I saw it on the news, I had forgotten the date, but I remember the invasion of Iraq. The anchorman said March 20 was the 10th anniversary, but I can’t remember just one day. For several days and nights in late March of 2003, I was torn between being glued to the television and avoiding it.
On almost every channel, the progress of American forces advancing toward Baghdad was covered by embedded journalists, like a horde of sports reporters giving play by play for a giant game of Risk. But it was no game. The risk was real, and my husband was over there — somewhere.
News coverage of that invasion brought back memories of watching some of the same reporters broadcasting from the same region in 1991. The first of our three children was 4 months old when my husband was deployed during Desert Storm. I learned then that hanging on CNN’s every word about the war was neither helpful nor required.
In 2003, like plenty of other military spouses, I didn’t know exactly where my husband was. I couldn’t reassure myself that he was away from the hostilities that were datelined Basrah, Nasiriyah and other locations on the march northward. I knew where I thought he was — information I was not supposed to have and could not discuss with anyone — but comfort was elusive. Distance from the battles being shown on TV was no guarantee of safety. Not every dangerous place had its own reporter.
Troops were at risk every day in Afghanistan too in 2003, but that conflict was sparsely reported. While the Iraq invasion was still in progress, a helicopter from our base crashed into a mountain in Afghanistan. The entire crew of six was killed, all from our small community.
The day of the memorial service for the fallen crew, most of our city and county law enforcement turned out and lined the streets leading to the front gate of our base. Volunteers cared for children during the service and provided a meal at the chapel for the bereaved families afterward.
The national news didn’t mention the loss. All their big-name reporters were in Iraq, but then we didn’t need news coverage to remind us there was more than one war going on. We certainly didn’t care which one was getting the most press. Both were a major invasion in the lives of our families.
Life on the homefront plodded on as the troops moved toward Baghdad. Sick kids and soccer practice, piano lessons, work and grocery shopping. I wrote in my journal on March 29, 2003: “It seems odd to go on with daily routines and ... life with a war going on on the other side of the world, where there are people in danger and people dying.” I didn’t know that daily dichotomy would continue until it felt normal.
The obligatory 10-year retrospectives of the Iraq War are predictable. Journalists and politicians are either consumed with angsty introspection about what they should have done differently or with self-righteous and thinly veiled I-told-you-sos.
Neither one does any good unless it changes the way we approach conflicts in the future. Military families don’t have the luxury of analyzing why we’ve spent the last decade-plus at war. In some ways it doesn’t even matter which war we’ve spent it in. What matters is that we did spend it, and it can’t be unspent.
Ten years later, what we do need is for America and its leaders to turn their thoughts to maintaining a strong and effective military as budget cuts fall in painful places. Ten years from now, what will matter is whether our government kept the promises it made to servicemen and women, whether it cared for those who returned wounded in body and mind and for the families of those who didn’t return at all.
If our country doesn’t get these things right, if it doesn’t keep its promises to those who answered the call to serve this time, who will answer the call next time?