For someone who considers himself a patriot, as I do, it is extremely difficult not to rally behind a president when he beats the drums of war. So it has always been. We can disagree about domestic policy, but when the nation’s leader says we are threatened from abroad, the majority of Americans suspend misgivings or even gnawing disbelief and gives the man in the Oval Office the benefit of the doubt.
Our war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the classic example. It was funky from the get-go, and I should have known better. Instead, I concentrated on chronicling the heroic efforts of our stressed Armed Forces as they followed goals that vacillated from attempted conquest to force protection to nation-building and finding a respectable way out.
We didn’t go for the oil, (which, in retrospect would have been a fine objective). We didn’t go to establish a strong base in a dangerous, strategically important part of the world. We went as an act of national self defense.
Invading Iraq to find Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s) that we had only flimsy evidence ever really existed required an act of willful blindness. That lame dog and pony show that Secretary of State Colin Powell put on in the United Nations to prove our case that the Iraqi dictator was really attempting to build a nuclear weapon and then to rally international support for the invasion showed how pathetically thin our proof was. For good reason Secretary Powell’s longtime military adviser and chief of staff Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson later called his own involvement in that UN presentation “the lowest point of his life.”
Our proof then was a thousand times less convincing than the evidence today that neighboring Iran is heading down the road to nuclear weapons. And yet in 2003 we all nodded sagely when the hero of Gulf War spoke, and I dusted off my body armor and packed my bags eager to follow our troops into action in the sands of Mesopotamia.
I had plenty of company in the pro-war camp in February and March 2003 during the inexorable run-up to the war, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t take me off the hook for enthusiastically backing a bloody conflict that turned out to be as unnecessary and costly as its critics predicted.
The only salve to my conscience is that I always put my own ass as far out on the line as the GI’s who fought and died in that God-forsaken place. After our vehicle got shot up outside Mosul in northern Iraq in 2004, I was convinced I was going to die there. On some trips I would come home and sit on my porch overlooking the Hudson River staring in a kind of dark trance, drool leaking from the edge of my mouth thinking about all the death and destruction we were seeing.
Two images haunt me to this day; both involve pickup trucks. The bed of one Toyota truck outside Baghdad in 2005 held the torn-up body of a woman killed because she wanted to vote. The bed of another outside Fallujah in 2004 held a pile of dead insurgents piled one on top of the other like they were bloody lumber headed to the mill.
During the war’s darkest days before the surge, between 2004 and 2007, we were losing two; three or four GI’s every single day. The line “every step you take…” from the Sting song, played in my brain every time we went out on foot patrol, because every step contained the possibility that the ground would explode in our faces.
All those images crowded my mind this past Saturday as our C-130 military transport aircraft landed at Camp Adder, our last Iraqi base. There at the beginning of the conflict, this was my eleventh and final trip into Iraq.
At the height of the war, this sprawling base in southern Iraq held 12,000 of our troops and airmen. It is a vast, dusty place, far larger than JFK or LAX. Now it was almost deserted, save for the visiting brass and journalists gathered to mark the occasion of the withdrawal of the last U.S. military unit in Iraq, 480 officers and enlisted personnel from the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry.
After speeches and interviews, the brass left on the aircraft and I was privileged to be among five reporters given the high honor of making the four hour drive out of Iraq and into neighboring Kuwait. And so the long war that claimed the lives of 4,487 GI’s, spread so much pain and suffering and cost a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars ended not in victory, but with a profound sense of relief.
It was over and I survived.
Some of the friendships made with members of our fighting forces will endure forever. Having seen so much tumult and death together, we are friends for life. My heart aches for those who fell or were wounded or otherwise scarred by the grim experience. But the next time the president calls, they and I will be there again; however heavy it weighs on our hearts and minds.
Geraldo Rivera is Senior Columnist for Fox News Latino.