Earlier this week, as Austin nursed its collective SXSW intellectual and artistic hangovers, the freshness and transparency that are hallmarks of the yearly festival slowly yielded the headlines to the developing storyline of a serial bomber who was terrorizing our city. As law enforcement publicly pieced together their case and a small army of federal agents occupied Austin, the 15th anniversary of America’s 2003 iniquitous invasion of Iraq came and went mostly unnoticed, overshadowed by imminent explosive threats and the steady stream of incendiary presidential tweets.
In 2004, I naively volunteered to serve in Iraq. Like other veterans of that war, I believed the Bush administration’s assertions linking Saddam Hussein to terrorism sponsorship, weapons of mass destruction and anything that the government wanted to posit. In my post 9-11 fever, I was foolishly and ignorantly motivated by talking points. I believed that if I deployed, I might make the world safer and my kids would never see another 9-11. Romantic notions at best fueled by a lifetime in uniform. I believed in a lot of things — and then I didn’t.
VIEWPOINTS: Austin bombings were acts of terror.
During my first month in country, we experienced an average of 130 attacks per week. Our compound at Phoenix Base and our riverside camp were routinely peppered with rocket and mortar fire. In my second month, there were more than 2,600 improvised explosive device attacks throughout the country — 900 in Baghdad alone. By the third month, attacks were up to more than 500 per week — and by the time summer arrived, U.S. military casualties were averaging 28 per day and in Baghdad during that first year of occupation, when roughly 350 Iraqis died each month.
Immersed in that bloodbath, we somehow found the ability to breathe, even if our snorkels were inhaling toxic smoke from burn pits. In that misery, we marched to directionless objectives most of us would never reach during our yearlong deployment. As then-Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, my incongruously optimistic former boss used to say, it was “setting up the next guy for success,” or “building the airplane in flight.”
EDITORIAL BOARD: Bomber is dead, but case not over with many questions that linger.
After my tour, I waited to see that elusive and distant measure of success — and it sadly never came. I waited for more than 10 years, rethinking every decision, every action, every inaction — and second-guessing my life away because I had so desperately wanted to get things right while I was there. What remained in the aftermath was strife, sectarianism, corruption and death. When we took a sledgehammer to Iraq, we left 26 million people in the rubble. It is estimated that more than 1 million Iraqis have died since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. The war killed 4,486 U.S. military personnel — and more than 1 million have been injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Austin bomber killed himself almost 15 years exactly after the United States invaded Iraq; now the media is trying to piece together a profile of who he was. They are trying to help us understand why he became a serial bomber. The motives, for now, remain a mystery — and questions persist in the aftermath of the blasts that killed. Mostly, people are asking why?
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Similarly, this week, a few national columnists revisited the American invasion of Iraq. They penned a few words, got some social-media buzz and moved on to another topic. But many of them asked, even rhetorically, why?
For millions of Americans, Iraq is a closed book — something we were forced to study but failed to comprehend. Hopefully, the lessons that are captured within its chapters will not be forgotten or repeated.
The United States irrevocably changed the trajectory of Iraq’s history. Sadly, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it might be a story with no end.