It was supposed to be over, America’s war in Iraq. So all the old emotions boiled up anew as Americans absorbed the news that U.S. bombs were again striking targets in the nation where the United States led an invasion in 2003, lost almost 4,500 troops in the fight to stabilize and liberate it and then left nearly three years ago.
In interviews across the country, from the 9/11 memorial in New York to the Iowa State Fair and an Arizona war monument, Americans voiced conflicted feelings as airstrikes began Friday, ordered by President Barack Obama who had fulfilled a campaign promise when he withdrew the last U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011.
Many supporting the decision to bomb now did so for contrasting reasons. Those opposed said the U.S. never should have invaded Iraq in the first place, but they also struggled with America’s obligation to the ravaged, upended nation, which has endured violence between rival Islamic sects and, recently, the ruthless onslaught of the militant group calling itself the Islamic State.
There was one constant across Americans’ opinions: Nobody could envision a concrete solution to Iraq’s problems.
Neil McCanon, who was deployed to Iraq for four months as an armored crewman in the Army, said the U.S. should not have gone into Iraq in 2003. “I felt like it was not really justified, and it was proven to be unjustified after we got there,” he said, referring to the never-found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the alleged threat cited to justify the war.
But he thought Friday’s airstrikes, which targeted Islamic State militants who have conquered swaths of Iraq and Syria, were the right thing to do.
“These are bad guys, there’s no question about that. The only question is where do we use force and how much, I guess,” said McCanon, who now is co-owner of the Virginia Beach-based Young Veterans Brewing Company.
One of the main reasons McCanon voted for Obama was because he promised to end the war. He trusts Obama’s pledge not to send ground troops, but where exactly to draw the line about the use of force remains an open question for him.
“That’s something I’m just conflicted on as a soldier and someone who spent time there. I don’t want the place to fall into chaos,” McCanon said.
Tom Lord, a 60-year-old retired firefighter from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who was visiting Manhattan’s 9/11 memorial Friday, said he supports the new bombing, even though he disagrees with most of Obama’s other decisions.
“I would hope they send troops, but I don’t believe Obama will. We need to go over there and establish peace again, or at least try to,” he said.
Lord supported the original 2003 invasion. He thought the latest problems were a result of Obama pulling troops out too soon: “They needed to train up the Iraqis more than they did. They pulled out way too soon and now look what happened.”
“There’s a direct connection to that and what is happening now,” Lord said, speaking near the South Tower reflecting pool, with the sound of rushing waterfalls in the background. “When you have a void, terrorists are going to fill it in.”
“The U.S. needs to play mother over everybody else to lead them and guide them and take care of them,” he added.
Does that mean America is still responsible for protecting Iraq, years after handing the country control of its own future?
Timothy Broxson in downtown Pensacola, Florida, answered this way: “I don’t know if it is our responsibility, but I believe it is the right thing to do.”
Broxson, 57, whose father and brother are military veterans, said, “I believe we should help.”
“It is a slaughter,” he said of the militants’ advance, “and we need to do something about it.”
Pausing at the Iowa State Fair, Doyle Ellis of New Virginia, Iowa, said he thinks the airstrikes are the right move but will draw America back into Iraq for several more years. Yet the 61-year-old post office employee is conflicted: “Sometimes I feel like we shouldn’t be over there.”
“I don’t think that we should be running their country,” echoed Kevin Meyers, 42, an unemployed roofer who was pausing near the World War II memorial in Phoenix.
However, he added, “Being the United States of America, we’ve always stepped in when people are not being treated fairly. I think we do have a responsibility, especially since the Christian minority is being target by the extremists.”
Chris Turpen of Chandler, Arizona, a 45-year-old architectural project manager, also sees a U.S. responsibility to Iraq. That troubles him.
“Once you break it, you own it. But it’s a war that will never be won,” Turpen said.
The Islamic State fighters are fanatics who “will never go away,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, we should kill every one of them, but we’ll never get there. These are people that just hate America.”
He thinks that Obama “had to go back in.” The president has promised not to send ground troops, but Turpen would not mind if that happened.
“It’s a classic example of choosing the wrong that’s more right,” he said.
For Hashim Al-Tawil, an artist, professor and chairman of the art history department at Henry Ford College in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, it’s difficult to see anything being done right in his homeland of Iraq.
He would like to see “an end to this group” of invading militants because they don’t represent Islam, Iraqis or a good, modern form of government. But he’s not sure the airstrikes will be effective.
“Chaos is all over Iraq – south, north and the center,” Al-Tawil said. “What’s happening today is just a small, additional sequence of that whole chaos.”
He said the larger solution is for the U.S. and European nations to change their entire approach to supporting or destroying Arab regimes.
“In Iraq, there was a solid state. It was a dictatorship, that’s for sure, but so is every country in that region,” he said. “At least there was a country.”
“Now there is no country,” Al-Tawil said.