The reaction to the takeover of Ramadi by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has ranged from panicked to defensive and furious to painful, demonstrating just how sensitive the memory of the Iraq war still is for Americans. Twelve years later, politicians and pundits still use the war that would alter the fate of individuals and nations alike to prove they were right or that someone else was wrong.
I am part of the generation that came of age in the wake of September 11 and during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those events changed our lives in so many ways. My friends and I were young adults who were suddenly forced to look at the world through a politically charged, terror threat color-coded lens. Out of the rubble in downtown Manhattan we rose up together and knew that we had to do something.
And something we did. Some of us signed up to go to war, or joined the government, or traveled to the Middle East to understand the region and its people. Still others stayed at home hoping to shut out a world that seemed too crazy to understand, believing the best way to deal with this new reality was to close our borders and prevent it from touching us. Our national consciousness changed overnight, especially for American Muslims; our identities were shaken and we wanted to be involved in writing this new chapter of our country’s story as we struggled to write our own.
I was one of those who went to the Middle East. An Egyptian-American who spent her childhood in Egypt, I felt I needed to go back to the region to understand what was happening. I spoke Arabic and thought I might be able to contribute in some way once I got there. I landed in Camp Doha in Kuwait on March 25, 2003, 21 years old and eager to make a difference. A man with a clipboard came up to me soon after I landed. “Jasmine El-Gamal?” “Yes,” I answered. “You’re with the 82nd Airborne Division. Come on, I’ll take you.”
I remember staring at him thinking, what’s the 82nd Airborne Division? But I went with him anyway and that is how I ended up, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, driving into Iraq in a Humvee with a four-man team that would become my family. I sat behind the driver’s seat, hair chopped off to make me look “tough”—a toughness belied by my 100-pound, 5′ 2” frame—and a gas mask strapped around my hip, entering into a war that I could not even begin to understand.
For the first month or two of the war, I was the translator for a unit in the 82nd Airborne. We ate together and slept together; showered with wet wipes together and smoked Marlboro Reds together under the blistering desert sun. These guys would become my protectors and I was their voice; together we tried to save lives and “win hearts and minds.”
I translated during nighttime raids and morning searches for the remnants of Saddam’s soldiers. I facilitated town hall discussions where we listened to the grievances of the Iraqis we now lived among, as we tried to help rebuild their city. I became very close in particular with one of the soldiers, an Army Colonel who was a father figure to me as we navigated those scary and uncertain first few weeks, smoking cigarettes into the night as we tried to make sense of the world around us.
I think today about the men and women I served with and try to imagine how they must feel listening to reporters and politicians debate whether we should have ever gone into Iraq, if we should be there now, and just how “symbolic” the fall of Ramadi may or may not be. With the rise of ISIS and its advances in Iraq we are again bombarded with images of Iraqi cities on television, their names once unknown to us but now completely familiar—Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit. Those images must haunt those who lost friends and teammates there during terrifying gun battles with insurgents, who had to hear the sudden, sickening explosion of an IED and witness the resulting carnage.
Throughout my career I have worked closely with military officers who have commanded hundreds of men and women in Iraq and elsewhere. These incredible individuals, now dear friends of mine, have shared stories of pulling mangled bodies of young soldiers from a burning Humvee or having to call a mother to tell her that she would not be seeing her son or daughter again. I do not claim to understand what that does to a person but I do understand the frustration with having to listen to an endless game of “gotcha!” every two years in the run-up to a midterm or general election. This extreme politicization of the war may be frustrating for ordinary Americans who have not been there, but it can be traumatic for those who actually lived it on the ground.
On Memorial Day, we stood together to honor the memory of those who gave their lives for our country, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq. The solemn ceremonies and heartwarming testimonies I heard made me wish that we could finally stop using the Iraq war as a political tool to be wielded in polarizing exchanges between politicians and in the media. After September 11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the rise of ISIS and the risk of radicalization among the world’s most vulnerable youth, our country is in need of real leadership in order to move forward. We need to heal.
I am not saying that we should avoid talking about Iraq or even the decision to go to war. But how we talk about it matters; it is one thing to discuss how to deal with the current situation and quite another to try to find someone to blame for it. It is incumbent on us as Americans to learn the lessons of the Iraq war and demand that our politicians put in place processes to prevent this kind of knee-jerk reaction to an attack on American soil from happening again. Presidential candidates would do well to admit that some people made mistakes—some were outright deceitful—but rather than simply try to place blame I would like to hear their ideas on how to forge a less divisive path for our country’s future. I want to hear how this round of presidential candidates will ensure that the appropriate checks and balances continue to be bolstered so that no one can (mis)lead us into another war. The Americans and Iraqis I worked with—and the people of both nations—deserve better than simply pointing fingers.
Jasmine El-Gamal is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and a civil servant in the Department of Defense. She served as a translator for the 82nd Airborne Division in Southern Iraq in 2003. Views expressed are her own.