ONE morning in 2007, at the height of the war in Iraq, I found myself sitting aboard a US Blackhawk helicopter at Baghdad Airport. Not for the first (or last) time, I was heading for a highly volatile town.

On this occasion it was the Islamist insurgency hotbed of Baquba where I was to be embedded as a correspondent with the US 1st Infantry Division. Next to me, a US soldier wearing the shoulder patch of the Screaming Eagles 101st Airborne Division grinned and handed me a piece of paper on which was drawn a cartoon depicting some newly arrived American soldiers at the airport.

Behind them lay an apocalyptic landscape of smoking, bomb-blasted ruins and bodies littering the streets. Jutting out from all this devastation was a signpost on which was scrawled in blood-red letters the words: “Welcome to Baghdad.”

Looking closer at the cartoon, I noticed all the soldiers were staring at the sign except one, who, from the corner of his mouth, urgently asked his buddy: “If God blessed America, then why the f*** are we here?”

It was one of those surreal moments, not uncommon in wartime, when black humour serves as a release for pent-up tension. This week, while watching the current BBC 2 television documentary series Once Upon A Time In Iraq, I couldn’t help thinking again of that moment in Baghdad. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking of the many incidents and events from my time covering Iraq, triggered by this powerful piece of television storytelling.

Many years have passed, but the question asked by that caricature soldier in the drawing handed to me that day remains as discomfiting now as it did back then. The fact that it was lies by politicians that took us into that conflict also still gnaws at the lingering outrage I, like many others, feel about the war in Iraq.

During the war’s commencement and subsequent prosecution, there was no shortage of those who were “economical with the truth”. The then US president George W Bush, UK prime minister Tony Blair and the cabal surrounding them were only part of the story, albeit a substantial part.

These days, whenever I return to Iraq, the vexed question of whether the US and UK should have gone to war in their country is a moot point for most Iraqis. They cannot afford the luxury of dwelling on the “morality” and political “soul-searching” that underpinned the decision and still preoccupies many in the West.

Most Iraqis these days are too hard-pressed and busy coping with the continuing fallout and carnage set in train back in 2003. Two

trillion dollars spent, hundreds of thousand of lives lost, and still their country twists in the winds of conflict and uncertainty.

So what lessons can we take from the folly of the war in Iraq? Well, the first is that there are few “good” international conflicts and, without doubt, Iraq remains among the most disastrous in living memory. Recognising that is in itself a good place to start in learning from its mistakes and avoid repeating them.

The problem with this, though, is that there are precious few signs around right now of any such understanding. Add to this the fact that lies and untruths perpetrated on a grand scale are the order of the day among many global leaders, from Putin to Trump, Johnson to Xi Jinping and it becomes obvious how easy it is to be duped or drawn into a war somewhere across the world.

Back in 2003, Bush and Blair were the villains of the piece, but make no mistake, their counterparts exist in worrying abundance on the world stage today.

Some will argue it has always been thus, given that warmongers sadly have never been in short supply. There are those, too, who will argue – with some justification – that lies are an integral part of national security operations in that they mislead enemies and adversaries.

TACTICALLY, I get this, but too often lies are also used to cover up gross mistakes and failures or to deceitfully garner public support for questionable policies or helping defeat political opposition at home.

Whenever such calls for military intervention and war are made, rarely is there any mention of the potential human cost and the hell it unleashes on those caught up on the ground.

In recent times, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, these sabre-rattlers and warmongers have often – for their own reasons and motives –been quick to tell us the cause is just or intervention unavoidable, only to have their lies subsequently exposed.

Afghanistan is a perfect example. Two decades on, the Taliban insurgency there remains as resilient as ever in what has become the United States’s longest war.

It took the Washington Post more than two years of investigation to reveal that senior foreign policy officials in the White House state and defence departments had known for some time that the US intervention in Afghanistan was failing.

Interview transcripts, obtained in the past few years from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) by the newspaper after many lawsuits, showed that for a staggering 18 years these same officials told the public the intervention there was succeeding.

“War as an institution is pure evil,” observes Lt Col Nate Sassaman, one of the many soldiers, politicians, journalists and ordinary Iraqis interviewed in Once Upon A Time In Iraq.

By his own admission, Sassaman, on arrival in Iraq back in 2003, believed wholeheartedly that he was helping bring democracy and stability to the Iraqi people. As the film goes on to make clear though, it did not take long for Sassaman to grasp that this was far from the case, despite what some politicians insisted at the time.

It’s an often-used saying that “the first casualty when war comes is truth” but as maxims go it remains as accurate now as when it was first coined.

Once Upon A Time In Iraq is a sharp and badly needed reminder of what happens when lies become the prime means by which politicians take to us war.

In an age when those same lies have become the new normal in terms of political modus operandi, we need vigilance like never before.