Twenty years ago, on 20 March 2003, the US and its few allies brought “shock and awe” to Baghdad, starting the Iraq war. At the time, I was an under-employed consultant / house husband in Windsor, California, taking the kids to school and back, cooking dinners, and volunteering in the regional parks and with the local search and rescue team. So safe and so secure, the war was still to change my life.
Having narrowly avoided the military draft during the Viet Nam war, learning of its horrors through correspondence with my older brother who was drafted and served two tours, and living with the sad carnage of the war’s aftermath, I was against the Iraq war, and the invasion of Afghanistan before it. I joined thousands of others demonstrating against these wars in their build-up, in Santa Rosa and in San Francisco, but to no avail.
Americans were still angry about the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and wanted retribution. Comprehending the history, politics and lies that the Iraq war was based upon seemed to be the least of their concern. Even seemingly rational newspaper columnists echoed the ridiculously unrealistic talking points of Bush-Chaney-Rumsfield neo-conservatives. America could build a liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East – what were they smoking?
Now, at this anniversary, we get to relive that sad, disgusting and ultimately pointless episode of history. Weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, IEDs, Guantanamo Bay, drone warfare, Islamic State.
I recall opening the local newspaper in the mornings, to be confronted by the photos of the young military men and women who’d died in Iraq the week before, smiling proudly in their dress uniforms. Thankfully, we were spared pictures and home towns of the untold hundreds and thousands of dead Iraqis – the collateral damage – but we knew they were there. And it was all just heart breaking.
I would meet my neighbour in the street in the mornings, collecting the mail or putting out the rubbish and we would work ourselves into a near frenzy of anger at our government, its lies, its disregard for international law, its abdication of its own founding principles. How could they do this, so soon after the great folly and atrocity of the Viet Nam war?
When a consulting job in New Zealand came up, I jumped at it. Here was a quiet country, not at war with anyone, least of all with itself, like America was. The news was about traffic accidents and maybe the occasional murder, often just a coroner’s report from a crime committed years ago. A progressive country, seemingly interested only in bettering itself and the lives of its people.
When that consulting work turned into a job offer, I jumped at it again, leaving my adult sons at home and moving Hamilton. My wife moved back after 6 months of home sickness and I began a new life alone. That was 20 years ago. Since then I’ve shifted towns, found new loves and become a citizen.
I still follow American politics, but mostly for its entertainment value. No one, it seems, can out-do Americans when it comes to “man bites dog” stories or its mad roller coaster of electoral politics. Happily, I don’t feel that same anger anymore.
But I do still feel a tinge of sadness for the betrayal of national ideals that America’s recent wars represent, and how they appear to have changed the discourse of its democracy. There are still prisoners at Guantanamo bay. Drones are still conducting extrajudicial executions. If anything, the number of outlandish lies rattling around in the highest halls of government seems to be increasing.
Can it ever recover its dignity enough to be trusted again?
I’m sad to say that 20 years ago I gave up on trusting my home country and decided to join a new one. It’s been a good decision. But with this decision, comes a sense of vigilance – we cannot let the same thing happen here. Without fear or favour, we must always hold our political leaders to account. We need to trust that they will tell us the truth.
These are a collection of opinion articles principally written by CKM member Tom Powell for the Marlborough Express. Tom is a retired geologist who came to New Zealand in 2004 to work in the geothermal industry on the North Island, is a New Zealand citizen and now lives in Blenheim. Some articles have been written by other CKM members, and their names appear with those articles.