"Mission Accomplished", a phrase associated with completing a mission, is in recent years particularly associated with a sign displayed on USS Abraham Lincoln during a televised address by United States President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003.
Bush stated at the time that this was the end to major combat operations in Iraq. While this statement did coincide with an end to the conventional phase of the war, Bush's assertion — and the sign itself — became controversial after guerilla warfare in Iraq increased during the Iraqi insurgency. The vast majority of casualties, among both coalition (approximately 98.3% as of October 2008) and Iraqi combatants, and among Iraqi civilians, have occurred after the speech. Due to this fact, "Mission Accomplished" is now a winged word for uncompleted operations with an unclear ending.
On May 1, 2003, Bush was the first sitting President to trap on an aircraft carrier, USS Abraham Lincoln in a Lockheed S-3 Viking, dubbed Navy One, as the carrier returned from combat operations in the Persian Gulf. He posed for photographs with pilots and members of the ship's crew while wearing a flight suit. A few hours later, he gave a speech announcing the end of major combat operations in the Iraq War. Clearly visible in the background was a banner stating "Mission Accomplished."
Bush's historic jet landing on the carrier, was criticized by opponents as an overly theatrical and expensive stunt. For instance, they pointed to the fact that the carrier was well within range of Bush's helicopter, and that a jet landing was not needed. Originally the White House had stated that the carrier was too far off the California coast for a helicopter landing and a jet would be needed to reach it. On the day of the speech, the Lincoln was only from shore but the administration still decided to go ahead with the jet landing. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer admitted that the president "could have helicoptered, but the plan was already in place. Plus, he wanted to see a landing the way aviators see a landing. The Lincoln made a scheduled stop in Pearl Harbor shortly before the speech, docked in San Diego after the speech, and returned to its home base in Everett, Washington on May 6, 2003.
The S-3 that served as "Navy One" was retired from service and placed on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida on July 17, 2003. The museum makes it clear that President Bush was a passenger—not the pilot—of the plane. Unlike his father, who was a Navy pilot, George W. Bush was never trained to land on a carrier.
The banner stating "Mission Accomplished" was a focal point of controversy and criticism. Navy Commander and Pentagon spokesman Conrad Chun said the banner referred specifically to the aircraft carrier's 10-month deployment (which was the longest deployment of a carrier since the Vietnam War) and not the war itself, saying "It truly did signify a mission accomplished for the crew."
The White House claimed that the banner was requested by the crew of the ship, who did not have the facilities for producing such a banner. Afterwards, the administration and naval sources stated that the banner was the Navy's idea, White House staff members made the banner, and it was hung by the U.S. Navy personnel. White House spokesman Scott McClellan told CNN "We took care of the production of it. We have people to do those things. But the Navy actually put it up. According to John Dickerson of TIME magazine, the White House later conceded that they actually hung the banner but still insists it had been done at the request of the crew members.
Many people who watched the event on television and saw the banner displayed on the ship drew the conclusion that the banner declared that the U.S. mission in Iraq had been completed.
Whether meant for the crew or not, the general impression created by the image of the President under the banner has been criticized as premature, especially later as the guerrilla war began. Subsequently, the White House released a statement saying that the sign and Bush's visit referred to the initial invasion of Iraq. Bush's speech noted:
However the speech also said that:
When he received an advance copy of the speech, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took care to remove any use of the phrase "Mission Accomplished" in the speech itself. Later, when journalist Bob Woodward asked him about his changes to the speech, Rumsfeld responded:"I was in Baghdad, and I was given a draft of that thing to look at. And I just died, and I said my God, it's too conclusive. And I fixed it and sent it back… they fixed the speech, but not the sign.
Bush reiterated a "Mission Accomplished" message to the troops at Camp As Sayliyah on June 5, 2003 — about a month after the aircraft carrier incident: "America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished.
For critics of the war, the photo-op became a symbol of the administration's unrealistic goals and perceptions of the conflict. Anti-war activists questioned the integrity and realism of George W. Bush's "major combat" statement. The banner came to symbolize the irony of the President giving a victory speech only a few weeks after the beginning of a relatively long war. Many in the administration came to regret the slogan. Karl Rove later stated "I wish the banner was not up there.
In a less publicized incident, Rumsfeld also declared an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan on May 1, a few hours before President Bush's announcement.
Iraq War opponents have used the phrase "mission accomplished" in an ironic sense. In addition, some mainstream outlets questioned the state of the war with derivatives of this statement. For example, the October 6, 2003 cover of Time featured the headline "Mission Not Accomplished. On April 30, 2008, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino sarcastically said "President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said 'mission accomplished for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission.' And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner. On May 5, 2008, The Daily Show mocked her statement by producing a graphic of what such a sign may have looked like.