Anxious in our dusty, wind-swept tents in the Kuwaiti desert, we knew the invasion would be hard. It was the early spring of 2003, and I remember well the afternoon we spent practicing dry runs with our atropine injectors in the meaty part of our thighs. To us, as to the world at the time, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were real, and we had to worry about how we would get the needles through the thick rubber of our chemical weapons suits when the inevitable clouds of nerve agent descended upon us south of Baghdad. That night, we searched for hours through a blinding sandstorm for a young Marine who had deliberately taken the medicine prematurely, trying to escape the battle that was to come.
But even in this frightful scene, mixed with our nervousness was a sense of opportunity. Most of us, like those iconic New York City firefighters rushing up the World Trade Center stairs, were ready and eager to fight, not just because we were brave or naive, but because we were honored to do our duty for our country. Sept. 11, 2001, rallied the nation together, but we were among the few the president called to action. We knew the eyes of the world were upon us, and we wanted to make them proud.
Many today deride the predictions that we would be greeted as liberators with flowers when we rolled into Baghdad, forgetting that, in fact, we were. I have never seen a more hopeful, optimistic and excited place on Earth than Iraq in the spring of 2003. The oppressed people of a regime we toppled shared America’s dream of freedom, and opportunity called them to a future brighter than they had ever known. But whatever we had going for us in those early days, we lost, through the age-old sins of arrogance, incompetence and refusing to admit the truth. And that’s what the world has known of our response to Sept. 11 ever since.