Baghdad’s skies were “lit up like a Christmas tree”.
The phrase, despite its light-hearted connotations, was used often during the first hours of the attack, which the US military dubbed Operation Shock and Awe, by newscasters who struggled to describe the alternately dark and explosive scenes broadcast from Baghdad. Twenty years ago today, a US-led coalition invaded the capital of Iraq, dropping bombs in the dead of night, decimating buildings and bridges before our eyes, igniting palm trees like raging torches.
The opening salvo of the Iraq war, watched by millions of Americans, was an assault we assumed we would never forget. A terrifying sign of the times, like the 9/11 attacks. A defining event of the new 21st century.
Except that the 20th anniversary of the start of the war, unlike the national commemorations of 9/11, has taken hold of us like an unwanted memory, hidden behind news of bank failures and miracle weight-loss drugs. There is no moment of national reckoning. No big shows. No commemorative postage stamp. It is the war that no one wants to remember and the one that, as an Iraqi American, I will never forget.
The invasion irrevocably changed the course of my life and that of my family, and its aftermath continues to reshape our lives and destinies, from cousins still displaced across the Middle East to their children denied everything but citizenship. Iraqi, even though they have never been to Iraq. It has torn us apart and reunited, changing the very identity of those lucky enough to survive seven years of war; the destruction of infrastructure for drinking water, electricity and medical care; the rise of violent extremism; the return of rampant corruption; and the neglect of those who swore to help. For the American troops who fought in the war, forgetting is not easy: although their scars and memories are markedly different, Iraq is part of them too.
People understandably prefer to gloss over what has come to be seen as a shameful chapter of American history. It first became clear that the invasion was based on false information that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was colluding with al Qaeda and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Then, after the loss of tens of thousands of lives and the displacement of millions of Iraqis, we left the region in considerably worse condition than we found it. It is unclear when, or if, the region will ever recover.
My father’s family tree had roots in Baghdad that went back centuries, until the war cut them short. My dad was born at the time of the British Mandate in Iraq. He learned to swim in the Tigris River and honed his business acumen at his father’s teahouse on Rashid Street before striking out on his own. He was the first in his family to attend college, Baghdad University, and the first to leave Iraq. In the late 1950s, he immigrated to Los Angeles, where he attended USC, met my mother, married, and settled in the San Fernando Valley. There, his three daughters spent much of their childhood trying to convince their classmates that Baghdad was a real place, despite what they saw in Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
Cancer took dad in the late 1980s; Ironically, it was caused by schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease caused by flatworms found in rivers in North Africa and the Middle East. Although Baghdad had returned to claim him, his death meant that we, the only American Alis, lost our connection to Iraq, and that chasm grew with the discord of global politics. Hussein’s dictatorship, the Gulf War of the early 1990s, the US-led embargo, and our poor Arabic language skills further estranged us from our aunts, uncles, and 35 first cousins abroad. Still, my sisters and I reasoned that family would always be in Iraq and that Baghdad would always be there for us.
So when “Operation Shock and Awe” hit Baghdad, I didn’t see a lit Christmas tree or a spectacular fireworks display. I imagined losing the people I loved, forever. It marked the beginning of a journey to find my family wherever I could: Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and, yes, finally, Baghdad, in an attempt to make amends as the region fell apart. What I found was life affirming and heartbreaking.
My Iraqi family was, and continues to be, marked by every stage of the conflict. They hid in bathtubs and under stairs during the bombing campaign and watched in horror as antiquities were looted from the National Museum of Iraq during the first month of the war. They fled across closed borders with mortally ill children in 2006 by bribing border guards and narrowly escaped mass execution by Islamic insurgents after the withdrawal of US troops. Today, they still pay extortion fees to transport the bodies of their loved ones back to Wadi al Salam, a sacred burial ground for Shia Muslims in Najaf, Iraq.
If this sounds like a sad story, that’s because it is. It’s hard not to cry remembering the last conversation I had with my uncle Mahdi before he died outside his homeland. He was ill, languishing in a hot apartment in a refugee enclave in Syria. The jokes of children who should have been in school, in Baghdad, punctuated our conversation as they played football on the wasteland outside. I sat for days at Mahdi’s bedside, listening to stories of his childhood and the fall of a city he loved. He asked me to write about what I saw him go through, the displacement, the loss, so that the rest of the world would understand. If only he had that power.
But here I am now, asking: Please don’t forget Uncle Mahdi, or any of the others whose lives were ended and forever changed by a war no one wants to remember.
However, the imperative to remember is not simply about blaming. It is as much about analyzing our intentions in the moment as it is about recognizing the consequences of our actions after the fact. The invasion was sold to the American public as a patriotic and corrective measure, punishment for attacks on American soil, and protection against future plots. Despite the shocking lack of evidence implicating Hussein, the country came together behind a shared goal: stopping the bad guys.
At the time of the invasion, I was working at Newsweek magazine, where even seasoned editors discussed events as if they were abstractions on a map: Where are the city’s critical vantage points? The govern’s site? TV stations? Oil refineries? It was perhaps the last time the American media and the American public united behind a cause, and as the facade fell, so did our confidence in a system that allowed the architects of war so much unilateral power.
Acknowledging the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war requires some pretty hard soul searching. As it did in Vietnam, the United States invaded Iraq with little vision of what was to come after the initial bombing and lost the war in a slow trickle of missteps. We need to recognize these patterns from the past if we are ever to change them. And we must be willing to admit its analogy in the present, as Russia, a great military power, invades the Ukraine, a small sovereign country, under its own false pretense of liberation, to strike back.
Baghdad may have looked deserted in that first “Shock and Awe” footage broadcast we all saw 20 years ago. But now it’s clear what was missing from the picture: humans. For those of us who experienced the deluge, or who were connected to the terrified people below, that day is not something we have to force ourselves to remember. It is a tragedy that we cannot and must never forget.