As the American military presence in Iraq (mop up? occupation? peacekeeping? nation-building?) inches toward the start of its ninth year in March, it's worth looking back exactly 20 years to when our previous military entanglement in that nation began.
It was the afternoon (Seattle time) of Wednesday, Jan. 16, 1991 when cable and network news went all abuzz with reports from their Baghdad correspondents of anti-aircraft fire lighting up the night sky and bombs and missiles falling on the Iraqi capital.
I was at work, sometime after 4 p.m., when over the radio came live coverage of an announcement by President George H. W. Bush’s press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. Fitzwater was terse, announcing that military action was underway and that the president would address the American people later that evening.
Watching the YouTube clip (around the 2:56 mark) of Fitzwater at work illustrates the tragedy that is the more recent Iraq War better than anything else I've read or heard from any pundit, protestor or politician over the last nearly eight years.
I suppose a qualified historian might call this clip a "primary source," since rather than a reporter or anchor, we’re hearing directly from the party taking action, even if only in the form of a spokesman. I’ve grown so accustomed to finding these kinds of historic clips on YouTube (along with talented housecats and the globe-hopping terpsichorean flight attendant), I sometimes feel like I can’t remember the time before YouTube existed. Either way, Fitzwater sums up all that would eventually be wrong about 2003 in his brief, if not eloquent, remarks from 1991:
"I have a statement by the president of the United States. 'The liberation of Kuwait has begun. In conjunction with the forces of our coalition partners, the United States has moved under the codename "Operation Desert Storm" to enforce the mandates of the United Nations Security Council. As of 7 o'clock p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Operation Desert Storm forces were engaging targets in Kuwait and Iraq.' President Bush will address the nation at 9 o'clock p.m. tonight from the Oval Office. I'll try to get you more as soon as we can. Thank you very much."
A few key words and phrases leap out. "Liberation." "Coalition partners." "Mandates of the United Nations Security Council."
The death of any member of America’s armed forces is a tragedy for that man or woman and his or her family; the death of 294 Americans during Operation Desert Storm is nothing any of us should ever take lightly, or casually pronounce as simply the human cost of waging war. But those 294 Americans died in support of a mission that had a clear beginning, middle, and end.
By comparison, the death of nearly 5,000 Americans (plus other soldiers, contractors and countless Iraqi civilians) since the Iraq War began in 2003 defies my qualifications to accurately describe. I searched, but there's nothing on YouTube that even comes close.