On September 11, 2001 our world changed forever- and most decidedly not in a good way. As everybody who was alive or has been born since that day knows, that was the “Day of Infamy” when radical Muslim extremists, led by their awful, demonic mastermind Osama Bin Laden (which is one of the nicer ways we in the West have defined him since that day) attacked America. Their complicated plot was actually terribly successful, as hijackers took control of four different commercial jetliners and flew them into the World Trade Center (twice) and the Pentagon. The fourth plane was wrestled down during a fight between passengers and the terrorists to crash on the ground in rural Pennsylvania. Like everyone else, I remember where I was that day and my reaction to the terrible news. It was not a good day.
I’m not sure what has come after what was envisioned by anyone, including the politicians who set the future in motion. I’m talking, of course, about the War on Terror and its fallout. Shortly after 9/11, President Bush ordered U.S. troops into Iraq to take down the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein, whom we believed to be running a state-sponsored program of terror. The U.S., as part of the same war, also put a bunch of soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, home of the anti-American organization, the Taliban, and supposed refuge of Bin Laden and his terrorist network Al Qaeda.
Things have never been the same. Call them what you will: freedom fighters, terrorists, Jihadists (personally I’ll stick with misguided A-holes), but those who carried their war of terror to our shores did not give up easily. The Iraqis fought us, the Taliban fought us, seemingly innocent civilians fought us and many of them continue to do so to this day, It’s been over 15 years since 9/11, the War in Iraq officially ended in 2011 and yet, here we are, still fighting it- the never-ending war. Here are 15 shocking images of it from the past 15 years.
15. Shock & Awe, Part I
I suppose it’s only fitting that we begin with the air campaign that preceded troops on the ground. The operation was called “Shock & Awe” after all. That’s pretty much what you’ll be seeing here. After President Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq (“Operation Iraqi Freedom”), U.S. warplanes and ships began their bombing of Baghdad and other points in Iraq. The purpose of the bombing really was to shock & awe the Iraqis into surrender. It didn’t work, entirely, but it did produce some terrible results. Here we see the Iraqi Council of Ministers building after a direct strike. It was one of the government buildings that the U.S. sought to destroy to behead the Iraqi government from the outset and was also considered a possible place that dictator Saddam Hussein might be hiding out in. He was not- it would still take a while to get him- but it was indicative of the lengths to which we would go to prosecute the war.
14. Shock & Awe, Part II
Or we could turn to this example- the skyline of Baghdad after an airstrike in March of 2003, when we began the war. The whole purpose of the U.S. (and our coalition partners the United Kingdom and Australia) invasion was to destabilize and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and, hopefully, bring him to justice. But our methods of doing so were slightly different than in wars past. Unlike say, World War II, for example, the U.S. military didn’t just try to bomb only military targets but rather actively tried to bring the war to the Iraqi people as a whole. This was actually explicitly stated in a scholarly paper published almost eight years before the war titled Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance. The authors of that paper basically laid the entire groundwork of our air campaign in Iraq by stating: “The intent here is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives. . .” We certainly did that, didn’t we?
13. Shock & Awe, Part III
I’d just like to make this point perfectly clear so that there is no misunderstanding. Whether you agree with the U.S. (excuse me, coalition) invasion of Iraq in 2003 or not, the fact that the U.S. military, as an avowed goal, was targeting large parts of the city of Baghdad and the country that were not military targets is just a bit unsettling, isn’t it? The fact that we did appear to achieve our immediate aims; the cowing of the Iraqi population, the severing of Iraqi leadership from their forces and the dissolution of the Iraqi military, doesn’t necessarily make the way we achieved those ends appropriate. This picture, an early shot of the air strikes, isn’t a pretty firework, you know. It shows a city that’s about to literally be on fire. Was capturing Saddam and ending his deadly regime (which was just as awful toward its own people as the rest of the world) worth the civilian toll? I’m not sure anyone can answer that question.
12. Ground Invasion
Of course the Iraq War wasn’t just about a bombing campaign and then everyone went home. Far from it. There was also a massive ground assault on Iraq by over 300,000 troops, most of them American, although a significant minority were from the U.K., our oldest and closest ally. While they did meet significant resistance by the Iraqi army, the initial invasion of Iraq, much like that of the Gulf War in 1991, was hugely successful. Iraqi conscripts surrendered by the thousands and our troops ground on toward Baghdad at an unstoppable rate. There’s always a human element to war too, though, isn’t there? Check out this armored column of U.S. tanks and personnel carriers as they rumble along the roadside. There’s a small boy chasing alongside them. Is he excited by the arrival of the troops? Trying to sell them something? Or begging for food, water or help? We’ll never know- thus are the vagaries of war.
11. Oil Fields Burning
The original war America fought against Iraq was way back in 1991, when the first President Bush, George H.W. Bush ( “W’s” Dad) led a much larger coalition force against Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi dictator had invaded his tiny neighbor Kuwait for its oil. This action was, of course, the Gulf War and is remembered for its swift destruction of the Iraqi army but also the refusal of Bush Sr. to push into Iraq and topple Saddam’s regime. What isn’t as well remembered, in a war about oil, is what the Iraqis did to the oil wells of Kuwait as they retreated. It should come as no surprise that they set fire to them, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage and an environmental catastrophe. Do you know how hard it is to put out an oil field fire? Hard. In 2003, retreating Iraqi forces would do the same thing, on a huge scale, to their own oil fields. Here we see a destroyed Iraqi tank in the foreground as the fields’ burn behind it.
10. Prisoners, Part I
March 21, 2003. The war in Iraq is well underway. As if there was ever any doubt, it has become clear that the American-led coalition will be victorious- the only thing that could stop it would be the politicians. But what happens in war when one side becomes victorious? What happens to the survivors on the other side? Well, they become prisoners, that’s what. Here we see a shockingly huge column of Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered. It’s most likely it didn’t take too much persuading for them to do so. Many of the Iraqi army’s formations were made up of unmotivated conscripts who wanted nothing more than for the shooting to stop. Those few elements that fought aggressively and to the bitter end were troops like Saddam’s personal army, the Republican Guard- men who were loyal to the dictator and much better equipped. The ones in this picture, guarded by U.S. Marines, were most likely happy with their fate. At the time.
9. Prisoner, Part II
Another aspect of war, after the shooting has moved on to a new battlefield, is the incarceration of prisoners of war; what do you do with them after you’ve got them? Here’s one shocking example of what happened to some prisoners. We can only assume that the man in the photo was somebody beyond the pale of your average soldier. Perhaps he was a high ranking officer. Or perhaps he was an intelligence agent. While we don’t know who the prisoner is, our hearts have to go out to his young son, as his bound father, behind barbed wire, tries to comfort him. We don’t even know what became of this family after this picture was taken. Perhaps we don’t want to know. These are the images of war that belie all of our beliefs about martial glory. As General Sherman said in the American Civil War, “War is all Hell.”
8. The Spider Hole
He is considered one of the most brutal dictators ever: a man who killed thousands of his own people because they didn’t share his religious sect or posed a “security threat,” a man who invaded other countries for personal profit, a man who was instrumental in one of the most terrible wars of modern times (I’m actually talking about the Iran-Iraq War there), and a man who defied the international community time after time. So, really, it’s no surprise that Saddam Hussein, a man who was personally responsible for “purging” at the very least 250,000 of his own people, would be subject to a massive eight-month manhunt when he disappeared in the early days of the Iraq War. He was found by soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, an elite unit of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, on December 13, 2003, after having spent almost eight months in hiding. The man who controlled an entire nation, one who lived in Presidential Palaces to rival any ever seen, was found in a “spider-hole” hideout in the ground. A substantial fall from grace, indeed.
7. Street Fighting
After the initial invasion of Iraq had spun down and U.S. troops began to reach Baghdad, the tone of the war changed to street fighting. Street fighting, in any war, from ancient times until now, is never a nice thing to experience. Soldiers often don’t quite know who the enemy is, as civilians are everywhere. Danger surrounds them on all sides. All of the advantages that technology and military superiority are supposed to give an army tend to sort of fade away in the tangled and tricky ruins of a city. The war in Iraq was no different. The coalition may have effectively crippled the Iraqi state and its apparatus of war but insurgents and small units still fought on. Here a crowd of Iraqi civilians (and who knows, perhaps insurgents too), dance on the burning remains of a U.S. Army vehicle that was ambushed. It was a scene that would be repeated many times.
As the war in Iraq ground went on for seemingly forever, a new phrase entered the American lexicon. It’s one that just about everybody has heard of, even if we hadn’t 20 years ago. I’m talking about IEDs, the vicious and brutal “Improvised Explosive Devices” that have become such a symbol of both Iraq and the Afghan War. Simply put, an IED is any sort of homemade device that has the capability to be triggered, usually by a vehicle, sometimes by foot soldiers, and explode, causing impersonal damage to anyone around. It is a tool of terror, not conventional war. Often IEDs are attached to cars, so that when the bomb is triggered, there is even more metal shrapnel flying around. U.S. forces had a difficult time with them for years and many images are far too graphically shocking for this forum. Here we see the immediate aftermath of a car bomb blowing up and paralyzing a column of American military vehicles in 2005.
Another phrase that entered our common vocabulary during the war was “WMDs.” This of course refers to “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” They were a really big deal during the war. Unlike IEDs, which are relatively small and personal in nature, WMDs are intended to target large populations, usually civilian. IEDs are terroristic in nature; WMDS are state-sponsored terrorism. One of the reasons the U.S. invaded Iraq was to find these weapons, ones that Saddam was supposedly stockpiling. Our fears that these devices existed centered around a possible Iraqi nuclear weapons program, biological devices (like the Anthrax scare), chemical devices (like the poison gas used in World War I), and even viral devices (spreading plague, etc.). While we did not find the massive numbers of WMDs we expected to find and had been led to believe existed, Iraq did have many chemical weapons and the reconditioned rockets to deliver them. We can consider ourselves fortunate that we never had to view the surely shocking results of a Saddam-led WMD launch.
There are two battles that stand out in the popular consciousness more than any others in the Iraq War. The first is the Battle of Mosul, which occurred in November of 2004. Basically, while the Battle of Fallujah was going on, insurgents (Iraqi nationalists, Islamic extremists and Kurdish tribesmen), began to flood the city, the capital of northern Iraq, hoping to retake it from U.S. and Iraqi security forces (the latter were part of the new U.S. backed Iraqi government) while their attention was elsewhere. It is infamous for its sudden and surprising start and for the intensity of the conflict long after many other parts of the country had abandoned the war. Four U.S. soldiers and over 100 of their Iraqi allies were killed in over a week of city-fighting, as insurgents poured into the city, attacking police stations and U.S. positions everywhere they could. It was a brutal and violently shocking episode in a war full of them.
At the same time that the Battle of Mosul was happening, a joint force of U.S. Marines and British soldiers were in their own trouble in the city of Fallujah. Fallujah was the site of the notorious execution of four private American contractors by the Iraqi insurgency. This execution was broadcast on the airwaves and incensed Americans. Fallujah was also considered a stronghold of the insurgents, who controlled the city. So, in November 2004, a massive contingent of coalition forces (over 15,000) was sent to take the city back. This resulted in some of the most intense fighting of the entire war as the two sides battled it out for over six weeks. It’s been said that the operation was some of the most intense street/city fighting the Marines had been in since the Vietnam War. Almost 100 American and British troops were killed and 600 wounded, a huge casualty list for any single episode from the Iraq War.
It would be reckless of me to write an article about the War in Iraq and not mention its ancillary conflict in Afghanistan. Although the Iraq War is the better known in many ways for many reasons (primarily because it started out as war against a legitimate government and sovereign state), the War in Afghanistan has been longer and sometimes uglier. After we invaded Iraq the U.S. also put “boots on the ground,” as they say, in Afghanistan to root out the Taliban, a group of Muslim extremists who were virulently anti-American and also pro-Al-Qaeda. That’s not a good combination for Westerners. This was not a war against conventional military forces but rather a shadowy terrorist organization, a fact that has led to awful instances of murder, torture, ambush, and the like. The additional fact that much of the Taliban was actually armed and supported by the U.S. during the Soviet-Afghan War in the ‘80s (when they were known as the “Mujahedeen”), only to turn against us, is hard to stomach. It has not been a good 15 years for the country or America’s involvement there.
1. Baghdad Today
It would be easy to think that we somehow “won” the Iraq War. We did, after all get Saddam Hussein. We put in place a democratically elected government (even if said government has been pushed out and civil war rules Iraq). We eventually even got Osama Bin Laden. On the other hand…Iraq is a mess. Especially Baghdad. This is a city, after all, that suffered from massive bombing during the war from both air strikes and artillery, not to mention its occupation by U.S. forces in massive Abrams tanks and the like. It’s a city where suicide bombings, truck bombings and sniper attacks are the norm, a city where the police where masks so that their friends and neighbors, every one of them a possible insurgent, can’t recognize them. That’s one of the reasons why this image of a man attempting to clean up a part of the bombed city years after the war has supposedly ended is so shocking. Baghdad has a lot more and a lot worse clean up ahead of it than can be fathomed.