“The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. We will meet that threat now”, President George W. Bush announced in a somber TV address on March 19, 2003.
Alejandro Villatoro, then a 20-year-old from Chicago, was one of those soldiers. “I went in ready to kill for the sake of freedom”, he explains. “But the problems started almost right away. And when we invaded we started hearing reports that there were no WMDs and no al Qaeda link.”
But by the time President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner announcing “Mission Accomplished”, it was clear that the Iraq war had been launched on shaky grounds. “The initial goal, regime, change, was quickly and comprehensively achieved”, notes Michael Codner, Director of the Military Sciences Department at RUSI, a London military think tank. “The problem was the occupation phase, which is very different from expelling Iraq from Kuwait. The Bush administration’s assumption that Iraqis were eager to get rid of Saddam Hussein and would welcome the occupation was bizarre.”
Since then the war has the Iraq War has joined Vietnam War as the most controversial in US history. No WMDs have been found, but the war taken the lives of almost 4,500 US soldiers, some 350 soldiers from other coalition countries and around 110,000 Iraqis. Then there’s the financial cost to US taxpayers: $1 trillion (and counting).
But despite the their sacrifice, the coalition forces were unwelcome occupiers. Villatoro is not surprised. “We were pressured to find something, so we just arrested anyone who had a weapon and treated them as potential terrorists”, he recalls. “And there were often kids slowing down convoys, supposedly to get you into an ambush, so we were told to keep driving. But I realized they were slowing us down to get food. When I returned home that November, I kept wondering how we were able to destroy so much.”
The lives of women, in particular, have been destroyed, argues Yanar Mohammed, who runs a women’s shelter in Baghdad: “Before the war there was no such thing as Islamism. Today the country is in the hand of islamists and tribal leaders. Before the war polygamy wasn't practiced. Now it’s common; the government is even encouraging it. Especially for girls in their teens and twenties Iraq is a very bad place today. We’ve got one million soldiers. Why can’t one tenth of them be assigned to protect women?”
Still, by 2011 a majority of Americans said that the US had “mostly succeeded” in reaching its goals in Iraq. Indeed, Iraq now has a democratically elected parliament and a relatively benign government. The last US combat troops left Iraq in 2011. But the mission isn’t accomplished. Explains Codner: “We can’t just walk away. The US needs a reserve of special forces that can be used if the Iraqi government needs help.
As for Alejandro Villatoro, he remained in the Army for another nine years, and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but evolved into an avowed opponent of the Iraq war. “And it isn’t over yet”, he sighs. “I’ve tried to commit suicide. We’ve lost more soldiers to suicide than in combat.”
Ambassador Joseph Wilson: “Iraq has ruined our international standing”
While President Bush and his advisors were convinced that Iraq was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction and had bought material from Niger, the State Department and the CIA were not so sure. The CIA asked Joseph Wilson, a retired career diplomat, to go to Niger and investigate. Wilson did, and reported that he hadn’t found any evidence of such transactions. In retaliation, Bush officials outed Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame Wilson, as an undercover CIA spy, a federal offense. In the Hollywood movie about the case, Sean Penn played Joe Wilson; Naomi Watts played Valerie Plame Wilson. Wilson spoke with Metro from his home in New Mexico.
Metro: 10 years after the beginning of the Iraq war, has anything positive come out of it?
Wilson: No. This was a war of choice, not a war of necessity, and it has been a tragedy for Iraq, the Iraq and the commanding US presence in the region. One of the things we’ve lost is our moral authority on the international stage. The conduct of the war, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have ruined decades of US leadership. I don’t see how we can recover our standing now.
Isn’t it an irony that the US went to war against Iraq, which didn’t have nuclear weapons, but is not taking action against Israel and Iran when there’s better evidence that these countries have developed or are developing nuclear weapons?
Given what has happened, it’s very difficult to pursue a war against Iran unless there’s extremely clear evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons. It’s a return to the idea of war as a last option, not war as a choice or war because you have a stronger military.
Revealing the identity of an undercover CIA agent is illegal, but no one has been prosecuted for outing your wife. Have the two of you received an apology?
No, they haven’t apologized for anything. The only thing was when Richard Armitage [Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff] said he felt bad for doing it. But I didn’t expect an apology. I’ve been along these people long enough.
You have young children. When they’re older, will you tell them about all of this?
My kids lived through it; they’re 13 now. At this stage they just roll their eyes. But the other day Sean Penn stopped by for dinner and they thought it was the coolest thing ever – not because of Fair Game but because he’s in a new gangster movie.