I listened to NPR pieces this morning about the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. I sat down to write about it this afternoon, about where I was, about what it meant to be the editor of the newspaper at a small liberal arts college when news erupted, about how I feel about Iraq now. I decided I didn’t need to write — five years ago, I wrote about it, and I want to share that piece today. It’s rare that I still like what I write after years and distance, and though I’d write it differently today, I think it’s worth sharing:
I stopped short this morning as I walked by the newspaper machines in the library. Yes, Obama’s doing something and yes, the Fed cut interest rates again, but what stopped me was a New York Times headline that said “Notes from the Field, Five Years Later.”
I did the mental math — not that I doubted the New York Times, but because it seemed unreal to me. Five years ago? Was it really five years ago tonight that I trooped upstairs with my newspaper staff to watch Bush tell the country and the world that he was going to invade Iraq? When we cried together and apart and then, as I said in this forum the next day, we kicked it into journalistic high gear?
I thought invading Iraq was a terrible idea. I hated it then; it still pains me today. However, as far as me myself, I needed something to happen. I needed there to be an event where we could feel like we as a newspaper had purpose. We were coming off a canceled issue, a grand debate over an incidental space-filling feature (top-ten lists, those of you who were there might recall…), the fact that we were stone-cold broke, and a few really silly mistakes, and we needed something to bring us together and make us feel like journalists again, even for a day. I needed purpose for myself, as I was in a rocky place with Mike and not sure our relationship would survive the month, and I was in a precarious place academically, where I was worrying so much about the newspaper and my personal affairs that doing things like writing a draft of my senior capstone paper seemed unthinkable. Internet on campus had been down for days, and in a time in my life when I needed to be connected to anyone and everyone I loved, I felt adrift. I needed something to be right. And I found something to be right in an action that I saw to be so wrong.
So that night we did indeed kick it into high gear, calling every person we could think of who would have an opinion worth printing to get comments. It doesn’t sound like much, but to me, it was amazing and real as I sat under a desk in the yearbook office trying to drown out the chatter of every other staff member talking to professors and administrators and students so I could take down every word that Badar (Sophie’s brother) was saying to me over the phone. He said the invasion was bullshit and I printed it. (This is the same issue that had the word cunt on the front page for an article about the Vagina Monologues. And as far as I recall, nobody said a word about either.) That night, even though we were writing about things we couldn’t control, I at least felt like we were reclaiming our newspaper and our roles on campus. After weeks of hating the newspaper and the job I loved, I finally could love it again.
I think in my 2003 retrospective, I listed that night as a night from 2003 that I would always remember. And even though it was crazy and emotional and we had no idea what was going to happen next and we still barely had Internet (thus not being able to fall back on the AP, which is probably the best thing that could have possibly happened to us), it was one of the best newspaper nights of my life. (It’s probably up there in best nights ever, to be honest with you.) It didn’t change me like it did the journalists who continued to cover the war. I don’t remember how long our war coverage lasted, but my term as editor was done at the end of April, at which point I went back to a world of historic homes and eventually copy editing and advertising and now back to history, where my potential as a war correspondent is wasted. I can’t imagine, even from reading the blogs of those who are there, what it must be like to be in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m sure that the journalistic thrill of covering the realities of war escaped those writers long ago. They have my utmost respect. But I felt for a series of moments that I was one of them in some small way. And I felt like myself that night for the first time in weeks. And that is why I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing the night Bush invaded Iraq.