mention in passing. Sixteen times it’s come since we fumbled clumsily with the questions of accountability. Sixteen times we’ve missed the opportunity to have an honest dialogue about what it all means for people like me who served there.
Yesterday Congresswoman Ilhan Omar took to Twitter with some sharp words. “16 years ago the U.S. illegally invaded Iraq, leaving a trail of destruction and lives lost…We must hold accountable those who repeatedly lied in the run-up to war”
I served in Iraq. And I served in Africa. I’ve been to southern Somalia near where Congresswoman Omar grew up. I’ve seen the types of camps in eastern Kenya from which she immigrated to the United States. And so I wouldn’t expect her to let issues related to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East pass without remark. Her district elected her to give voice to marginalized people, including the global citizens impacted by our decisions to go to war in regions few here in America will ever see.
In as much as it matters, as one of the 1.5 million service members who served in Iraq, I take no offense.
It’s taken a bit of time for me to wrestle with my role in the war in Iraq. And though it might be easy for me to backslide into an apologetic posture, some form of revisionist regret, I won’t. And it might be equally as easy to double down on my patriotism and dive headlong into a jingoistic rant about all that the world owes me for standing the watch. I won’t do that either. Because the reality is more nuanced than either of those approaches allow.
The reality is that I volunteered to serve in the United States armed forces. And to some degree, I voluntarily served in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq took days. The war took years. The overwhelming majority of those that served spent their time protecting themselves and others from the violence of the aftermath of the invasion. And in that context, our life of service in war played out.
We were once warriors.
A warrior’s life is the sacrifice of service. A warrior’s life is war. It’s not at odds with the message of love and grace that my faith teaches me. For us, war was love for the men and women we served with and for. For us, war was love and grace and charity for those we protected. For those we swore to give all we had and ever will have to see them safe.
I know what I did there. It’s not at odds with who I am. It took me a while to get that, but I did. And so the belonging and brotherhood I felt in doing it is nothing I look back on differently, no matter how obvious a mistake the war has become since I fought in it.
Wondering over the Twitter-verse today, in reflection of the heroism witnessed in the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand, writer Julia Galef asked “How would one train for heroism?”
Most replies were what you’d expect. Military training. Combat experience. Other kinetics. For me, the answer comes out of the same reflection I had on my time in service in Iraq. The true heroism I witnessed didn’t come from training. It didn’t come from glory seeking violence. It came from valuing others around you so much, that you couldn’t bear to see them hurt if it were up to you.
No matter what the cost.
As it pertains to my role in the war, that’s all that matters.
As it pertains to our role in that war…that’s another story. We do more to dishonor those who serve by not insisting we take an honest account of our government’s record on how when and why we go to war than we ever will by speaking up.
That’s a lesson I hope lasts longer than 16 years.