Segment from Mission Accomplished

After Iraq

We hear from veterans who served in the Iraq war, and what the end of hostilities has meant for them.

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This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in wording.

PETER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy. And I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: I be the 19th Century Guy.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s bringing up the rear.

PETER: 18th Century Guy.


GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all very much Admiral Kelly, Captain Card, officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans. Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.


ED: 10 years ago this week, President George W. Bush delivered these words upon the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier. Standing in front of a giant banner reading “Mission Accomplished,” he thanked the men and women in uniform for a job well done. He thanked the upper brass. He said the work of reconstructing Iraq was just beginning. But through it all, he portrayed a sense of closure. A sense of finality.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans following a battle want nothing more than to return home. And that is your direction tonight.


ERICA BECK: I mean, we started filling out paperwork. And started getting these briefing about going home, and what to expect, and readjusting to civilian life. And then, of course, we ended up staying for 10 more years.

PETER: This is Erica Beck. She was a soldier in Baghdad at the time the speech. And for Erica, like a lot of soldiers, the end of combat operations didn’t really mean the end of the war.

ERICA BECK: I was an Arabic translator I should say. And I felt like I had a lot more to do and a lot more clear things in my mind that needed to be done after the combat ended. But it’s been funny. For the past decade, I’ve just been talking to people, both soldiers and the public, and everybody sort of has their own narrative about what happened in this war, and their own way of dealing with it, and thinking about it. And they’re all very, very different.

ISAAC GUNN: It didn’t really feel like a mission accomplished for us. I knew that we were basically just kind of doing an exchange. So for every ship that was coming back on that time, it was just a turnover of more ships going back that way.

BRIAN: Isaac Gunn was a Naval air crewman in 2003. He’s the guy who jumps out of the helicopter into the water if somebody ejects or crash lands on the sea. He said the lack of clarity of when the war and his service would end caused a lot of emotional turmoil. But on an even more practical level, he just didn’t pack appropriately.

ISAAC GUNN: I still had my two flight suits, and a pair of boots, and some underwear and an undershirt for just six days. It was like, I’m only going out for six days. This shouldn’t be too bad. Yeah. I wore two flight suits for about four months.

ERIC ATKINSON: And I certainly remember the statue being toppled in Baghdad. I remember seeing that image in the news.

ED: This is Eric Atkinson. He’s currently a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Army National Guard.

ERIC ATKINSON: So I think for a few weeks there, maybe even a couple months, there was a strong feeling that probably a lot of people shared with the president that it was essentially over.

ED: Eric first served in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. He returned to the region in 2003, and would eventually go back seven years later. But in those weeks after the statue came down, he said it was already feeling a little uncanny.

ERIC ATKINSON: One of the most surreal moments of my life was driving up a highway near Kuwait City in 2003 and thinking, gosh, this all looks familiar. There was a ridge line up ahead that looked familiar. And I suddenly realized it was the same spot I had been at on 12 years earlier, what the media called the Highway of Death. That was a very odd, surreal, and somewhat depressing moment for me. Because it did feel like, jeez, am I doomed to keep repeating this?

Honestly again, I don’t think I ever believed I would be back there a third time. And I was, and in fact, did see that highway again later. But I almost wondered if this is what the Romans felt like when they went back to Carthage for the second time. It was that odd kind of surreal thought.

PETER: The vast majority of war deaths in Iraq, both military and civilian, occurred after Bush’s aircraft carrier speech. President Obama declared a second end to major combat operations in 2010, the final withdrawal coming a year later. But with the many contractors, diplomats, and support personnel still in the country, it’s hard to tell when or if the war really ended.

BRIAN: And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Throughout American history, the line between wartime and peacetime has always been a bit blurry. And so today on the show, we’re going to take a closer look at that line. We’ll hear how efforts to end war sometimes lays the groundwork for more war. We’ll look at what we believe to be the one instance in American history where one man, just one man, ended a war on his own without the approval of the President. And we’ll figure out if the handshake that ended the Civil War at Appomattox was really as gentlemanly as it seems.