March 19, 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign that launched the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

IPS had played a key role in what became the largest coordinated antiwar protest in history in the run-up to the invasion. That movement stopped the UN from rubber stamping the conflict, but the Bush administration went ahead with it anyway. What followed was a moral, economic, and foreign policy disaster.

In the two decades since, IPS has committed itself to cataloging the costs of war, advocating a more humane and accountable U.S. foreign policy, and refocusing our national priorities on human needs instead of militarism. But for IPS community members of all ages, the war marked a turning point in our journeys toward doing that work.

Alliyah Lusuegro, outreach coordinator for our National Priorities Project, surveyed our staff with the following questions:

Question 1: Where were you on March 19, 2003? How did you feel? What was going through your head as you learned about the war?

Question 2: What has this day, March 19, 2003, meant to you since then? How has it impacted your life, your activism, your worldview?

Below are some of our answers.

Headshot of Olivia Alperstein

Olivia Alperstein, she/her, Deputy Communications Director

Q1: I was still in elementary school when the U.S. invaded Iraq, on the false pretense of responding to weapons of mass destruction. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I first heard about the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and I remember exactly where I was when my mom showed my sister and me the video of Congresswoman Barbara Lee delivering her speech as the sole vote against authorizing the war in Iraq. 

I was young at the time, but I was old enough to understand the implications of waging an unjust war and plundering a country for its resources while killing civilians. I was out there among protesters in my community, most of them a generation older than me. I was also the youngest protester at my hometown’s rally against the war in Afghanistan when it was first declared. 

Q2: The two forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were etched in my mind growing up. I’m from the portion of millennials who remember a pre-9/11 world and the huge emphasis on national security, securing our borders, and labeling whole communities as potential terrorists that followed the terrorist attacks. 

I felt I had to fight back against that hatred and fear and xenophobia that became not only acceptable but the norm. I became a peace activist in middle school and high school, partly because I hated the idea of war but also partly because I was watching in real time the consequences of waging unjust wars, not just on people in foreign lands but on our own communities. I was also watching people I knew be bullied simply for being Muslim or Arab American in the wake of a whole new brand of “patriotism.” 

I became part of the “dissent is patriotic” camp. I joined rallies, and I also reached out to local peace activists who’d witnessed the war in Vietnam and been part of an earlier wave of activism. I heard their stories of what an older generation did to wage peace in the face of war. My mom raised my sister and I to follow our consciences and taught us about protests and movements like the civil rights movement, labor rights, anti-war, you name it. Protest songs were some of the lullabies she sang us. 

There was no question I was going to become an activist or advocate of some kind at some point. But my first actual steps to become one were as an anti-war activist witnessing history in my own time and feeling compelled to speak out.

Phyllis Bennis speaking at a microphone.

Phyllis Bennis, she/her, Program Director of New Internationalism

The actual airstrikes that marked the beginning of the U.S. war against Iraq erupted 18 months into what had been a year and a half of frantic mobilization to stop the war in Afghanistan and prevent its expansion to Iraq. The work had begun within hours of the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. launched its war against Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, less than a month after the attacks — and on the same day, at the same hour, as the first nationally announced protest against these new and illegal wars.

By the time March 19 came around, we knew when the war would start. It was just weeks after the massive global protests of February 15, and still the United Nations, while ostensibly in the center of the action, was kept entirely outside of the decision-making. The power lay with Washington, backed up by the UK. Much of the world was already against the war even before it began, and enough governments were opposing war in Iraq that the UN Security Council itself, in an almost unprecedented development, stood defiant of the US.

I had been up at the UN in New York much of those weeks. The day before the big protests I was monitoring the Security Council, where the two heads of the UN weapons inspection teams were reporting their findings. There was a lot of expectation that they’d come up with something that the U.S. would use as an excuse to claim legitimacy in their looming war. But to everyone’s surprise, they both stayed true to the findings of their teams, and made clear that no weapons of mass destruction, and no nuclear weapons, had been found. The U.S. claims were all a lie.

I knew that in those moments of tense Security Council meetings, it was almost impossible for journalists inside UN headquarters to hear and follow what was going on unless they had an office of their own. I had a press pass, but no office. So I stayed out. I spent most of the afternoon crouched on the floor of the office of the big anti-war coalition, United for Peace and Justice, or UFPJ, listening to the Council meeting as it was reported live on the BBC.

I heard the French foreign minister respond to the reports of Mohamed el-Baradei and Hans Blix, the two inspectors, with the statement:

“In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience. The onerous responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace. This message comes to you today from an old country, France, from a continent like mine, Europe, that has known war, occupation, barbarity. It is an old country that does not forget and is very aware of all it owes to freedom fighters who came from America and elsewhere.”

When he finished, with a powerful call for peace instead of war, the always staid, tradition-bound Security Council exploded in applause. I burst into tears, listening to him through an interpreter while crouched on the floor with my little radio, it was an incredibly powerful moment. But I knew even then the U.S. would go to war despite the lack of legal authority. George W. Bush would prove again his willingness to commit war crimes, violate the UN Charter, and destroy a country based on concerns for oil, the expansion of U.S. power, and a host of lies he told the world.

And I knew we had to keep fighting.

So when the war actually started a few weeks later, it seemed inevitable. I was on the road a lot, speaking and doing teach-ins and working with organizations that were part of the 1,700-plus member groups of UFPJ. I remember speaking at the ADC convention in New Jersey the night before the war began, and at the Sabeel conference in Michigan the day before that. We were all doing back-to-back media interviews, drafting new talking points almost every day, drinking too much coffee, and hardly sleeping.

My calendar book for March 19, the day the war actually began, is empty.

Phyllis Bennis speaking at a microphone.

Robin Savannah Carver, she/her, Development Associate

Q1: I was living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, just outside of Fort Bragg. My dad was a 1st Sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division and several months into his first year-long deployment to Afghanistan. By the end of the so-called War on Terror, he’d have gone on eight in total, missing most of my years of middle school, high school, and college.

Because of health limitations, I was on homebound education at the time, and so I had the opportunity to spend vast swaths of the day watching the news. I was curious about what was going on in the world — how and why — and in the conservative culture inculcated around the war effort. We were steadfastly assured and reassured that our loved ones were protecting our liberties and safety abroad.

I can still remember watching the entirety of Colin Powell’s testimony to Congress urging the U.S. to go to war in Iraq. I was scared for my Dad, but more than that the cultural and political environment around me convinced me (with what would later be revealed as blatant lies and manipulations of the media) that it would be necessary for my family and my community to “make sacrifices” and wage war on the other side of the planet.

For me, coming from the culture I did, I don’t think I properly realized that the U.S. was waging war in Iraq until 2012, just before my senior year of college. I’d chosen to write a senior seminar paper on what was at the time a nascent issue in the public eyes: drone strikes. As I read and researched accounts of weddings, markets, and homes reduced to ash from anonymous tech platforms riding on the clouds, I was confronted with the raw asymmetric harm that our military inflicted on innocent people who’d at the time lived under the thumb of our occupation for a full decade.

Q2: I don’t so much remember the day of March 19th, 2003. I think in the military community there was a sense that President Bush wanted to go to war and that we supported him in it — or at least that was the sentiment in my home in 2003.

Twenty years later, my parents are divorced and my nuclear family has all but dissolved, largely owing to the relational strains that came from eight years of enforced professional absence. When I was 12 and the Secretary of Defense was lying to Congress to drag us into war, I thought I understood what sacrifice meant. I didn’t and couldn’t have realized that what would be sacrificed was any semblance of normalcy, peace, or sanctity in my home life.

I watched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag half of the adults in my community across the globe and away from their families so we could accomplish close to nothing for the sake of buying guns and bombs. My Dad missed most of my adolescence and young adulthood, functionally for nothing. A few city blocks, a valley or a mountaintop that an American general could call territory controlled by the U.S. so we could justify the expense of the deployment.

I watched rampant construction back home on bases — new barracks, dining halls, motor pools, post exchanges, expanded housing for expanded units. But barely any of it helped our day-to-day lives. Those military funds largely stayed on base, and only barely filtered out into the communities around where we lived.

As I’ve grown into liberationist, peace-centered politics as an adult, the experience of having my family destroyed by a war fought for no reason has fundamentally shaped my worldview. We were fed the outright lie that our families were making sacrifices to promote American interests. But 20 years on all that my family and the military community have known through the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is death, loss, and strife.

As a tax-paying adult, I know that the sparkling new facilities thrown up at great expense on Fort Bragg, Fort Drum, and thousands of other bases across the country (and the globe) didn’t materialize from nowhere. The funds to pay for them were extracted from poor and middle-class Americans so the contractors who owned the companies that built them could buy yachts and third homes.

In total, I think the experience has bolstered me against any arguments for austerity. We can already build accessible housing for Americans who need it — we do it on Army bases without a problem. We can feed everyone who’s hungry — for decades the U.S. government did it on Army bases without a problem. We can institute a single-payer system for healthcare that, even if imperfectly, meets the vast majority of the population’s needs — because we already do it through Tricare, which integrates into our already-existing healthcare systems across the country.

If we could convince ourselves that human dignity and basic needs were as important as Lockheed profits, there’s no reason that the astronomical funds we pour into the Department of Defense couldn’t serve everyone’s needs.

Headshot of John Cavanagh

John Cavanagh, he/him, Senior Advisor

Q1: At this moment, I was Director of IPS. My IPS colleagues, led by Phyllis Bennis, had spent much of the previous seven months building United for Peace and Justice, working with city councils and mayors to pass resolutions against the war, working with allies in other countries to oppose a UN resolution justifying the war, and countless other activities. I remember remaining hopeful up to the last minute that all of the actions by millions opposing the war might prevent war. I was both angry and sad when the U.S. began bombing Iraq.

Q2: That day, and the seven months of organizing that preceded it, shifted the axis of global activism from a decade of intense focus on the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and economic globalization to a focus on a U.S. war of aggression in the Middle East. That was a massive change. It also reminded IPS and me that presidents have a lot of power in making foreign policy decisions. And yet, I believe this period was one of the most dynamic and creative for global civil society.

Peter Certo headshot

Peter Certo, he/him, Communications Director

Q1: I was a freshman in high school. My main memory is a teacher switching on the news on one of the ancient classroom TVs and night-vision explosions from Operation Shock and Awe lighting up the room.

A few kids around me actually clapped their hands and cheered. Then the teacher switched the news off after a bit and everyone just kind of went on with their day like normal. I wasn’t all that political then, although I’d heard there was maybe a war coming and had heard about some protests. But when those images came on, I remember feeling like I’d been punched in the gut.

Barely a year earlier we’d been watching the towers come down on TV, which was a deeply traumatizing experience, to the point that school closed and they sent us home. I couldn’t wrap my head around why watching explosions kill Iraqis during the school day was supposed to feel any less devastating.

Q2: March 19, 2003 was the day I learned that the unprovoked killing of thousands of people at a stroke, to solve some real or imagined political problem in the world, could be presented as an entirely rational and respectable idea — when in reality it was anything but!

Looking back, I don’t blame the people who accepted that characterization — I blame the people who peddled it. And I really admire the dissenters who saw then that it would be a terrible mistake and were brave enough to say so.

I got into communications because I wanted to help people like that reach folks like the ones I’d gone to school with, otherwise good kids just reacting to what they’d heard. I feel very grateful to have landed at a place like IPS, which has picked apart that kind of violent institutional consensus since its founding 60 years ago.

Karen Dolan Headshot

Karen Dolan, she/her, Project Director, Criminalization of Race and Poverty

Q1: I was at home with my family. My then-two-year-old had been at the big worldwide anti-war protest a month before. She had had her fists in the air saying, “George Bush, stop your war!” for nearly half her life by then.

We turned on the television to witness the Bush/Cheney “Shock and Awe” bombing campaign, and I tried my best to veil my horror from my child. My little child, full of righteous indignation and compassion even at her tender age, took one look at the screen of bombs, came over to me, lifted up her arm, and put my head on her little shoulder. I thought I was hiding my horror from her, but she knew.

We all knew. It was an immense tragedy for power and oil.

Q2: I had spent the latter half of 2002 and all of 2003 up to that point launching and organizing IPS’s anti-war project, Cities for Peace. The brainchild of our late founder, Marcus Raskin, Cities for Peace organized the creation and passage of anti-war resolutions in over 330 U.S. cities, towns, and state legislatures.

We gathered city council members from around the country and marched to the White House and presented the resolutions at the gates to George Bush’s emissaries. We went to Capitol Hill and commandeered the attention of Congress and CSPAN. We went abroad and had cities internationally passing their own Cities for Peace resolutions.

In a testament to the historic reach of the project, our Cities for Peace work was even documented in the National Archives.

The National Archives felt that our Cities for Peace work was such an important piece of U.S. history that they reached out for permission to include the work in the National Archives.

This work is the only way I think I got through the lead up to the war without collapsing out of fear for the world my child would inherit. She and I worked round the clock to prevent that war, and then to tell the truth about it after it began.

The whole country — and the world — was against the war. But when Bush blanketed Baghdad with deadly bombs, killing untold innocent Iraqis and destroying their country, public sentiment turned temporarily to rally around the flag.

Eventually, the country came back around to understand the brutality, lies, and wrongness of that war.

Today my child is 22 and has been changing the world her whole life with her own activism and showing up as who she is for herself and others. The anti-war work I did with IPS and United for Peace and Justice solidified my belief in the power of social movements in face of all odds against us.

John Feffer headshot

John Feffer, he/him, Director of Foreign Policy in Focus

Q1: I was in 30th St. Station in Philadelphia, having gone up there for a meeting at the American Friends Service Committee. I remember seeing information about the invasion on a TV screen. I was well aware of the likelihood of the U.S. invasion. But I still felt that there was a chance to rally enough international opinion against the war. So, the actual invasion was a shock.

I had participated in a protest on February 15 in Silver Spring, Maryland as part of the international day of actions. We stood in a circle in the darkness of the early evening, with candles I think. But I was not part of organizing actions at that time. I was focused a lot on writing about the two Koreas and about food politics, and I didn’t really know much about the Middle East at that point. I was mostly worried about the United States initiating war against the third country in Bush’s “axis of evil” — North Korea.

Q2: I was writing for Foreign Policy In Focus in those days, but I didn’t have that much contact with IPS central. In the lead-up to the invasion, we held an FPIF advisory committee meeting, of which I was part, and we decided to publish a book on George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The discourse around the war in Iraq was a major factor in deciding to move forward with this book project. I became the editor of the volume, and several essays reflected on the invasion.

As a result of the book, I became more connected to IPS. Three years later, I took the job as co-director of FPIF. And nearly a decade later, I became the editor of LobeLog — now Responsible Statecraft and based at Quincy — which focused on the Middle East. And that’s when I belatedly came up to speed on Middle East issues, including Iraq, filling a very big hole in my understanding of U.S. foreign policy. So, the Iraq War ended up having a very big influence on my life, my activism, and my worldview.

Bill Fletcher Jr. speaking at a podium

Bill Fletcher Jr., he/him, Associate Fellow

Q1: In the summer of 2002 I put in a call to my friend, the longtime internationalist and peace activist Van Gosse, and said to him that Bush was actually going to take us into a war with Iraq. He agreed. At that point we began planning for the formation of what came to be known as “United For Peace & Justice” (UFPJ), the largest and most anti-sectarian of the anti-war coalitions that emerged in the context of the U.S. aggression against Iraq. At the time I was the president of TransAfrica Forum. We played a central role in the February 15 global demonstrations against the war.

I do not remember where I was the day that the war started. I remember feeling intense anger, sadness, and frustration. Despite the actions of millions of people, we had been unable to stop the war from igniting. It became clear that the splits within the ruling circles in the U.S. were insufficient to halt the aggression.

Q2: I am used to the reality of U.S. aggression. I grew up during the Vietnam War; the invasion of the Dominican Republic; U.S. support for Portuguese colonialism in Africa; U.S. support of Indonesian and Moroccan aggression; U.S. intervention in Latin America, including aggression against Cuba…the list goes on and on.

So on one level, there were no surprises here. What was and remains disturbing is that the anti-war movement in the U.S. became very unfocused and lost a sense of strategy and persistence. As a movement, we did not know what to do. We thought that the massive showings on February 15 might be enough. We thought that the outspoken efforts of global luminaries might be sufficient to shame the Bush administration.

What was and remains missing is the “long game,” that is the sense that an anti-war movement needs to be rooted among regular people and, among other things, must have an electoral component. But it must also have a disruptive component and not limit itself to weekend demonstrations.

The war unleashed the demons from Tartarus. They may not be subjugated for a long time.

Note: As a 501c3 organization, IPS does not participate in electoral activities as an institution.

Tope Folarin Headshot

Tope Folarin, he/him, Executive Director

Q1: I was a junior in college, and I followed every development in the lead-up to the war quite closely.

Just over eighteen months before, on September 11, 2001, I was starting my sophomore year as an exchange student at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. I woke up to the phone ringing; I rolled over and it willed it to stop, but it wouldn’t, and after my roommate began to groan I leaned over and picked it up. “Find a television now,” the voice intoned. “As quickly as you can. The world is ending.”

I figured I was still dreaming and blinked my eyes; the fog in my mind slowly dissipated and I realized my father was on the line. “What are you talking about?” I said, or something like that, and my father repeated himself. I laughed and told him I’d call him back. I suggested that he might try another method of waking me up in the future, but he didn’t laugh — and suddenly I knew he was serious, though I didn’t know what he could possibly mean.

I ran down the hallway in my pajamas to the common room and turned on the TV. A few moments later, the second plane hit the second tower.

I remember the days that followed as a single day, an unending sequence of charged moments during which I slept fitfully when I slept at all, when seemingly everything I knew to be true was proven otherwise. At first I felt fearful, terrified that another attack would soon follow, and then I felt anger that America had been attacked, and then I tried to consider why it had happened.

Yet many of our leaders, President Bush among them, seemed invested in our anger. They cultivated it, they justified it, they discouraged us from moving beyond it. That anger undergirded our decision to initiate war with Afghanistan, a decision that made little sense to me then, and the anger seemed to be the primary justification for Bush’s subsequent desire to initiate war with Iraq.

By March of 2003 I’d returned to Morehouse College. I watched the news faithfully and read about the efforts of UN weapons inspectors to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I knew there were no weapons — I think we all did. But this did not matter; I knew that war was inevitable.

On the afternoon of March 19, 2003, I picked up a copy of 1984 by George Orwell from the college bookstore. I began to read it that evening, as America launched another irresponsible war. I thought I was past my anger, but as I read, I felt my anger regenerating itself, I felt it intensifying with every page I read. I knew we had been duped, and that we would all pay a very big price for a very long time.

Q2: I entered college with the same aspirations as most first-generation Americans: I wanted to join a profession that would make my parents happy and provide me with enough money to live comfortably. By the time the U.S. invaded Iraq, however, my priorities had shifted. I felt shocked and incensed by America’s actions, and betrayed by our leaders. They had lied so willingly and consistently, and I lost faith in the idea that they had our best interests at heart.

The Iraq War started me down a path of deep engagement with history, theory, language, and eventually, activism. I determined that I had to learn as much as I could so that I would be prepared to play a role in preventing America from entering yet another pointless and immoral war.

Sarah Gertler headshot

Sarah Gertler, she/her, Social Media Strategist

Q1: I was in second grade in March 2003. I didn’t fully understand that the U.S. was starting a new war, but I was aware of symbols of that war in my life — having seen the footage of 9/11 on TV after getting home from kindergarten, our beloved elementary school principal being deployed overseas, increasing mentions of a bad guy named Saddam Hussein. I was aware that the U.S. was doing something concerning terrorism, but was too young to understand the shift to war.

Q2: Although I don’t remember the start of the war in Iraq specifically, it has impacted my life in ways I think it’s done to an entire generation (or several): It normalized being in a state of war, it deepened a confused and fearful sense of patriotism with a bombardment of nationalist media, and it cemented blanket Islamophobia as a rational worldview. In the years after, I watched formerly close friends be indoctrinated into vicious anti-Arab hate and misplaced awe of the U.S. military.

As I’ve learned about the truths of the war in Iraq over time, it angers me morally, politically, and personally. I’m horrified that the U.S. government found it so easy to decimate hundreds of thousands of lives far away enough that none of us could see it, and feed off the media’s glorification of that slaughter. I’m disgusted that my peers and I were raised to be fearful of Arab-sounding names and comfortable with the names of war criminals, and deeply frustrated that there are many who still feel that way.

In terms of my activism, after growing up in the years following March 19, 2003, I find that it’s difficult to imagine a less militarized life — but that makes me want it all the more!

Lindsay Koshgarian headshot

Lindsay Koshagarian, she/her, Program Director of the National Priorities Project

Q1: In 2003, I was working my first job out of college, as an organizer for Planned Parenthood in suburban and exurban Philadelphia. During my job search, I had been galvanized by the newly established Bush presidency and my belief that one of its most damning legacies might be on reproductive rights. Then 9/11 happened, the Afghanistan war, and then the buildup to the Iraq war.

That March, I still hoped that the massive anti-war protests would be effective, and I was dismayed when that early “shock and awe” campaign was finally launched. I didn’t understand how different this would prove to be from earlier U.S. bombing campaigns I’d seen, including President Bill Clinton’s 1998 Iraq air strikes, which I remembered as wrongheaded but brief. Now I see all of these actions as part of the continuum of U.S. militarism.

Q2: In hindsight, the post-9/11 wars were clearly the biggest legacy of the Bush presidency. In 2003, I never would have dreamed that these wars would last through three more presidents, through several job changes for me, three states, and until my two children were old enough to begin to understand war, too.

For many of those years, my professional focus remained on domestic issues — on reproductive rights, then poverty, homelessness, and others. It took me until 2014, when I joined the National Priorities Project, to tie all the threads together.

For decades, NPP has brought attention to the waste of public dollars for war and destruction instead of human needs. The way I see it now, we will protect life and rights at home once we can respect them for everyone around the world. We will invest in real solutions once we reject the false solutions of control, violence, and war. We have so many thriving movements now that understand this, and I look forward to being a part of them for as long as it takes.

Alliyah Lusuegro headshot

Alliyah Lusuegro, she/her, they/them, Outreach Coordinator of the National Priorities Project

Q1: At five years old, I was a kindergartener alongside my twin brother, students at the Cavite School of Life in the Philippines. I spent the first six years of my life in Bacoor, Cavite. I wasn’t aware of any countries outside of mine, largely oblivious to both the U.S. and Iraq. At this point in my life, in 2003, metro Manila felt like the whole world to me.

Maybe the only distinct experience I had that signaled the existence of another nation was when I was counting and learning about U.S. dollars in the classroom, next to the Philippine peso. I knew early on that the $5 bill had Abraham Lincoln on it, front and center. I didn’t think twice about what it meant, five-year-old me likely accepting that it was currency for another town or city in the Philippines.

Little did I know about the influence that the U.S. had on the world at that time, as a global imperial power and in instigating the Iraq War. Little did I know that just a few weeks before March 19, 2003, my home country participated in these global protests. Just the year after, in 2004, I moved to the United States, where I would go on to spend elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. Now I’m an adult living and working in Washington, D.C., the home of U.S. politics and policies, and the very place that gets to decide whether there’s warfare or not.

Q2: Growing up, the Iraq War to me was felt most by what I saw on the TV and in the classroom. My parents always turned the channel to the news, and I recall images of Bush and military planes and bombs. Iraq, like how the U.S. was to me before I moved here, felt like a distant, dystopian place.

I remember seeing the American flag on TIME Mag for Kids in the classrooms of California, where my family immigrated, and then Chicago, where we’ve built our home since. I fell into patriotism, into proudly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. As a child and into my teens, I didn’t question that I belonged to the U.S. or why and how the Iraq War happened.

As I further engaged in the education system and developed my world views, I learned of the War on Terror and the political moves that occurred to push it forward for years.

I’ve felt the impacts of the Iraq War through the policies that came with it, namely the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. I feel it when I travel and go through TSA with added anxieties as an immigrant, on top of the already surveillant nature of officers looking through my stuff and at my body. Now and then I enjoy a baseball game with my friends and hesitate to sing the Star-Spangled Banner. As an immigrant, I sometimes wonder how much of this home I moved to I can claim as my own, particularly when I feel discouraged by this war-ridden history.

Miriam Pemberton headshot

Miriam Pemberton, she/her, Associate Fellow

Before the war, my extended family converged on New York City for the march from all over the eastern seaboard — I’d say there were a couple dozen of us there. I had a banner — I don’t remember what it said — that I was supposed to deliver to Phyllis Bennis near the stage where she’d be speaking. I never made it. As more and more streets around the stage became gridlocked with humanity, the police started blocking them off. I tried one maneuver to evade a row of sawhorses but was spotted and sent back.

Most of the family dispersed into a snowstorm that night, but my daughter and I stayed in a hotel. At breakfast the next morning we read the front page story of the meeting of “the Second Superpower.” We both choked up.

Khury Petersen-Smith headshot

Khury Petersen-Smith, he/him, Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow

When the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq in 2003, the headline in the local newspaper in Rochester, New York, where I was going to college, read “DECAPITATION STRIKE.”

This was the first phase of “Shock and Awe,” the operation that the U.S. used to launch the invasion. The purpose was to assault Iraq with such overwhelming violence that it would break any will to resist the invading Americans. The “decapitation” attempt was directed at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his inner circle. They failed to neutralize Iraq’s head of state in those first few days, but succeeded in unleashing extraordinary brutality on the people and cities of Iraq. We saw haunting images of Baghdad’s sky glowing orange from the inferno caused by apocalyptic American bombing raids.

The anti-war activists on my campus, the Rochester Institute of Technology, had planned for this day. We gathered in front of the Student-Alumni Union for an anti-war rally. Upon arrival, we saw that there were students gathered there for a pro-war rally. They carried U.S. flags and had an amp blasting music like Lee Greenwood’s war anthem, “Proud to be an American.” There were just as many pro-war students as there were against the war.

After our campus rally, we drove downtown to a much larger march and rally against the invasion in front of the Federal Building. We took the streets in the largest demonstration since the U.S. war in Vietnam.

That wasn’t the last action, and it wasn’t the first. When we found out that our school got federal funding to begin designing and manufacturing weapons on campus, we protested and disrupted the ceremony that was meant to celebrate the opening of the building where it was to take place. We later put on suits and showed up at the building to perform a “weapons inspection” to call attention to Washington’s hypocrisy in inspecting Iraq’s weapons stockpiles while making weapons of mass destruction here. We rallied against the racism directed toward Middle Eastern and Muslim folks at that time, in response to physical assaults on Arab students.

I am proud that we dissented against the tidal wave of militarism and racism. But looking back, bitterness is what emerges most clearly. Especially because the prosecutors of the war got away with it. “Shock and Awe,” U.S. personnel torturing Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison that was exposed a few years later, the massive attacks on cities like Fallujah and Najaf during the occupation, and the everyday violence of the war — American officials didn’t pay any price for any of it. George W. Bush is now considered a reasonable elder statesman. Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice enjoyed book tours and were treated as respectable public commentators rather than war criminals.

They may have escaped accountability, but their actions — the actions of the U.S. government — are not forgotten. The violence that this government is capable of — and the support for it by many in the population — was impressed upon me and many others in that time. We won’t forget. The people of Iraq still deserve justice, and the fight to win it remains unfinished.

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