On March 19, 2003, the president of the United States began an invasion of Iraq that he justified with two primary arguments — a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and the belief that the Middle Eastern nation held weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to our security. The WMDs did not exist, and last week, the Pentagon itself finally issued a report — after reviewing over 600,000 Iraqi documents — that said there was no connection at all between Hussein and al-Qaeda.

In those five years, we’ve seen Hussein captured and hanged. We’ve been told “mission accomplished” and assured that major combat operations were over. We’ve been embarrassed by photographs of U.S. soldiers torturing suspects and witnessed the beheadings and horrible mutilations of American citizens working to rebuild the country. Billions of dollars have been misplaced and wasted, and private contractors hired by the government like Blackwater Worldwide and Halliburton have accumulated unbelievable wealth. A barrel of oil has risen from $25 to $100, and the U.S. economy may be facing disaster, although President George W. Bush claimed last week that that’s due to overdevelopment at home and unrelated to the war.

Sometime this week, it’s not unlikely that the number of American soldiers dead in Iraq will reach 4,000. Confirmed estimates of dead Iraqis hover around 90,000, but a 2006 study by medical journal The Lancet estimated that figure closer to 600,000. Current estimates by the Iraq Body Count project place the total at around 1,200,000.

On the Front Lines

Army Private First Class Jeremy Hughes lives in Charleston, but he’s currently serving in the Iraqi town of Jurf As-Sakhr, three hours south of Baghdad. Hughes is there because he wants to be; last month he signed on for six more years.

“Iraq is very humbling,” says Hughes, from his post in Jurf. “I have three kids and one more on the way, and I’m thankful my kids don’t have to grow up here. But I hope they’ll look back and say, ‘My daddy sacrificed a lot for us.’ For me, this job is just a calling.”

When Hughes arrived in Jurf seven months ago, it was controlled by al-Qaeda. He says the troop surge, of which he was a part, was able to quickly take control. They’ve since set up a community watch program with U.S.-trained “concerned citizens” armed with AK-47s, who operate checkpoints all over the city. After being there for a month, Hughes experienced his first and only close combat when one of those concerned citizens mistakenly fired upon his foot patrol, resulting in a fire fight between the soldiers and two more gunmen who appeared when the shots began.

“I asked myself, ‘Is this seriously happening to me? Am I really getting shot at?'” says Hughes. “Then you fall into muscle memory, like we’re trained to do. I hit the dirt and returned fire. The whole thing probably lasted 15 minutes.”

Hughes attributes the incident to “trigger happy” Iraqis who wanted to “test” the new guys. On several occasions his convoy has been ambushed, but he says rocket and mortar attacks have decreased to fewer than one a week on their base. With most days spent in a lookout tower or on patrol, he says the toughest challenge is avoiding complacency and remaining alert for potential threats.

“One time a full van attacked us, and it was pretty hairy, but it was also pretty fun at the same time,” says Hughes. “It’s like, ‘Y’all have never successfully ambushed us, but you’re still going to try again?'”

When he first arrived, Hughes says children would run from him. On foot patrols now, he’s constantly approached by children who smile, ask for candy, and say, “Mister, mister, how you do today?” His family sent a box of teddy bears that he gave out, and he says the attitude of women toward the soldiers has become less standoffish and more friendly.

“The hearts and minds of the Iraqi people are mainly what we’re going for, and to maintain a free Iraq, of course,” Hughes says. Despite occasionally having rocks thrown at him or being spat at, he believes that most Iraqis appreciate the new schools, health clinics, and police stations being built in Jurf.

“If I was a kid and some foreign military was in my country, I’d probably throw rocks at them too,” says Hughes. “Their parents teach them that, but I think a majority of Iraqis want us here.”

Battling for Peace

Polls don’t necessarily substantiate that belief.

In November 2006, 70 percent of Iraqis asked by a World Public Opinion poll said they wanted the U.S. out within a year. Instead, they got a troop surge. As tensions mount with Iran, it’s a trend toward escalation that many Americans find frightening and unacceptable.

“They want us out, and we should do what they want, finally,” says Anna Shockley, a member of antiwar group Charleston Peace, who held a demonstration at Marion Square last Saturday. “They have to come back in stages, but they should start coming back tomorrow. Our military is extremely stressed and can’t handle other things. We should thank them for their service and deal with their injuries and education, rather than keep sending them back over to kill and be killed.”

Shockley grew up in post-World War II Germany and believes that the major fault of her parents’ generation was not speaking up against Hitler. “They didn’t need to become aggressive — they just needed to loudly and clearly say, ‘This is wrong,’ and stand up for their neighbors who were disappearing,” she says. “Violence is never a way to respond to violence.”

The College of Charleston’s newly formed chapter of Students for a Democratic Society agrees and is planning a walk-out to Marion Square at 2:30 p.m. on March 20, to protest the continuation of the war. They’ve been handing out flyers and pamphlets at a table outside the Student Center for the last week. Organizer Micah Carpenter says the response has been mostly positive.

“People are tired enough of the war that they’re not going to be mean to people protesting it,” she says. “The most prevalent reaction, though, has been apathy. We don’t have any crazy illusions about stopping the war with a walk-out in Charleston, but we want to catalyze a progressive movement on campus. A lot of students don’t do much of anything but drink.” Carpenter sees the walk-out as a way for students to stand up in class and make a statement against the war.

Down the Drain?

This February, Nobel Laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz released a book titled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, claiming that the U.S.’s expenditures in Iraq have reached the unfathomable figure of three trillion dollars. The documented direct costs are over $500 billion, and Stiglitz’s analysis takes into account hidden costs in defense spending, insurance for contractors, caring for veterans, and a conservative estimate on the war’s effect on rising oil costs.

Direct spending has already surpassed three times that of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. USAID administrator Andrew Natsios labeled those comparisons “hoopla” in 2003 when opponents related rebuilding Iraq to the largesse of the Marshall plan. “The American part of this will be $1.7 billion,” Natsios told Ted Koppel in April 2003. He was off by at least $498 billion. A breakdown by city on NationalPriorities.org estimates that in direct spending, Charlestonians alone have spent $87.8 million in tax money in Iraq.

The Iraq War has already lasted a year and a half longer than World War II and is beginning to take its toll in the pockets of ordinary Americans, nearly 4,000 of whom have given their lives as soldiers in the conflict. But in Pfc. Hughes’ opinion, those lives are not in vain.

“We are playing a game where, unfortunately, lives are at risk. Death comes with war,” says Hughes. “Sometimes innocent people are lost. We can’t say, ‘We built this building, and that was worth a life.’ Nothing’s worth a life. Life is everything. But I don’t think this country’s ready to be on its own. It’s a question over my head, but I don’t believe we’re there yet. Until then, I’ll do whatever my commander-in-chief tells me to do. No bitching, no complaining, no griping.”

For more information on antiwar protests and the College of Charleston walk-out, see CharlestonPeace.org and Newsds.org/march20. To volunteer for the infantry in Iraq, visit the Army’s recruiting office at 1660 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. in West Ashley.

Images from Army Private First Class Jeremy Hughes, taken in Iraq while on duty with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division