It was the moment 20 years ago when President George W. Bush announced to the world that the United States was going to war against Saddam Hussein.
“These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign,” the 43rd President said on March 19, 2003, as US troops were deployed in Iraq.
“At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, liberate its people, and defend the world from grave perils,” Bush told the American people at the start of what would become years of controversy Conflict.
The justification for the US and UK governments was the removal of Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the conflict ended in 2011 with the deaths of more than 4,400 US soldiers – and serious question marks over the reasons coalition forces went to war.
“To all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who are now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you,” the Republican President said in his historic speech.
But twenty years after those words were uttered, the very men and women who shouldered this burden Bush described have mixed feelings about their responsibility for “the peace of a troubled world.”
It was a time of “great concern,” as retired US Army Lt. Gen. Mike Linnington said. In 2003 he led the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles” and was part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom invasion force in mid-March.
But “when we crossed the berm and started fighting, that dissipated,” he said news week as the twentieth anniversary of the start of the war approached.
“My unit traversed the whole country in the first 30 days” before reaching Tal Afar, not far from Mosul, in north-west Iraq, he recalled.
The announcement of war came as an “initial shock” to Aaron Cornelius, who has served in Iraq three times over the years. But he quickly felt “obligated” to fulfill his military duty, not just to his country but to the innocents of Iraq.
“I wanted to be able to protect her too,” he said news week. “So I was ready to do this and set about the task of crossing the desert.”
For many, 2003 was just the beginning – and many would follow in their footsteps. Californian Advaith Thampi, who joined the Marine Corps out of high school, was fired just days after his 21st birthday in 2008 as crew chief aboard a C-130 cargo plane.
“Someone who had to go to Iraq,” he said news week. “I just wanted to do my part.” Thampi joined the military in 2005, two years after the start of the Iraq war, because the images of US soldiers in the Middle East “wowed me,” he said.
For many veterans shipped out in the years after 2001, 9/11 was part of the genesis of the Iraq war. Watching the attacks sparked anger and sadness, Cornelius said, fueling a belief to make sure “nobody else had to endure anything like it.”
The September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people when nineteen extremists hijacked several airliners that crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Passengers on the fourth plane forced the hijackers to crash the plane in a Pennsylvania field.
It was the largest loss of life in a foreign attack on US territory, claiming the lives of 441 first responders. It also left an indelible mark on American society, not least among the military personnel who ended up in Iraq years later.
But in 2004, the 9/11 Commission, established after 9/11, found no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, challenging a core belief promoted during the Iraq war was.
That same year, President Bush said there had been “numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda” but not that “the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated” between the Iraqi leader and the terrorist organization.
But as the justification for the Iraq war came under scrutiny, the mental links between 9/11 and Iraq lingered for many Americans.
Born and raised into a military household, Donna Pratt had spent years in the military before 9/11 but had returned from a grueling series of shifts at her retail job and mistook the news footage of the planes hitting the towers for a movie .
In the days that followed, she considered rejoining the armed forces when she passed a military recruiting center on her way to work. On the third day, “I turned around and went to the recruiting station,” she said.
“I felt like I had to do something,” she said news week. “And I don’t regret my decision at all.”
Shortly thereafter, she left Chicago for the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and the people she had come to know as “brothers and sisters” before leaving for Iraq in October 2008.
“Personally, I was a bit unprepared” for the “realities” of service in Iraq, Linnington recalled of his deployment. His time in the Middle East “changed me in many ways, personally and professionally,” he says today. He said he came home with an understanding of Iraqi culture that he didn’t have on his first assignment.
Thampi agreed, reporting his lack of knowledge of Iraq’s religious divisions and Middle East politics. “I was just following orders and trying to work on a C-130,” he mused.