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It’s complicated: ‘Frontline’ reviews the Iraq war and aftermath

I could go back and forth with quotes and anecdotes from those for whom life got better and worse, but you get the basic point: better for many, worse for many, forgotten by most Americans.

A still from “Once Upon a Time in Iraq.”
A still from “Once Upon a Time in Iraq.”

The great PBS documentary series “Frontline” will air on Tuesday “Once Upon a Time in Iraq,” a look back at the U.S. invasion of Iraq that led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 — a mission the U.S. titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It’s an excellent refresher course.

If you watch it, you’ll meet an old man who refers to the former dictator as “the late martyr Saddam Hussein,” and comments, “I miss him every moment of every day.”

He’s a former Saddam adviser, and the Saddam era was obviously the highlight of his life. And, while it’s surprising to run in to him in 2020, still singing Saddam’s praises and not getting the spit kicked out of him for it, it’s one entry point to a review of that incident and the history of Iraq since then that is fairly full of surprises.

You’ll hear one young adult Iraqi, who was a child at the time, who recalls one day during Saddam’s rule when a kid in her class repeated something unflattering that her dad had said about Saddam, causing the teacher to exclaim, “Do you want to get us all killed?”

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Things are better for a lot of Iraqis since 2003, but it’s complicated. If you lived in Mosul, the major city in Iraq’s north, you would have lived through a long reign of terror during which the city was controlled by the murderous radicals of the “Islamic State,” who would likely never have succeeded in taking over Mosul and other areas during the Saddam era. It’s a remainder that even getting rid of an evil dictator can have negative consequences for some.

You’ll meet several young Iraqis, fluent English speakers, some living in America, who are living lives unimaginably better than anything that could have occurred without Operation Iraqi Freedom.

You’ll see President George W. Bush, at the beginning of the fighting, telling Iraqis that “Saddam will be removed and your future will soon belong to you.”

You’ll meet one Iraqi who is asked about the famous “Mission Accomplished” banner that the U.S. Navy set up as a backdrop under which President George W. Bush declared victory, and who replies, sardonically, “yeah, seriously.”

I could go back and forth with quotes and anecdotes from those for whom life got better and worse, but you get the basic point: better for many, worse for many, forgotten by most Americans.

A young woman, who was 6 at the time of the war, remembers a bomb going off. Her mom threw herself down on top of the children to protect them.

You’ll hear another Iraqi admit that when it was clear that the Americans were going to get rid of Saddam, “I had this dream that my country is becoming like one of the good countries in the world, a country like America. That was my dream. Actually, lots of people’s dream.”

These are just anecdotes, each representing a deeper, more complicated reality that followed from “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It’s complicated. Messy. Inspiring. Confusing. And a pretty good reminder of something most of us lived through from the safety of our American homes, and perhaps haven’t thought about for several years.

It’s a two-hour film. I’m not sorry I watched it. It airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on KTCA (and, presumably, other PBS stations).

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Here’s a 30-second preview.

Here’s a three-minute NPR piece that also captures the complexities of Iraqis’ feelings about what happened and how Iraqis were feeling about it in 2018.

Life is complicated. I’m glad my grandparents got out of Russia/Ukraine so I could be born in America. Thank you, my ancestors.