WASHINGTON—Bringing together the many civilian leaders and military strategists who helped them reach such a historic milestone, Pentagon officials held a lavish black-tie gala Sunday at which, sources said, they commemorated 25 years of the United States bombing Iraq.
Hundreds of active-duty and retired military officers, high-ranking members of the past four presidential administrations, and executives from top defense contractors reportedly gathered in the grand ballroom of D.C.’s Fairmont Hotel to dine, mingle, and celebrate a quarter century spent routinely dropping thousands of tons of explosive ordnance across the Middle Eastern nation—from the Jan. 17, 1991 onset of airstrikes in the Gulf War to the current bombardment of suspected ISIS targets.
“I’ll never forget that morning 25 years ago when our first strike force of stealth bombers flew in and just unloaded on Baghdad,” said the evening’s keynote speaker, Dick Cheney, who served as defense secretary during the Gulf War, vice president during the Iraq War, and, in the intervening years, CEO of the oil field services company Halliburton. “And then we started letting them have it with our Tomahawk cruise missiles, too. If you’d told me back then we’d still be pounding some of those very same targets today, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
“But hundreds of thousands of bombs later, here we are!” Cheney added to thunderous applause. “And it’s all thanks to the dedication and resolve of the people in this room.”
Leading the gala’s impressive guest list were Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, who according to reports spent much of the evening exchanging stories—some old, some new—of their respective experiences demolishing Fallujah, Mosul, Anbar Province, the Sunni Triangle, and countless other locations. The former commanders-in-chief reportedly shared the head table with a delegation from the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century and members of the Saudi royal family, whom Cheney praised as “staunch allies through this whole thing.”
Also present were Iraq War architects Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, and Richard Perle, who admitted to reporters they felt overwhelmed by nostalgia throughout the event as they reconnected with old faces and shared laughs over the discredited intelligence that served as the basis for military action. Reportedly seated nearby were journalists Judith Miller and Bill Keller, who received a special commendation for their work covering the run-up to the 2003 invasion for The New York Times, drawing one of the largest standing ovations of the night.
Representatives from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and other weapons manufacturers were honored as well, and thanked for donating the gala’s elaborate ice sculptures that depicted a vintage Raytheon-designed Patriot missile from Operation Desert Storm, a 2003-era cluster bomb now banned by most countries, and a modern MQ-9 Reaper UAV armed with Hellfire missiles and 500-pound munitions.
“This is a truly magnificent night—I just wish Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf were here to see it,” said retired Gen. Raymond T. Odierno during a portion of the evening’s ceremonies that paid tribute to all the commanders of U.S. forces in Iraq over the years. “Twenty-five years ago, I was only a major, still in my 30s, and I really looked up to that guy. I never thought I’d get a chance to do what he did, but a couple decades later, there I was, ordering some of the very same bombing runs that he had. I modeled my entire career after his and feel privileged to have followed so closely in his footsteps.”
“It’s especially important that we take a moment tonight to honor our legacy in Iraq so that today’s troops can fully appreciate the rich history of our military campaigns there,” continued Odierno, “as most of them weren’t born yet when we started bombing the place.”
According to attendees, the gala featured an elaborate multimedia presentation titled A Generation Of Commitment, which began with a montage of night-vision targeting footage from Desert Storm interspersed with reports from up-and-coming CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzer. A segment called “The Clinton Years: A Retrospective” showed F-16 fighter jets enforcing no-fly zones, and then rolled highlights from Operation Desert Fox while Outkast’s 2000 recording “B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad)” played in the background.
The presentation’s survey of Operation Iraqi Freedom included video of then–Secretary of State Colin Powell assuring the U.N. that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, a May 2003 clip of a flight suit–clad George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier adorned with a “Mission Accomplished” banner, and a July 2003 clip of Bush saying “Bring ’em on” in response to questions about the rapidly growing Iraqi insurgency.
The final segment, “Drones: The Game-Changer,” showed images taken just last week of airmen in a small computer room in Nevada bombing Iraq using joysticks and real-time video feeds.
“Sure, we’ve been through some hard times, especially those dark days in 2012 and 2013 when we pretty much stopped bombing Iraq entirely,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in his closing remarks to the group, raising a glass of champagne as the room followed suit. “But we started right up again, like we always do, and we’ve seen thousands of new airstrikes since. Our enemy may change, but from Saddam to the Islamic State—and through all the I-don’t-know-how-many insurgencies in between—our mission has remained the same. We’ve stayed true to our roots and kept the tradition of bombing Iraq alive.”
Added Rumsfeld, “Here’s to 25 more years!”