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"It's very tricky for me to convey how I felt on that day," said Jason Armagost midway through an 80-minute phone interview from Guam, where he's now stationed. The day in question was March 21, 2003, when the Air Force Academy graduate's stealth bomber led the "Shock and Awe" air strike over Baghdad. In an essay on the subject, he wrote:

In six months "on the ground" in the Middle East, I witnessed one terrorist bomb detonate and I came quick upon the aftermath of two others. One — Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia — was monstrous. Then 9/11. I was roused to fight.

Citing this passage, I'd asked Armagost if it didn't feel strange to be en route to Iraq, to be flying over Saudi Arabia — where nearly all of the 9/11 terrorists came from — and to not be dropping bombs there instead.

"I knew full well that Iraq was not responsible for 9/11," he continued. And yet, he added, "9/11 was emotionally close but politically distant."

War is, of course, inherently political. But this week's cover story (starting on p. 15) isn't really about that. Instead, it's about war as experienced by those who fight it.

It's a ritual that goes back, and will likely go forward, much further than we'd like to admit — and from which there is still much to be learned.

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