Memory of an invasion - On this day 2003

I have already seen a few posts, many from veterans, recalling the start of the war in Iraq fifteen years ago.  What started on the 20th March 2003 was the beginning of what would be years of conflict. 

War to me seemed to be a foredrawn conclusion.  I had arrived in Kuwait in a small fleet of seven warships, having embarked on the 11th of January, arriving in mid-February.  We had watched the combat power build up and heard further word about what was waiting elsewhere in the Kuwaiti desert. 

Up to that point, having been sat in the desert over many weeks, with only a few opportunities to train outside the desert berm compound we were hedged into, we had very little news of the outside world. Apparently, the case for invasion was still being made at the UN and some fragile hope remained that war might be averted, even though we had already dispatched in early January and the assembled combat power was all ready to go. 

Despite lack of news, I do recall one evening though, sometime days before the invasion began. One early evening, I was stood outside our company command post, nothing more than a large tent with the company guidon emplaced at the door, chatting with our Executive Officer and our Assistant Operations officer, both lieutenants I had shared the ride over with on the ship. 

I have no recollection what we were chatting about, but seemingly out of nowhere in the dark, a Marine in the dark approached us and began to chat with us. We could recognise almost immediately before he spoke he was not from our battalion.  We all wore ill fighting desert camouflage utilities of an older fashion we were all issued before departure, not the newer digital pattern recently introduced.  We also wore floppy boonie covers, and as officers we tended to wear our pistols on our hips.  We could see, however, that this Marine wore the octagonal faceted utility cover, more suited for garrison than our present desert setting. Even in the poor light, we could also make out the neatly tailored new digital camouflage utilities, the collar of his much smaller than the massive ones sported on our own.  He wore his pistol in a leather holster on his shoulder, the type issued most often to mounted or air personnel, or the staff officers that dropped in periodically. He was also a lot cleaner than ourselves.

He greeted us, his tone was clearly buoyant and cheerful.  We could not make out his rank, he didn’t offer it, but we assumed he must have a superior officer both from his age and demeanour.  We returned his greeting in kind, tacked on with a “Sir.”  We guessed at least a Lieutenant Colonel.  He appeared to be out for an evening stroll of some kind and had decided, it seemed, to speak to some of the boys in the rifle battalions. 

I recall little of what he spoke of, seeing as how he spent most of the time talking at us, and us listening.  For some reason, he felt the need to make an emphatic point about the justice of the imminent invasion, that Saddam Hussein and his regime was neatly complicit with the broader fundamentalist agenda of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.  He seemed confident as he made these points, perhaps wishing to impart to us some suggestion that he was privy to a bigger picture and some gems of intelligence or information we could not know.  He departed almost as abruptly as he appeared. 

For myself, even then I approached the imminent war with scepticism. I had the chance to talk over the prospect of war at length with my family over Christmas. I was not entirely convinced the rationale for invasion, propped up by the charges of a WMD program, was convincing enough. The first memory of war I had was watching the Gulf War on TV, and since then Saddam’s army had been apparently blunted and he himself otherwise contained by sanctions and “no-fly zones”. The notion Saddam was somehow complicit with Al Qaeda even then didn’t make sense to me. 

But we could all agree that Saddam was a bastard, and probably deserved what was coming to him.  Whether the Iraqi people did or not was another question.  Even, as I recall, we were getting mixed predictions of how we might be received by the people, depending on where we were going.  For our battalion, we knew we would end of in the Shi’ite areas in the south that suffered much under Saddam and would probably at least be welcomed with some relief if not adulation. 

Once we arrived in Kuwait, the time for deep thoughts on these subjects was well over. The principal preoccupation was preparing for what was to come. We all had a job to do, and I had great responsibilities. I had been told many times over that one blessing of leadership is that it gives you little time to reflect and wallow in your own misery.  You have too much else to worry about and too many people counting on you. I had been instructed on this in the classroom, and I had only recently experienced a taste of it in the December snow and mountains of Bridgeport, California. I had participated in a mountain warfare course in preparation for a training exercise our battalion was meant to participate in in January, had the war preparations not kicked off.  In the cold and the altitude, you can quickly feel miserable and focus internally on your own woes and predicament; but leaders simply can’t afford to do so. 

All taken on 20th March 2003 - very quickly on crossing the border, we were in our gas masks for the first of many alarms for chemical attacks.

All taken on 20th March 2003 - very quickly on crossing the border, we were in our gas masks for the first of many alarms for chemical attacks.

My own preoccupations now may have been entirely not out of any stoic resignation to the task at hand. They may have been partly because I had to show a brave face for the Marines who were looking at me. Without question, I didn’t want to make a complete ass of myself either in front of my Marines. Also, after days of waiting with only some training to break the monotony, we suddenly had a lot to do. Keeping busy would keep us sane. That, and we were in other ways looking forward to what we thought would be the incredible excitement of the invasion.

The evening of the 19th of March, I can recall sitting in a battalion staff meeting outdoors, the evening light was beginning to fade when suddenly streaks of fire briefly illuminated a clear evening sky.  It was one quick outgoing salvo, and then nothing.  To this day, I am not certain what it was, but it was either outgoing rocket artillery, or perhaps more likely a Patriot anti-missile battery firing at an incoming missile. But it was clear, the war for us would begin soon. The orders were that we would be crossing the border in the early morning, our final equipment checks were underway, and gear staged with the chance of maybe a few winks of sleep. I honestly don’t recall sleeping or not.

Dawn on 20thMarch 2003 - my view of vehicles staged and ready to go in our convoy ready to cross the border that morning.

Dawn on 20thMarch 2003 - my view of vehicles staged and ready to go in our convoy ready to cross the border that morning.

I do recall the dawn breaking over the desert, and suddenly seeing all the vehicles staged in convoy order ready to move out.  Shaded by the darkness, we were able to see the trucks, Humvees, tanks, and assault amphibian vehicles (used as armoured personnel carriers) staged and ready to go. 

One of my Sergeants, one of two Marines who had seen combat in Desert Storm (the other being my Platoon Sergeant), had a small radio that he was able to tune to the BBC World Service.  We learned the war had started.  We heard for the first time, the term “shock and awe” used to describe the bombings of Baghdad.  We also heard the title of this invasion, “Operation IRAQI FREEDOM”. We were overwhelmingly disappointed.

We had hoped for a more exciting name, but in the end, it was clear that the title had to reflect the intent of what we were trying to do: we were meant not to be conquerors, but liberators. I did not take any opportunity for a speech of any kind to the Marines of my platoon, we had for days already discussed what we had to do and what we were going to do. None of us though really knew what we were going to see next.

Crossing the Kuwaiti border on 20th March 2003 - the view from my vehicle

Crossing the Kuwaiti border on 20th March 2003 - the view from my vehicle

But when it was over for us, having done our bit, we returned to the ships that had us brought us there and had been awaiting us in the Gulf. We were joyful, we had come out on top. For me, I had brought home every Marine I had left and that was perhaps the best thing. 

We all walked a little taller, and we felt we had accomplished something great. This was only validated further when we did come home and walked amongst other Marines that had stayed home. We were the ones that had seen war. We had been tested in the ultimate challenge that we all prepared for and trained for and had come out better for it. 

Life very quickly moved on. With a short leave period, I soon prepared to take a new group of Marines out again on a new mission.  Our battalion had been assigned to a new unit, the 4th MEB, which was deploying Marines across the globe to Cuba, Afghanistan, and Djibouti. At first, and for several years in fact, I was not happy to talk about let alone read much about what I had been a part of or any other accounts of what had happened. Save for the few veterans I would meet along the way who had experienced the same days of the invasion, I have discussed it with no one save for other Marines and close family.  This remains largely true today.

Fifteen years later, and the invasion seems almost a footnote to the war.  What followed next were too many other episodes which defined the war – Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, Al-Qaida in Iraq, the Surge, the drawdown, and later ISIS. I would redeploy to Iraq in 2007, this time to Anbar Province, the situation very different from how I had left it in May of 2003.  What didn’t quite occur to me then but did very slowly as the operations wound down and much later with hindsight, was the important matter of perspective. My own experience, my perspective and understanding of the situation was akin to examining a map through the hole of a straw, or the proverbial “200 yards”. But, what I have also begun to accept and affirm over time is that my own experiences are valid and nonetheless truthful.  The joy we felt at being alive when it was over for us, the sense of accomplishment, the pride we felt then - it was all real.