Five years ago today, despite desperate nighttime prayers for peace, the war in Iraq became a reality.
The days and weeks in the run-up to the first missile strikes built a steady pressure among the students on the college campus I was living on. It seemed more likely with each passing day that our country was on a path to another war. My political stance was naïve at best; I took President George W. Bush at his word, despite my misgivings about a war that had the potential to ravage the best of my generation. The fear was omnipresent, stoked by what seemed a constant barrage of ominous sounding phrases like “weapons of mass destruction” and “fighting them there instead of here.” After all, we “didn’t want the smoking gun to come in the form of a mushroom cloud,” the administration line went. Besides, Saddam had ties to Al Qaeda, it was claimed. The case for war, CIA Chief George Tenet said, was “a slam dunk.” I tried to believe all that was being said, but in my heart, I was worried.
March 20 began as many days did: I woke up in the top bunk of my room and wished I were somewhere else. St. Cloud was a decent town, but as the “old man out” (coming in to the freshman dorms at the wise age of 22), it was difficult to make meaningful connections with the children around me. However, this day held the promise of something different. I’d recently reconnected with a girl I’d gone to high school with. She was working at the student newspaper as a receptionist, and after weeks of flirting, I’d asked her out for coffee. My anticipation grew with each passing hour. When the date finally came, it was less than pleasant. She spent most of her time talking about this guy she’d been dating, building metaphorical walls topped with emotional razor wire. I felt like a failure. My only date in months had been a complete disaster, and as I walked home by myself, my anger only grew. It was a dark and overcast night, the kind where the sky is light orange-pink from the streetlights below it. It seemed murky and menacing – which mirrored the way I felt this girl had interpreted me. I walked for miles beneath the jaded and indifferent clouds.
Upon my return, I stomped into the student lobby, and could tell immediately something important was happening. It was that same sort of hush that overcame the student commons on 9/11, when we watched the buildings come down over…and over…and over. It was the kind of silence that made people question their own significance in the world. As a student journalist, I was almost thankful for this distraction: far be it for me to mope, I had something important to do. I grabbed my supplies, and got to work.
“The war in Iraq began about 8:30 p.m. last night, with air strikes on Baghdad. Students at SCSU seemed almost oblivious to the fact that their country was at war, with TV rooms remaining empty and people going on with business as usual.But the ones who were watching TV seemed both worried and apprehensive, even though this event was expected to happen anytime after the Wednesday evening deadline Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was given to leave Iraq or face U.S. military action.
"Obviously I'm worried about my parents, because I don't want anything to happen to them," said Megan LaChance, SCSU first year student, "but at the same time I think the Iraqi people should be free because (Saddam Hussein) is so oppressive. At the same time I think we're going about it the wrong way, because from what it seems so far, it's all about Bush and trying to get back for what his father did. He's basically fighting his father's war."
Kara Hjelle, also in her first year at SCSU, was living in Saudi Arabia during the first war. She had a rather unique perspective on the events.
"I remember the bomb craters and the damage from the bombs," she recalled of the first Gulf War. Hjelle went on to say that she had an uncle who was in the Middle East in combat.
Most of the students University Chronicle interviewed were too young to remember the first Gulf War in January 1991 or the images from television the first night of the war. For those who did remember, last night's imagery brought back memories."
I remember the nighttime gunfire," said Dave Mallman, an SCSU sophomore. The night gunfire to which Mallman is referring was broadcast during the first night of the war, taken by a night vision camera, of the anti-aircraft fire over the city of Baghdad.
Students also seemed to speak of the actions approvingly, as if they were just glad to have a clear course of action in front of them.
"I think we're finally doing it," said Steve Mages, another first year student. "We've been waiting for them to go in and get Saddam. I'm just glad they are finally going in there and taking care of stuff. It's cool."Dave Jones, another freshman, said that he "hoped we wouldn't go to war, but it's happening and there's nothing we can do. Now we just have to support the troops."
When asked whether or not having so much information was a good thing, most of those interviewed said that they approved of knowing what was going on. Others spoke that our enemies could use this information against our own forces, but most simply liked to know what was going on.
"I like the coverage and everything, but I don't think they should capitalize on it so much," Jones said. "It's not a good thing, and it's like their exploiting it I like the information, but I hope it doesn't get too graphic."
When I called my editor, I was brimming with pride. I felt as though I’d hopped on the pulse of the student community and done a good job of getting it on paper. I took a photograph a man watching a television shot of a mission being fired from a U.S. Navy warship, and it ran on the front page of the next issue of the newspaper. It’s moments like this where an old saying about journalism being “a front row to history” certainly seemed true.For the first few weeks, the war was on everyone’s minds. The television in my dorm room was turned to news channels nearly all of the time it was on.
In a way, the war coverage provided the background to normal college life. Footage of ground forces running into Baghdad turned into the background for studying for a science test. President Bush’s “Top Gun” style landing on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln took place on a sunny day when I was packing up my room to go home for the summer. Standing in front of a banner that read, “Mission Accomplished,” Bush said “major combat operations” had come to an end. That day was May 1, 2003. Soon, I was back home, my media awareness fading into oblivion as the dorm room cable television feed grew more and more distant with each passing day. The war still made news, but it wasn’t the top story anymore. After what seemed like an easy victory, many people I knew simply grew tired of it, and wished it would end so the troops could come back home.
Over the course of five years, much has changed. Weapons of mass destruction were never found. The Al Qaeda connections simply didn’t exist (proven as early as 2004: “Al Qaeda-Hussein Link Is Dismissed,” Washington Post, June 17, 2004). Whether or not the troop surge is working depends greatly on whom you ask. The war has been eclipsed by the economy as the main issue for the upcoming election. It should not be forgotten; separated from opinions regarding the administration that sent them there, the troops who have fought it deserve to be remembered and respected for their service. Despite the ups and downs of the past five years, the notion of their honor remains a steadfast constant.