Twenty years ago, the United States launched its first wave of attacks against Iraq. The mission to depose Saddam Hussein began with overwhelming popular support at home as Americans rallied to the Bush administration's insistence that Iraq's weapons stockpile posed a grave risk to the country and the world at large.
Time revealed the extent of that folly and the hubris of invading and indefinitely occupying a diverse nation of 27 million. It came at a cost: thousands of American lives, possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, trillions of dollars and the tarnishing of our nation's reputation.
What the country should not forget -- what it must not forget -- is the selfless sacrifice of the American armed forces who risked their lives in the noble hope of helping Iraq forge a democratic future. Many of these heroes live here in Hampton Roads, and while Americans are right to view the war unfavorably, the warriors who served deserve our gratitude, our compassion and our ceaseless support.
It wasn't long after the Sept. 11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan that the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq and the Hussein regime, which had for years resisted international efforts to inspect weapons labs and assure the destruction of chemical and biological agents.
With a broad mandate to pursue the al-Qaida terrorist network, President George W. Bush ramped up pressure on Iraq, building the case for war. The administration provided intelligence, later proved false, that received endorsement by Congress and the backing of the American people.
Assertions that coalition forces would be greeted as liberators proved true -- for a time. The Hussein regime was quickly deposed and the president eventually arrested. But the officials who assumed control of the country made repeated mistakes, including the De-Ba'athification policies that put tens of thousands of civilians and hundreds of thousands of Iraq service members out of work. Those idle hands would fuel a resulting insurgency that raged for years.
Through it all, however, the members of the American military deployed to Iraq largely acted with honor and professionalism with whatever came their way. They risked life and limb to liberate the country, battle the insurgency and help rebuild a country that could sustain itself in peace with its neighbors.
There were undoubtedly some who disgraced themselves and their country. The torture and humiliation of prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside of Baghdad was one such disgusting episode and part of a larger pattern of abuse in American-run prisons and detention centers.
But the burden of service in that war and in Afghanistan largely fell to a relatively small number of Americans as much of the nation moved on to other distractions. All told, about 1.9 million service members served in country and another 1 million in support capacities or in related theaters.
Unlike in many previous conflicts, such as Vietnam, these men and women volunteered for the military. And given the length of those wars, many joined knowing the risk they could face on the front lines.
According to the Department of Defense, 4,431 service members died in Iraq. Another 32,000 were wounded, including more than 1,500 who lost a limb. And suicide has claimed more than four times the number of veteran lives than those killed in the war itself.
The Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University estimates the "total costs of caring for veterans of the post-9/11 wars are estimated to reach between $2.2 trillion and $2.5 trillion."
It is a bill the nation should gladly pay, as it should whenever it sends its sons and daughters, husbands and wives, into harm's way. The expense of war isn't just in the fighting but also, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
As America marks this anniversary, we must never forget that awesome responsibility.