May 1, 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of former President George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a crew of about 5,500 US Sailors and Marines.
President Bush, a former Texas National Guard fighter pilot, landed on the aircraft carrier in a gull gray, Lockheed S-3B Viking jet piloted by a naval aviator. The president emerged from the four-seater plane in a full military flight suit. His visored flight helmet was tucked under his arm as he walked through a row of saluting sailors. A commander-in-chief flight patch accentuated the olive drab jumpsuit. It was the fifth week of America’s second Iraq War. President Bush promised a quick and decisive victory at the onset of the military operation and journeyed to the boat to give an update from sea.
“My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” President Bush said from a podium on the ship’s flight deck. He had changed into a blue business suit. The sailors around him hit their applause points as the president spoke. A large “Mission Accomplished” banner framed the shot. The USS Abraham Lincoln was 30 miles off the coast of San Diego, California at the time.
The American image after the Iraq War
As promised, the American-led coalition had taken Baghdad in a matter of weeks, but the display of American military might was not without difficulty, and Americans’ attitudes toward the war and the president were shifting. Moreover, the image of a sitting US president in a military flight suit nearly 8,000 miles away from where 130,000 American troops were still fighting, did not sit well with a large swath of the American public who were war-weary from military operations in Afghanistan.
“There was the toppling of the [Saddam Hussein] statue, there was the landing on the aircraft carrier, all this imagery, this kind of triumphalist imagery that was at odds with what was certainly happening on the ground in Iraq, and was at odds with perception that many Americans were looking at, casting a skeptical eye on what their claims that the war had been a quick, relatively easy success with relatively few American casualties,” Dr. David Kieran, an Iraq War scholar and Col. Richard R. Hallock Distinguished Chair in military history at Columbus State University, told The Media Line. “I think by May of 2003, Americans were beginning to look skeptically at those kinds of claims, as they saw what was happening, and were beginning to see more fully what was following the US invasion.”
Back on the carrier, President Bush said, “The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done. Then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq.”
If there was a turning point in the War on Terror, this was it. While Americans may have been fixated on the Mission Accomplished banner, the speech made it clear that the United States would be militarily invested in Iraq for the foreseeable future. For the next eight years, the United States military would fight two large-scale operations simultaneously and seemingly indefinitely.
Iraq war divided America
According to a poll conducted by Pew, the president had a 70% approval rating the week before his Mission Accomplished speech. It would never reach that again. The Iraq war divided America. The president’s approval rating continued to decline.
“That initial support for the war waned as the war turned out to be more protracted, more violent than Americans had expected, and as the goals that had been laid out proved more elusive. So by the summer of 2003, more and more Americans were starting to turn their perspective on the world was starting to turn for sure.” Kieran told The Media Line. “People were looking at what was happening on the ground in Iraq, and aware that it couldn't be tied up quite so neatly as the Bush Administration was arguing.”
US Marine Staff Sgt. Timothy Sterlachini was patrolling the Baghdad slums of Saddam City around the time of the president's speech. He told The Media Line via text that he enjoyed his combat deployment and, even though they sent him over with subpar gear, he would gladly deploy to Iraq again if asked to do so. “Once we crossed the south bridge of Ambush Alley, it was like Jesus himself touched me. Most peace I ever felt, once I couldn’t fear anymore.” Ambush Alley refers to a dangerous stretch of road that factored into the Battle of Nasiriyah, an intense battle between primarily US Marines and Iraqi soldiers that lasted for several days. Not all veterans feel the same way as Sterlachini, even if they served together.
Marine Staff Sgt. Brian Bailey served two combat tours in Iraq before moving on to a diplomatic role. His first deployment to Iraq was with Sterlachini. The Media Line asked Bailey if the war in Iraq was worth it. Bailey said, “No. Iraq was not worth it … and I want the people of Iraq to know I am sorry. We had no right to invade them. The USA [expletive] up.”
While feelings about the Iraq War may differ among Americans, Kieran said that after eight years and countless deaths, “The Iraq war has shown us that there are limits to what can be accomplished militarily.”
Still, Kieran believes that there has not been sufficient reflection by American society and the press.
“Anniversaries ought to be a time to stand back and take stock and it seems like this anniversary has not been used in that way, at least not in a widespread highly visible way.
There are approximately 2,500 US troops still in Iraq.
Editor's note: Clint Van Winkle is a US Marine Corps veteran RCT 1 in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He deployed with both US Marine staff sergeants quoted in this article