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Confession of an Iraq war backer

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The United States was awash last week in stories about the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. It's almost enough to make you nostalgic.

You turn on the tube and there's good old President George W. Bush announcing on the evening of Wednesday, March 19, 2003, that the air war had begun. Shock and awe, baby.

What he didn't say was that earlier that day, he'd been told Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be spending the night in a certain bunker in Baghdad. The president ordered up a "decapitation strike."

As the Air Force Magazine later reported, some hot new bombs had just been delivered to Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The EGBU-27 was the latest thing -- a tonne of high explosive that could be guided by global-positioning satellites.

Four of them were fitted onto a pair of F-117 stealth fighters. The pilots took off for Baghdad and two hours later, as dawn was breaking, laid the bombs right on target. The first attack of the Iraq war was a metaphor for the entire thing.

The intelligence had been wrong. Saddam was elsewhere. An untold number of other Iraqis weren't. Say this for the past 10 years: We do decapitation strikes a lot cleaner now.

The war was on. Some 550 kilometres to the south, U.S. ground troops pushed across a berm in the Kuwaiti desert and began the invasion. Psy-ops sound-trucks played Drowning Pool's Let the Bodies Hit the Floor and Guns N' Roses' Welcome to the Jungle. Nowadays, when Americans go to war, they take their tunes.

If it seems like only yesterday, there's a reason: The last U.S. troops left Iraq only 15 months ago. But anniversary stories are useless unless there's a larger point to be made. Here it is: We got had, and some of us were complicit in it.

The war went so sour, so fast and for so long that these days, it's hard to find anyone who'll admit to supporting it. True confession: I did. For a while.

I bought the whole "Saddam has weapons of mass destruction" argument. There may have been people saying, "He's just running a bluff," but if there were, nobody paid any attention to them.

A lot of the neoconservative arguments for war were seductive. They weren't far removed from John F. Kennedy's pledge: "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Bush threw the word "evil" around a lot, but Saddam earned it. He'd gassed his own people and we'd let it happen. He ran 24-hour-a-day torture chambers. His son Uday tortured members of the Iraqi national soccer team for poor play. The Clinton administration had stood by as genocide took place in Rwanda and was slow to respond to Serbian atrocities. I thought it was money-where-your-mouth-is time.

Besides, one of the U.S. kids who went over the berm was mine. I wanted him to think he was involved in a noble cause. I wanted to think it, too.

Because of him, I got all caught up in the G.I. Joe stuff in the early days of the war. I marvelled at the sandstorms, ate up the saga of Pte. Jessica Lynch, thrilled at the "Thunder Runs" into the heart of Baghdad and applauded the toppling of Saddam's statue in Firdos Square.

Then doubts started creeping in. The Pentagon apparently had skipped any planning for securing the city. Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander, and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, didn't think it was a big deal.

The weapons of mass destruction kept turning up missing. Paul Bremer, who was running the country as the U.S. proconsul, didn't seem to have much of a clue. I began to think, you know if we're going to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, etc., we ought to have a better plan.

Not until Bush canned Rumsfeld after the 2006 mid-term elections and brought Gen. David Petraeus back to Iraq did anyone seem to have a clue: Pay off the Sunnis, put enough troops on the streets to restore order, give the political process a chance to work and then start looking for the door.

We'd had the best of intentions, but we'd gone into a place we didn't understand without enough troops and with no plans to get out. Nearly 4,500 American troops died and 30,000 more were wounded, hundreds of thousands more bear psychological wounds. The long-term costs of the war will reach into the trillions.

Ten years ago I didn't understand the term "arrogance of power." I do now.

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist

for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

-- McClatchy Tribune Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2013 A9

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