A few days ago, waiting for a plane at Newark Airport, I stopped for coffee at a restaurant where the iPad menus doubled as small billboards. This ad from Unicef flashed by and caught my eye: “The children of Ukraine urgently need help.”
Indeed they do. War and children don’t go together.
Iraq was where I first saw what a malnourished wartime baby’s face looks like. On a single day, I saw about a dozen of them, in the arms of women lined up on benches outside a hospital in a slum quarter of Baghdad. Shrunken like prunes, tiny caricatures of old age. These babies were starving as a result of U.S. sanctions in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, a war waged in 1991 by the first President Bush to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
That war lasted just a few weeks and ended with Bush ignoring the entreaties of neoconservatives to “finish the job” by storming into Iraq to remove Hussein. Twelve years later, Bush’s son followed the neocons’ bidding. “Operation Enduring Freedom” launched March 20, 2003, 20 years ago next Monday, as people around the world huddled before their TV sets to watch spectacular explosions over Baghdad. The dictator was toppled, first in statue and then in person. For years afterward, the country was occupied by the American military and soldiers sent from “the coalition of the willing”—31 motley nations, excluding most of Europe, except for the U.K.
What TV didn’t show: Iraqi civilians dying like flies. Depending on which study you trust, the Iraq War caused between 110,600 (AP) and 654,965 (The Lancet) violent civilian deaths. Other estimates put the numbers somewhere in between. The United States disputes all the numbers. (Wikipedia has links to the research.)
America attacked Iraq after a long ginning-up campaign that cynically used 9/11 as a starting point, and that included lies about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s (nonexistent) involvement in the plot to attack America with hijacked planes. Besides setting off a civil war that strengthened Iran, created ISIS, spilled over into Syria, and prompted tens of millions of refugees to crowd into Europe, the epic folly left a generation of Iraqi children damaged educationally, psychologically, and bodily.
I don’t recall seeing any large-scale campaigns to help those children in the U.S. mass media during our “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Muslim organizations formed early relief efforts, and eventually Church World Service and even Iraq War veterans groups coalesced to collect and distribute aid. But Unicef in 2017 estimated that four million Iraqi children, victims of conflict and violence, were still in need of help.
Maybe more than many anti-war Americans who helplessly watched the violence, I feel guilty. My country had attacked my mother’s country, a place I knew and understood at that time to be already on its knees, starving, and ruled by a dictator vehemently opposed to—and hated by—the Islamists who had hatched 9/11.
My mother was born in Kirkuk, a city whose name would become synonymous for Americans with ISIS burning churches and beheading hostages. Her Assyrian Christian parents met in the area as young refugees on the run from Turkish ethnic cleansing as the Ottoman Empire collapsed between 1913 and 1923. Survivors of those years of terror and forced migration found safe harbor in camps run by British missionaries in Iraq. They gave their children English names. My grandmother, who had three surviving children, always told her kids to go “to that blessed country” America.
My mother arrived in the late 1950s. She had studied Shakespeare at Baghdad University, and she associated with leftish intellectuals until one night the government arrested and hanged some of them in the public square, during anti-Communist violence preceding a CIA coup. She was hustled out on a plane and ended up with a family involved in Christian charity in Norfolk, Virginia. Her hosts fretted about a practice new to her: the possibility of crosses being burned in their yard due to the presence of a dark-eyed lodger with a foreign accent. Eventually, she moved to what became her lifelong home in Chicago and met my father, an aspiring poet, fell in love, and signed up for a peripatetic 1970s poet’s lifestyle.
They had three kids. I was the first.
Growing up with half my DNA from Iraq and half from a member of the American counterculture had many peculiarities, some sad, some funny, starting before my birth. My father’s parents—Chicago-based staunch conservatives (my grandmother subscribed to Illinoisan Phyllis Schlafly’s newsletter long before the notorious anti-feminist was a national name)—didn’t approve until the grandchildren started coming, after which they lavished us with gifts and love even while expressing amazement at how “nut brown” we got in summer.
I first visited Iraq at the age of 8. My brother and I had spent a year roller-skating around the pot-scented corner of Haight and Ashbury streets in San Francisco. Isolated with three small children and unsettled by the frequent seismic tremors, real quakes and youthquakes, Mom packed three kids under the age of 8 on a late-spring California day onto a series of KLM flights eastward. A few days later, we landed half a planet away in Baghdad, then drove for hours toward Kirkuk, across a flat, sere landscape where in some places tiny flames flickered from holes in the ground: a crust of earth over a sea of fossil fuel.
For half a year, we lived in Kirkuk and Baghdad. We picnicked by the Khasa River; we watched an uncle trap and put two fighting scorpions in a bowl and catch a giant fish. I admired the bright dresses of the Kurdish girls and was homesick for cornflakes. In Baghdad, my aunt was a translator for the government news service. She wore suits and took German fashion magazines. At long lunches my grandmother cooked for a daily gathering of relatives near and distant, almost everyone talked of leaving Iraq—for Sweden, Australia, Canada, and, of course, America.
My father sent us boxes from San Francisco filled with American things like Archie comic books and, memorably, a paisley minidress for our mother that smelled of patchouli when it was unwrapped. That fall we returned to America and joined Dad in a drafty farmhouse in Amish country in Michigan. I spent four years at a rural school among the bonneted, blue-eyed girls in handmade gowns—the brown bookworm with the gold bangles. By high school, we had moved near Chicago. I learned to drive donuts in the snowy suburban high school parking lot, smoked a ton of pot, listened to The Clash and Gang of Four, dressed like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, and read a lot of novels.* The oil embargo happened. “Ragheads” like me were the reason. My friends were confused about my connection to this event and my heritage. Eye-rack? Eye-ran? Sometimes they asked whether I shouldn’t have a red dot on my forehead.
My grandmother and my aunt, after a monthslong visa-waiting odyssey through Jordan and Greece, joined us there. They cooked with cumin and cardamom and hand-sewed dresses for me. My grandmother saved plastic bags to reuse, a frugality that seemed so odd to me then that I still think about it when I throw one away.
Years later, after studying a little Arabic and working as a journalist in Chicago, I was back in Iraq as a journalist. Days after the end of the Gulf War, I flew to Amman and then rode a bus across the U.S.-bomb-cratered highway to Baghdad with a group of Arab American doctors. Saddam Hussein had just finished blasting away at Shi’a rebels in the holy city of Najaf. Farther south, near Basra, we saw charred boots and cars—detritus from the horrific U.S. and allied aerial assault on retreating Iraqi troops, on what became known as the Highway of Death.
I traveled to and reported stories in the country several times during the next decade. My last visit to my mother’s country was in the late summer of 1998. Eight years into the postwar sanctions imposed on the nation, Baghdad was dusty, broken, and hungry. The five-star Al-Rasheed hotel (attacked by Iraqis and U.S. forces in the 1990s and 2000s, since rebuilt) was still standing, with its post–Gulf War addition of a tile frieze of George H.W. Bush’s face inlaid on the lobby floor for guests to step on, a serious insult in the Arab world.
Impoverished Iraqi women were already being prostituted to rich Gulf Arabs in the hotels of Amman, where I stayed for a few nights before the long overland trek (still no flights allowed) to Baghdad. Amman was where I first heard of Osama bin Laden. My young translator told me about this ascetic “who sleeps under trees,” who was standing up against the corrupt royals. He whispered the name fearfully, pointing to the Jordanian soldiers guarding the square. He had tapes of this hero’s speeches.
In Baghdad that summer, I watched Bill Clinton’s “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” Monica Lewinsky testimony on a black-and-white TV screen high on a wall in a smoky café. His words rolled across the bottom of the screen in Arabic while men in djellabas, flabbergasted by the spectacle, sat transfixed beside their hookahs. I visited cousins at their house not far from the United Nations headquarters that would be suicide truck-bombed into rubble a few years later. The cousins declined to accept money my mother sent. They prepared a feast for the American cousin while the mukhabarat, the secret police, skulked in the street outside in their black clothes.
In spring 2003, as “shock and awe” were imminent, I couldn’t go back. I was eight months pregnant with my daughter. We were living in Paris. On the street below our apartment, antiwar protesters burned Dubya in effigy daily. Crowds in London and New York protested the coming war too, to no avail.
We know now what the war accomplished: a stronger Iran, the creation of ISIS, the breakdown of dictatorships around the Middle East and the rise of new ones, oil and gas rights redistributed, and the greatest migration of refugees since World War II. The result was perhaps predictable, but maybe worse than we imagined.
As a child, I had been a kind of unofficial emissary from Iraq to the farms and suburban cul-de-sacs of the American heartland. As an adult and a journalist, I knew that to most of my fellow Americans, if they thought about them at all, Iraqis were simply exotic people living on an ocean of petroleum that would always be up for grabs. There was some truth to that. My grandfather worked his whole life as an accountant for British Petroleum. I never met him—he died when my mother was pregnant with me. What’s left is a large black-and-white photograph of a man who my brother has come to resemble a little, receiving an award for career service from a large, pink, grinning oil company manager.
But all my intimate experience of the ways in which America and Iraq clashed and intersected, psychologically, culturally, professionally, geographically, violently, and lovingly, were useless in the spring of 2003. The tiny things: a little brass Ottoman shoe with the upturned toe among the small suitcase of things my mother had carried with her when she came to America, that my uncle used as an ashtray, analog to the tiny colored-glass hens my Anglo-Irish Burleigh aunts kept on their shelf and wouldn’t let us touch. The tragic: standing in the ruins of an underground bunker in Baghdad where American bombs killed a hundred women and children. The surreal: watching Iraqi schoolgirls cheer the sight of my blond, blue-eyed photographer (and now husband) like he was a rock star. And the personal: My mother suffered a heart attack after watching the war on TV, but survived.
When I was a teenager, I was never quite sure how to explain this place to the Americans I had grown up with, and I was hardly better as an adult. To my pals in high school, Eye-rack? Eye-ran? were one and the same. The president himself barely knew the difference. Twenty years ago, I knew we were going to attack, and I knew the Iraqis to be undeserving enemies—like us, a heterogenous people, many of them trying to modernize and, if not join the West, be like Americans. I had personal access to this knowledge. In the public relations parade that led to war, though, it was impossible to insert any observations that humanized Iraqis. Americans listened instead to Judith Miller and her story about the aluminum tubes and Colin Powell’s fable about Saddam Hussein and yellowcake uranium instead. Some Americans today excuse the war by pointing out that the country is nominally a democracy. Many Iraqis I knew hated the dictator’s murderous regime and kleptocracy, but the years of deprivation and carnage that the wars kicked off were a high price to pay.
I have no delusions about my ability to affect world events. I chose the role of scribe, observer, and witness, not warrior or diplomat. But the memory of my ineffectual muteness during the march to violence feels like a failure of responsibility that haunts me still. Twenty years later, no one can even agree on the number of dead Iraqi civilians. It’s likely no one ever will.
* This piece originally misstated the name of the Jodie Foster movie Taxi Driver.