For most of young America, war was still an abstraction in March of 2003.
Sure, this generation had lived through conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia and even the first Gulf War, but the reality of those foreign battles — the conflict, the carnage, the recovery — rarely captured our collective consciousness long enough to seep into our daily lives at home. Few of our peers were being shipped off to the front lines, and for the most part “war” was something relegated to history books.
But all that changed in the days leading up to March 19, 2003, one year ago today. Two days earlier, President Bush had given Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq or face the devastating possibility of a war. Our generation was about to get its first inkling of what past generations had learned about war, activism (both for and against the war) and the loss of friends and loved ones to uncertain futures in a far-off land.
Some prayed, some protested, many flipped channels endlessly, searching for anything other than more and yet more talk of Baghdad. But most of us had the same questions: How long would it last? How many would die? Would this really make the world a safer place? And perhaps most importantly, would it be worth the cost?
Hussein’s deadline came and went. The president addressed the nation at 10:16 p.m. ET on March 19: “My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early states of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”
And so began the first American preemptive strike on a sovereign nation and the first armed conflict to hit home for many of today’s young people.
In the year since that night, the war has seen successes and failures big and small. President Bush declared victory and an end to major combat on May 1, just after taking control of Baghdad. But the casualties didn’t stop: By the end of August, the postwar American death toll in Iraq had climbed past the number actually killed in the war. To date, 570 Americans have perished in the conflict, and 432 of those died in the months following the president’s announcement.
U.S. forces found Saddam hiding in a hole on December 13 — finally bringing to justice a man generally considered one of the world’s most brutal dictators — after having already eliminated his sons. But we have yet to find any of the weapons of mass destruction the president promised in those first days. Nor could WMD be found in his State of the Union address on January 20; he referred only to “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities.”
Iraq’s Governing Council signed an interim constitution on March 8. But now, in the wake of Wednesday’s bombing of the Mount Lebanon Hotel in central Baghdad, the war seems to be entering a new phase of terrorism, this time against Iraqi civilians. Even in the face of this fresh horror, though, there remains hope for a transfer of power to the Iraqis on June 30, continuing their journey toward functional democracy.
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