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Reflecting on the Pentagon's 'shock and awe' campaign that began the invasion of Iraq

Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Steve Ankerstar (L) and former Baghdad resident Shaymaa Khalil (R) joined NPR's Morning Edition to discuss their memories of the 'shock and awe' bombing campaign that began the Iraq War. Ankerstar answered questions from Khalil, an Iraqi who was living in fear of American bombs.
Courtesy of Shayma Khalil and Steve Ankerstar.
Retired U.S. Air Force pilot Steve Ankerstar (L) and former Baghdad resident Shaymaa Khalil (R) joined NPR's Morning Edition to discuss their memories of the 'shock and awe' bombing campaign that began the Iraq War. Ankerstar answered questions from Khalil, an Iraqi who was living in fear of American bombs.

Updated March 24, 2023 at 4:02 PM ET

For a moment, Steve Ankerstar thought Baghdad, Iraq looked just like any other city he had seen when looking out of a plane window.

Then the cruise missiles struck.

"Just boom boom boom boom boom all over Baghdad, you see these explosions and you see the return fire," Ankerstar remembers.

Ankerstar, then a Major in the U.S. Air Force, was in his Nighthawk stealth fighter jet, on his way to drop bombs on two different targets.

It was the beginning of a campaign that the U.S. military said would cause "shock and awe," softening up Iraq's military as American ground forces began their invasion in 2003.

Shaymaa Khalil, a teenager at the time who was living in Baghdad, will never forget that night either.

"I never saw this before. All the time I saw, like, the sky in Baghdad clear, pure, nice blue. But at that time it's really like action movies. For me it's a really scary experience," she said.

NPR's Morning Edition brought Ankerstar and Khalil together to talk about their different experiences of that same evening.

Khalil, who is now 38 years old and living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wanted to ask Ankerstar if he ever had any doubts or concerns about the legitimacy of the war, and if he thought about the innocent civilians who were on the ground as he was carrying out his mission.

Ankerstar, now a 53 year old resident of Austin, Texas, wondered how close Khalil was to the bombs that fell that night, and if she thought that U.S.-Iraqi relations might be better 20 years from now.

You can listen to their conversation above.

The audio for this story was produced by Adam Bearne and Jojo Macaluso, and edited by Jacob Conrad. Majd Al-Waheidi produced and edited the digital version.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Bearne
Adam Bearne is an editor for Morning Edition who joined the team in August 2022.