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Photo: Mario Tama, Pool/AP Photo

How do you pay the debts of a war that never ends?

The self-proclaimed Butt of the Spear, the Marine weapons company cowboys, want to know: When did the Iraq War begin?

Was it in the early morning hours straddling March 17 and 18, 2003, when Marines massed near the Iraqi border with Kuwait gathered around a battery-powered radio to hear the BBC broadcast of George W. Bush, in full psychic cowboy regalia, giving Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave the country?

Was it dawn on March 19, when Nighthawk bombers dropped their “bunker buster” bombs on Dora Farms, the palatial retreat the CIA thought held Hussein and his sons? Was it March 20, when the U.S.S. Cowpens fired the first Tomahawk cruise missiles? Was it March 21, when Marines crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, took the 32nd Mechanized Brigade Shuayah barracks, and pushed on towards Baghdad?

The answer is, in the end, immaterial; all save W.’s drawling declaration places the 15th anniversary of the opening of the second major theater in the War on Terror, the longest war in American history, safely this week. Spurred by American insistence on disarming Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and inflamed by repeated—although not explicit—association with the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, while initially a military success, gave way to occupation, which gave way to instability, the effects of which have been echoing around the world ever since.

Thousands of Iraqi civilians perished in the opening days of the invasion, with over a hundred thousand dead by 2016. How many more deaths can be attributed to these tragic losses, righteous anger birthing martial revenge? How can the mental, emotional, social and economic toll suffered by citizens already crushed beneath the boot heel of Saddam ever truly be calculated?

What is the true cost of war for America and its allies, for that matter? The cost of arms and ammunition, of stationing personnel and burying them when they fell? These are merely a fraction of the debts accrued. What of the veterans who have come home with injuries, corporeal and hidden? The Invasion of Iraq and its subsequent war has left an indelible mark on thousands, perhaps millions, of people, around the world, around the block, around the corner.

It is a debt that continues to be called, 15 fucking years later.

AP Photo

In the ashes of Iraq, ISIS first rose to power—a power further bolstered by the destabilization of another Baathist regime in Syria. The al-Qaeda associated fighters galvanized in the Iraqi insurgency against American forces had by 2014 become ISIS, an army so seasoned and well-armed as to be able to roust the Iraqis from their own lands, conquer Mosul, seize chunks of both countries and declare their own caliphate. And with their rise came the return of U.S. troops to a war zone they had nominally left behind in 2011, eight years after the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln flew its “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner.

Even after ISIS’ expulsion from Mosul, Iraq continues to claim casualties. Just last week, seven American troops perished when a Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in Western Iraq. For 15 years, an incredibly small percent of the American population has been serving in a war that seems like it will never end; for what feels like roughly half that time, the majority of the American population has forgotten that the war drags on.

The true cost of war is all around us, for the majority felt tangentially, as a myth or a ghost. The debt is paid up with screaming, full-throated, misty-eyed appreciation—fireworks and flags, reunions on athletic fields—or paid down with whispered fears of veterans with PTSD, cardboard signs of homeless vets in San Diego left unread, change kept in the spider hole of a pants pocket.

Two questions to ask on this anniversary that must take prominence above all others: When will this war officially end? And how will we pay its true and complete costs?

It falls to the American people to pay a debt incurred by a lie. I’ve met Marines over this anniversary week who wonder what, if anything, of the motivations behind their sacrifice were real; what, if anything, did they fight and die and kill and maim for? For what, if anything, did they brand their souls forever with the pride and pain of the invasion?

To me, there is only one answer to what is real about the Iraq War, something supplied by the combatants and civilians whose lives were forever altered 15 years ago: blood.

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