The First Casualty of War Is Truth: Iraq 20 Years Later

Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad
Iraqi civilians and U.S. soldiers pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in downtown Baghdad, April 9, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

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Four months prior to the invasion of Iraq, I found out that the George W. Bush administration was selling the war to the American people based on a lie.

I was attending the 1st Marine Division birthday ball in Primm, Nevada, where a former U.S. Central Command commander, recently retired, was our guest of honor. 

Prior to the festivities at a closed door meeting in a large, empty conference room with the division's officers, he shocked many of us when he said, "Marines, there is no ongoing WMD program in Iraq, but you are going to war anyway."

He paused, and with an exasperated look on his face, said gravely, "The administration is cooking the books on the intel about WMD in Iraq." 

This was a leader who had been in charge of all U.S. military activities in the region for more than three years and had the highest of security clearances.

He let that thought hang for a moment -- that the administration was cooking the books -- and then continued, "But if you don't go through the Iraqi Army like a hot knife through butter, I'll disown every one of you."

I was shocked, but not surprised. 

And so when I found myself, 20 years ago, sitting at a desert base north of Kuwait City where the 1st Marine Division and I Marine Expeditionary Force staffs were putting the final touches on the plans for the invasion and coordinating the arrival of dozens of units and tens of thousands of Marines, I had mixed feelings about our impending future.

Saddam Hussein and his sons were clearly among the worst humans in history. The accounts I read of their brutality were among the most horrifying I've ever seen. I felt no remorse about what was about to happen to them.

But I had misgivings about the fact that the premise of the war was a lie. There was no weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq. 

The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus' words rang in my ears: The truth is the first casualty of war.

Certainly, past administrations have lied to start wars. 

"Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" ignited the Spanish-American War, without a shred of proof that the Spanish sank our armored cruiser. 

The Gulf of Tonkin "incident" gave President Lyndon B. Johnson all he needed to kick off our epic disaster in Vietnam.

As I kicked my boots in the Kuwaiti dust, I realized I was getting a lesson in how fast things can move once an administration greases the skids toward war, and I knew at the time this war was more about the geopolitics of oil; the control of strategic resources; and, ultimately, hubris, wealth and power. 

I knew then that a significant number of young men and women -- American and Iraqi -- were about to die because of greed and because of lies.

My job in the war was to help plan and execute the largest media embed program in Marine Corps history and also serve as a member of our law of war investigative team -- to look into all the weird stuff our units uncovered on the battlefield and stay ahead of Iraqi propaganda. 

I spent the morning of March 23, 2003, with my team looking for missing ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, shooting our way out of an ambush in the city of Az Zubayr, and medevacing two injured Marines. I spent a minute reflecting on the fact that I had just been trying to kill Iraqis who were trying to kill me. 

Why were they shooting at me? They were there defending their town, their homes, and their families.

To them, we were invaders, not liberators. I know we would have done the same if they were armed and moving through our hometowns. 

I didn't blame them: Imagine an invading Iraqi Army in Texas. In another place and time, the Iraqis who ambushed us and I might have shared a joke and talked about our families and future dreams over a cup of tea.

We didn't hate each other. Hell, we didn't know each other. 

But we were trying to kill each other because we were both armed and scared, and our governments put us in a dangerous situation where we felt we were defending ourselves and our friends. 

While our division did its part in toppling Saddam and neutralizing the Iraqi Army in three short weeks with relatively minimal loss of life compared to previous wars, the thought that I most likely seriously injured and may have killed humans I didn't know for an invasion that was based on a lie is something that I think about every day. 

At the micro-level, I did what Marines are expected to do in combat, but the macro reason I was even put in that situation to begin with was alarming.

So when I think of the war and hear the names Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and Perle, I think of the 4,419 U.S. service members who died in Iraq and the 31,994 wounded in action. 

I think of their parents and families and friends. 

I think of the extinguished futures, the mangled bodies and minds, and ruined lives.  

I think of the more than 208,000 Iraqi civilians killed. 

I think of the homes destroyed and the misery we created. 

I think of the Pandora's box we opened that led to the insurgency and the creation of ISIS. 

I think of how the disbanding of the Iraqi Army fueled the insurgency and took us from a World War II-style war to a Vietnam-style war in less than a year.

I think of the trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, and think of what we could have done to improve the lives of poor Americans here at home with the more than $8 trillion blown. 

I think of the Iraqi soldiers I tried to kill and those that tried to kill me.

And I think of the power of lies, especially when uttered by the rich and powerful.

-- Joe Plenzler is a retired combat decorated Marine lieutenant colonel who served as a member of the 1st Marine Division staff with then-Maj. Gen. Jim Mattis during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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