The Eight-Year-Old’s Iraq
Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: It was the last period of true optimism, with a sense that somewhere in the unknown unknowns we would meet destiny.
I was an avid supporter of the Iraq invasion in 2003. I believed that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a danger to American interests; I believed that, as a civilization, we had a God-given mission to the world, helping those we’ve subdued and warring down the still-arrogant. We beat Nazism; we beat communism; now it was time to beat radical Islam (although the “radical” got left out as often as not in those heady days), or, as the real connoisseurs will remember it, Islamofascism. As a Christian, an American, and a Republican, I was all-in on George W. Bush’s new crusade.
I was also eight years old.
I was, I guess, a bright kid; I read the newspapers and the magazines that came into the house (National Review, The Weekly Standard). The romance of war, the villainously mustachioed dictator who put people in gigantic shredders and had a variety of heinous weapons that I had just learned about, the feeling that something was happening somewhere and we with our flag decals declaring WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS and the rapt attention we rendered the news were somehow part of it—intoxicating. I asked for the morning off on March 20 to watch the invasion—I was homeschooled—and my mom said sure, why not.
It was disappointing. I expected action—plumes of flame, jets skimming over rooftops, infantry swarming through the streets, and all the Darryl Zanuck hijinks I had come to expect from the History Channel, which I had watched a great deal of in the six months we experimented with cable. The camera—I forget which channel—only captured depressed and dusty-looking rooftops. Occasional flashes and rumbles in the distance were about as hot as it got. I felt let down. Who knew “shock and awe” would be so boring?
The invasion had its moments, though. The statue of Saddam getting pulled down in Baghdad—which I also watched live—that was good TV. That was great TV. “Mission Accomplished”? Sad to say, that was also good TV. The purpled voting fingers, well, they weren’t good TV, but they made decent still photos, and we can’t forget the old print media, which inspires the sort of fondness mostly associated with aging whores. Something that is impossible to convey to anyone under the age of 25 is what it was like to have the news before Twitter. The Iraq War was one of the last big events that was completely mediated by legacy media, by the real titans of the press and the studio. Sure, there were internet forums, but they were mostly arenas for sharing legacy media stories. You saw something on the forums, and then you went and turned on the TV to see if it was true.
It was also in some way the last flowering of American political rhetoric. “They hate our freedoms”; “known unknowns”; “the reality-based community.” This is great stuff. Obama was remembered as a great speechifier, but I struggle to remember anything besides the tag “Yes We Can,” which, as was gleefully noted in the dittohead community at the time, was a lightly massaged version of the Bob the Builder slogan. Trump, I guess, is a great prose stylist, but it’s not the same. There is none of that sense of soaring—sentences like freeway overpasses, shooting out into void by virtue of their own interior strength. Trump’s thing is different; much funnier, although just as dark, in its way. It is Livy to Apuleius, if I may be precious for a moment.
So I was eight years old and we bombed the hell out of Iraq, pronounced in those times as “Eye-rack,” as I still say it unconsciously. “Ih-RAHK” was a development of the era of second thoughts, of the media suddenly realizing they did not care for W and his crusade. We chased Saddam into a hole, and then we pulled him out of the hole, and then we put him on trial and hanged him. I did not watch the hanging—I did not have that kind of computer access—but my father did, and he (to his credit, I now think) looked a little green afterward. I’ve still got a little souvenir of that era on my desk: the de-Baathification deck of cards, purchased from a Dollar Tree with closely hoarded allowance quarters.
Of course, the years have not been kind to the Iraq War. The media soon remembered that they were angry at W for stealing the election, and some other things involving the particulars of political rhetoric at the time. (Remember “Christofascism”? Remember how the religious right was about to take over the country? To which we can say now: Ha. How about how W was an idiot who couldn’t say “nuclear” correctly?) Phrases like “insurgency” and “counterinsurgency” and “Sadr City” and “Abu Ghraib” crept into news and analysis. The Surge didn’t work, and this was used as evidence that we needed a Yet Larger Surge. The whole airport security thing started ticking people off, even on the right. Then W’s spending started really ticking people off on the right.
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It is everything after 2008 that people really remember now in regards to Iraq. Endless expenditure and bad press and a slow bleed and corrupt or hostile liberated Iraqis and the overall feeling that, somehow, it all hadn’t lived up to the hype. Generals who couldn’t stop ISIS and who couldn’t keep it in their pants. That year, 2008, was when I started high school; it was the big crash, the kickoff for the inelegantly named “Great Recession”; it was also the beginning of the Obama era, which, for all its youthful promise, I now remember as a kind of gray, austere interlude in which it was accepted that America would eventually become a kind of Europe with a serious military. (Isn’t it strange that, for such a charismatic campaigner, such a transformative politician, Obama ended up having roughly the sensibilities and dynamism of Ted Heath?) Iraq now is all about guilt and disillusion: the apple already bitten, the Hittite already sent to battle. Bad feelings, man.
But I like to remember how it was in 2003 to eight-year-old eyes, prepubescent zeal met with gaudy spectacle. I tell young people to go watch Arrested Development to understand how it felt. It was absurd, yes. Stupid, certainly. But it was also the last period of true optimism, a sense that every line went endlessly up, and that somewhere in the unknown unknowns we would meet destiny and, perhaps, God; the idea that, like David Dravot in Kafiristan, we might become kings and offer our submission as free gift, peer to peer, not with Victoria but with Someone altogether more worthy of our Christian republic’s fealty. (“We have no king but Jesus!” colonials howled during the Revolution.) A happy world of happy republics, free and virtuous but not prudish. We mocked Brian Williams and “the beauty of our weapons,” but he was just ten or fifteen years out of step with that March 2003 feeling.
It felt good—especially to an eight-year-old. “No one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn't endure, and that its story is hardly told?” We act as if we’ve learned the lessons, but do you really believe that? Or do you think, given the opportunity, like a concrete cantilever with the freeway on our back we will again thrust out into the endless dark space over an ever-greater distance, trusting to an inner strength that is in the end finite and mortal?