THIS ANNIVERSARY BRINGS NO CHEER

Three years ago, we went to war.

Three years later, we remain at war.

Three years ago, we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Three years later, none has been found.

Three years ago, the threat was Saddam.

Three years later, the threat is insurgency.

Three years ago, we were protecting Americans.

Three years later, we are protecting Iraqis.

Three years ago, President George W. Bush addressed the nation, saying we “will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”

Three years later, the regime is long gone. The weapons never surfaced. But the peace is still threatened.

So where exactly are we, from three years ago …

… to three years later?

America divided by the war

In hindsight, two wars were started on March 19, 2003. The first was over there. The second was over here. The rift on Iraq has split the United States every bit as much as Vietnam once did. In some ways, it’s worse, because the Bush administration and its most vocal supporters have turned Iraq into a magnet for everything this president stands for, so that to criticize the war means you must be in favor of abortion, gay marriage, liberal judges and rebel educators.

This is nonsense, of course, but this is America in the shadow of the war. If you want the troops home, you’re a traitor. If you don’t like how we handled Guantanamo, you’re a traitor. If you don’t repeat the company line “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” you’re a traitor.

Lately I have heard conservative radio hosts say the problem is all these liberals who knee-jerk hate President Bush. That’s almost comical, considering the airwaves are full of commentators who knee-jerk hate liberals.

But it all comes back to the war. Nothing pulled this country together more than the World Trade Center attacks. And nothing has split it more than Iraq.

A war that we can’t escape

What happened? In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we seemed so clear on a national purpose. We needed to heal each other, tighten our security, and go after Al Qaeda – particularly Osama bin Laden.

But Iraq derailed all that. People got confused. Was Saddam Hussein our priority? What happened to bin Laden? Was spreading democracy suddenly our purpose? If the threat was Saddam’s killing his people, why are those people now killing each other? We lost 2,749 souls in the World Trade Center; but we’ve lost more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers in Iraq – and we’re not finished. Is the world really safer? Are we stretched too thin? How do we keep paying for a war that has cost $250 billion with no end in sight?

And on we go. Three years after the first bombs were dropped, Saddam is gone, but bin Laden is still at large. Elections have been held, but civil war is ominous. Soldiers are still proud, but many are weary and asking questions.

Despite the president’s declaring victory on an aircraft carrier just two months after the war started, we are entering the fourth year of this conflict. And for most Americans, Iraq is just a fact of life, like a boil we are stuck with.

But on this anniversary of combat, we should remember that the war was a choice. It didn’t have to be. Plenty of people – citizens and lawmakers – had doubts. They were ridiculed, hounded. We shouted them down.

If we’ve learned nothing else, we must acknowledge that getting into a war is much easier than getting out. And we should wonder how many more anniversaries we’re going to mark in a battle that has strayed so far from its original idea.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 5-7 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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