LEONARD GREENE: 20 years after Iraq, Ukraine shows ‘just wars’ are still brutal affairs
I still have the flak jacket. It’s nestled in the corner of the basement, along with the Kevlar helmet I wore on my head and the gas mask I clipped to my hip every day for nearly three months.
It was about this time 20 years ago that I boarded a commercial flight for the first leg of an unforgettable trip to Iraq to cover a brutal war that had just started under the falsest of pretenses.
A flood of thoughts filled my head as the plane, heavy with soldiers and military gear, taxied along the runway.
Among them was that I had tickets to that year’s Final Four in New Orleans and that I was going to miss the games and a chance to hang out with my brother.
But that thought disappeared quickly as I considered the sacrifices many others would make in the weeks, months and years to come.
I was an embedded journalist in the U.S. Army’s Fourth Infantry Division stationed in Fort Hood, Texas.
As a civilian reporter, I was invited to sit in first class and rub elbows with the officers and commanders.
I declined. I knew that if I was going to build any kind of rapport with the soldiers, it was going to start in a middle seat in the back of the plane with the enlisted men and women.
What I couldn’t get over, still can’t get over, was how young they all were. And eager.
Our entry into Iraq was delayed because Turkey, to the north, would not allow the U.S. to deploy its troops on Turkish soil. So we had to advance into Iraq on the ground from the south through Kuwait, which meant we missed out on some of the action.
My new friends were disappointed.
My new friends were still alive.
I thought the legroom in coach on the plane was bad until we made the 20-hour convoy from Kuwait into Iraq. The back of the Humvee was filled with sandbags. Before we got in, we were instructed to pull one of the Kevlar plates from our flak jackets and sit on it. This, we were told, was to protect us from the explosive devices that were likely along the road.
We knew it wouldn’t help.
For the most part, I didn’t see much action, unless you count the night raid I went on without any night vision goggles, or the field of landmines we walked through to recover the body of a local killed by one of the landmines.
Weeks earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told me in an interview that war was imminent because Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, was storing weapons of mass destruction.
“He has demonstrated the ability to hide things and deceive the inspectors,” Powell said. “He has to come clean. He has one last chance to come clean or face the consequences of not coming clean.”
There were no such weapons. It was bad intel all along.
Powell’s legacy was damaged, but not ruined. Even worse, not everyone I was with on that plane made it home.
I think about those days often, especially now as fighting continues in Ukraine.
If there is such a thing as a “just war,” that is what this is for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression.
But not everyone who waves the flag believes in freedom for all.
“While the U.S. has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson last week
DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president next year, said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s successor “would likely be even more ruthless.”
Former President Donald Trump had already said that instead of providing military assistance to Ukraine, he would have let Russia “take over” parts of the country.
War is brutal. I saw some of that first hand. Children die. Families are torn apart. Survivors lose arms and legs. Many are never the same again.
There are conscientious objectors, people who morally oppose war no matter what the circumstances.
But it’s one thing to oppose a war. It’s another thing to pick the wrong side.