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LEONARD GREENE: 20 years after Iraq, Ukraine shows that “just wars” are still brutal affairs

I still have the flak jacket. It lies in the corner of the basement, along with the Kevlar helmet I wore on my head and the gas mask I strapped to my waist every day for almost three months.

It was around this time 20 years ago that I boarded a commercial plane for the first leg of an unforgettable trip to Iraq to cover a brutal war that had just begun under false pretenses.

A flood of thoughts filled my mind as the plane, heavily laden with soldiers and military equipment, taxied down the runway.

Among them was that I had tickets to this year’s Final Four in New Orleans and that I was going to miss the games and the opportunity to hang out with my brother.

But that thought quickly faded as I contemplated the sacrifices many others would make in the weeks, months, and years to come.

I was an embedded journalist in the US Army’s Fourth Infantry Division stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.

As a civilian reporter, I was invited to sit in first class and rub elbows with the officers and commanders.

I declined. I knew that if I was going to develop any kind of relationship with the soldiers, it would start in a middle seat in the back of the plane with the crews and crews.

What I couldn’t believe, still can’t believe, was how young they all were. And eager.

Our invasion of Iraq was delayed because Turkey in the north would not allow the US to deploy its troops on Turkish soil. So we had to enter Iraq from the south via Kuwait, which meant we missed out on some of the action.

My new friends were disappointed.

My new friends were still alive.

I hated the legroom on the bus on the plane until we did the 20 hour convoy from Kuwait to Iraq. The back of the Humvee was filled with sandbags. Before we boarded, we were instructed to pull one of the Kevlar sheets off our flak jackets and sit on it. This, we were told, was to protect us from the explosive devices that were likely along the road.

We knew it wouldn’t help.

For the most part, I didn’t see much action unless you count the nighttime raid I conducted without night vision goggles or the landmine field we walked through to recover the body of a local who was killed by one of the landmines .

Weeks earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell told me in an interview that war was imminent because Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

“He has demonstrated the ability to cover things up and fool the inspectors,” Powell said. “He has to come in. He has one last chance to stay clean or face the consequences if he doesn’t stay clean.”

Such weapons did not exist. It was bad information all along.

Powell’s legacy was damaged but not ruined. Worse, not everyone I was on that plane with made it home.

I often think of those days, especially now that the fighting in Ukraine continues.

If there is such a thing as a “just war,” it is for Ukraine defending itself against Russian aggression.

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But not everyone waving the flag believes in freedom for all.

“While the US has many vital national interests … further involvement in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week

DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president next year, said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s successor will “probably be even more ruthless.”

Former President Donald Trump has previously said that instead of providing military aid to Ukraine, he would let Russia “take over” parts of the country.

War is brutal. I’ve seen some of it firsthand. children die. Families are torn apart. Survivors lose arms and legs. Many are never the same again.

There are conscientious objectors, people who morally reject war under any circumstances.

But it’s one thing to resist war. It’s another thing to pick the wrong side.