By Andrea Stanton
The United States invaded Iraq 20 years ago in March 2003, claiming it had to disarm the Iraqi government of weapons of mass destruction and end the dictatorial rule of President Saddam Hussein.
U.S. soldiers captured Saddam in December 2003. And a 15-month search revealed that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction to seize.
But the conflict between Western powers and Iraq dragged on until 2011. More than 4,600 American soldiers died in combat – and thousands more died by suicide after they returned home.
More than 288,000 Iraqis, including fighters and civilians, have died from war-related violence since the invasion.
The war cost the U.S. over $2 trillion.
And Iraq is still dealing with widespread political violence between rival religious-political groups and an unstable government.
Most of these problems stem directly or indirectly from the war. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the war that followed are defining events in the histories of both countries – and the region. Yet, for many young people in the United States, drawing a connection between the war and its present-day impact is becoming more difficult. For them, the war is an artifact of the past.
I am a Middle East historian and an Islamic studies scholar who teaches two undergraduate courses that cover the 2003 invasion and the Iraq War. My courses attract students who hope to work in politics, law, government and nonprofit groups, and whose personal backgrounds include a range of religious traditions, immigration histories and racial identities.
The stories of the invasion and subsequent war resonate with them in the same way that stories of other past events do – they’re eager to learn from them, but don’t see them as directly connected to their lives.
A generational shift
Since I started teaching courses related to the Iraq War in 2010, my students have shifted from millennials to Generation Z. The latter were born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s. There has also been a change in how these students understand major early 21st-century events, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I teach this event by showing things like former President George W. Bush’s March 19, 2003, televised announcement of the invasion.
I also teach it through the flow of my lived experience. That includes remembering the Feb. 15, 2003, anti-war protests that took place in over 600 cities around the world as an effort to prevent what appeared to be an inevitable war. And I show students aspects of material culture, like the “Iraqi most wanted” deck of playing cards, distributed to deployed U.S. military personnel in Iraq, who used the cards for games and to help them identify key figures in the Iraq government.
The millennial students I taught around 2010 recalled the U.S. invasion of Iraq from their early teen years – a confusing but foundational moment in their personal timelines.
But for the Gen-Z students I teach today, the invasion sits firmly in the past, as a part of history.
Why this matters
Since the mid-2010s, I have not been able to expect students to enroll in my course with personal prior knowledge about the invasion and war that followed. In 2013, my students would tell me that their childhoods had been defined by a United States at war – even if those wars happened far from U.S. soil.
Millennial students considered the trifecta of 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq to be defining events in their lives. The U.S. and its allies launched airstrikes against al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This followed the Taliban refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11.
By 2021, my students considered Bush’s actions with the same level of abstract curiosity that they had brought to the class’s earlier examination of the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine, which said that a country could request help from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by another country, and was used to justify U.S. military involvement in Lebanon in 1958.
On an educational level, this means that I now provide much more background information on the first the Gulf War, the 2000 presidential elections, the Bush presidency, the immediate U.S. responses to 9/11 and the Afghanistan invasion than I had to do before. All of these events help students better understand why the U.S. invaded Iraq and why Americans felt so strongly about the military action – whether they were for or against the invasion.
The Iraq invasion lost popularity among Americans within two years. In March 2003, 71% of Americans said that the U.S. made the right decision to use military force in Iraq.
That percentage dropped to 47% in 2005, following the revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Yet those supporters continued to strongly endorse the invasion in later polls.
In 2018, just over half of Americans believed that the U.S. failed to achieve its goals, however those goals might have been defined in Iraq.
A new set of priorities
Older Americans age 65 and up are more likely than young people to prioritize foreign policy issues, including maintaining a U.S. military advantage.
Younger Americans – age 18 to 39 – say the top issues that require urgency are providing support to refugees and limiting U.S. military commitments abroad, according to a 2021 Pew research survey.
Generation Z members are also less likely than older Americans to think that the U.S. should act by itself in defending or protecting democracy around the world, according to a 2019 poll by the think tank Center for American Progress.
They also agree with the statement that the United States’ “wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan were a waste of time, lives, and taxpayer money and they did nothing to make us safer at home.” They prefer that the U.S. use economic and diplomatic means, rather than military intervention, to advance American interests around the world.
As current undergraduate students make their way toward careers in the government and in the private sector, their tendency to interpret the events of the early 2000s as historical lessons rather than as part of their own long present may influence their professional decision-making, whether they work in the State Department or for an international hotel chain. Helping them recognize how events like the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq have influenced their views on U.S. foreign policy today can help them connect the dots from the recent past to the present – and to their future.
Andrea Stanton is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies & Faculty Affiliate, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver.
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