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A War Waged During Spring Break: A Memory From 10 Years Ago

03/21/2013 10:40 am ET | Updated May 21, 2013
  • Justin Cox @CoxJustin & justinryancox.tumblr.com

I was sitting in a Long Beach apartment when the Iraq war began 10 years ago this week.

I spent the previous night sleeping in my truck in a grocery store parking lot. I was eating carne asada and drinking a bottle of beer with three friends when it came on TV. I was 19 years old.

My friend and I had just driven down to southern California for a spring break road trip. We were sitting in a friend's apartment, barbequing on a small balcony and celebrating our lack of an itinerary by clanking bottles and acting like 19-year-olds. Spring breaking, basically.

When the war landed on our TV later that night, we knew it was serious, because all wars are serious. But there was an assumption that it would pass semi-quickly. 10 year later, the weight of that moment feels much heavier.

The previous night, we saw a band play in Anaheim with two girls we sort of knew from college. We made the impromptu decision to not accept their offer of a place to stay after the show and instead drove northwest to Long Beach to meet with two guy friends. Weird choice, but we were defining ourselves by our ability to move freely during that week.

It was well past midnight when we reached the coast, but we still hadn't made contact with our hosts. (Cell phones were a different animal 10 years ago). We grabbed some food at a Jack-in-the-Box drive thru and ate it on the beach while playing guitars and singing songs to kill time.

After a few hours of this, we gave up on our friends and parked at a VONS parking lot to get some sleep before sunrise. It was then that my Nokia finally rang.

Our friends, who had been driving down from Monterey through the night, arrived a few hours later and delivered us shelter -- and a sofa bed.

Later that evening, at the height of our good times, the Iraq War started.

I don't remember why, but we had a TV on mute in the background. It might have been because the potential for war was looming, or we might have been watching something else when coverage broke to the war. I don't remember.

Either way, we sat down and watched the broadcast. I recognized the anti-aircraft images from the first Iraq war, but I have no memories of that war ever escalating beyond that. That's partly because I was eight years old, but also because the Gulf War ended quickly.

While I knew in 2003 it was a big deal that we were entering a war with Iraq -- especially since we were living in the wake of 9/11 -- I felt at the time like it would pass quickly as well.

Maybe that's because Donald Rumsfeld said stuff like this. And then the president later gave a "Mission Accomplished" speech that didn't stand the test of time.

Conversations with my family up to that point had led me to believe that we lived in a post-ground-combat world. I assumed technology and overall sophistication had moved us beyond that, but then again I had no concept of being a nation at war at that time.

I remember the Tyler Durden line in the pre-9/11 movie Fight Club: "We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war."

I remember thinking about this when I first saw that movie. I was young, but beginning to think critically and develop the kinds of opinions teenagers often develop. It seemed like an accurate way to define my generation.

And then 9/11 happened, which changed things. For a while it seemed obvious that this massive moment would define us for a very long time. The moment was beyond historic, and the masses rallied around it.

Like everybody else, I remember where I was when that happened, too: Sleeping in my Monterey dorm room when the first plane hit, but watching TV and chatting on AIM with a friend during the second, and the collapsing of both towers.

But looking back, it seems like our entry into Iraq set the tenor of the last decade more so than 9/11 did. While the terrorist attack brought us together, Iraq cut folks down the middle. And that seems to be where we remain.

Which brings me back to that night in Long Beach -- a memorable moment mostly because it embodied the beauty of being a 19-year-old with a week of freedom and a truck-bed jammed with backpacks and surfboards and guitars.

But that moment is forever bolted to the calendar by a war that has remained in motion for 10 years now. I assume others are reminded of similarly specific memories when anniversaries like this come and go. It's interesting when a memory so positive is so directly linked to something so complex and nation-defining.

I was 19 when the war began. As I write this, I'm 29 years old with a wife and a seven-month-old baby. My life has changed a whole lot during the past 10 years, but that war has been one measurable constant.

Do you remember where you were 10 years ago?

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