In terms of its length, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was one of the longest in modern history. It was also one of the costliest in terms of casualties, claiming an estimated one million lives on both sides, plus twice as many injured or permanently disabled. It was also a costly war, inflicting more than 1 trillion US dollars in infrastructure damage and economic losses to the two belligerents.
[inset_left]The Iran–Iraq War: A Military and Strategic HistoryWilliamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods Cambridge University Press, 409 pagesCambridge, 2014[/inset_left]
As this new book, published by Cambridge University Press shows, the war, which ended over a quarter of a century ago, had a number of other evil features. It provided the set for the use of chemical weapons on a large scale. Nearly 30,000 Iranians, military and civilian, were killed as a result of the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein’s armies. Worse still, for the first time in modern history, Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people in the city of Halabja, killing more than 5,000 ethnic Kurds.
However, the war may have had at least two other unique features that the authors of this new study seem to ignore. The first is that this was, perhaps, the first modern war that had no clear objectives. To be sure both Saddam Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who ruled Iran at the time, cited a number of objectives including regime change against one another.
Saddam toyed with the idea of annexing the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan which has significant Arabic-speaking communities. However, it is not at all clear that Saddam would have welcomed such a development that would have added another 2.5 million Shi’ites to the population of Iraq at a time that the Sunni-Tikriti minority had difficulty maintaining its own hold on Baghdad. Khomeini launched the slogan “The road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad,” pretending that his aim was to conquer Iraq and then move on to recapture Jerusalem and destroy Israel.
However, it is unlikely that Khomeini took his own rhetoric seriously. Nor did the Israelis who helped smuggle enough American arms to Iran to first stop the Iraqi advance and then turn the tide against Saddam’s armies. Both Khomeini and the Israelis knew that a Middle East dominated by Sunni Arabs would leave little space for either Jews or “Persian” Shi’ites.
The second peculiar feature of this war concerned the character and position of the two men who were ultimately in command. Both Saddam and Khomeini had egos as big as Everest and, in secret at least, believed that they were geniuses in all fields of human endeavor. Both were praised by a sycophantic entourage and media as larger-than-life figures with a messianic mission. Saddam was to be the new Saladin, styled after the Kurdish fighter and Sultan who fought the Crusaders, not always with success. Khomeini, who claimed to be a descendant of Hussein, the third Imam of Shi’ism, was supposed to be on the verge of avenging his ancestor’s tragic death at the hands of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid.
The trouble was that neither of the two partners in this tragic dance had the faintest idea about military matters. Saddam had learned to fire a pistol, but only for an assassination attempt against Abdel Karim Qasim and, later, to murder his rival within the Ba’ath leadership. Khomeini, too, had received some training with hand-guns during his brief membership of the Fedayeen Islam terror group in the 1940s. However, like Saddam, he understood nothing about actual warfare and had shared a deep suspicion of things military.
By sheer coincidence, the publication of this book coincides with leaks about the Iranian side of the war—leaks that show how Khomeini bungled everything and how tens of thousands of Iranians died as a result of his poor leadership.
Murray and Woods’ book is almost entirely based on secret documents seized from the Iraqi archives after the fall of Saddam in 2003. Thus, it is focused only on the Iraqi side of the tragedy. Nevertheless, by gauging Iranian reaction to Saddam’s moves, one would also catch a glimpse into the way the leadership in Tehran handled, or mishandled, the war.
Both Saddam and Khomeini feared their military more than their officially identified foe. Saddam knew that if the Iraqi army won the war, or at least seemed to have won something, it could turn against him by projecting one of the victorious generals as the new “savior of the nation.” The authors show how Saddam had worked out a system in which generals could not directly communicate with each other even in nearby battlefields. In the Battle of Hamid, for example, Iranians trapped two Iraqi divisions and annihilated them while two strong and fresh Iraq divisions remained inactive a few miles to the north. The reason was that the commanders there were waiting for permission from Saddam in Baghdad to join the battle and relieve their trapped brethren. Permission came, but hours after the battle had been lost.
For his part, Khomeini had started his rule by executing thousands of Iranian army officers and non-commissioned officers and imprisoning thousands more. To make matters worse, Rear-Admiral Ahmad Madani, Khomeini’s first defense minister, had reduced the length of national service from 18 months to six, which meant that virtually all conscripts at the time could immediately return to civilian life. When Iraq triggered the war by invading Iran on September 22, 1980, the Iranian army had all but ceased to exist as an effective force.
Part of this fascinating book is devoted to an analysis of the Iraqi mind-set and how it changed during the eight-year long conflict. Saddam started by posing as a modern war leader in possession of the most advanced weapons of war, much of it supplied by France and the Soviet Union. Initially, French President Francois Mitterrand even allowed France’s own Super-Etendard heavy bombers to be repainted in Iraqi colors and, flown by mercenary pilots from Belgium, used for surgical operations against sensitive Iranian targets. The substance needed for chemical weapons came from West Germany while the Soviet Union delivered tanks and warheads. Soon, however, it became clear that this was not to be a modern war and that Khomeini and the mullahs around him did not care about the human and material losses.
In some battles, Iraqi commanders became physically sick when they saw how wave after wave of Iranian teenagers and children, brainwashed by the mullahs to seek “martyrdom” and “hours in heaven,” were sent to blow themselves up in front of tanks to slow down the Iraqi advance.
In the following phase, Saddam tried to re-cast himself as a classical Arab warrior and advised his military to seek victory through personal courage and sacrifice. However, that attempt, too, proved abortive if only because Saddam was, at heart, a coward, a fox who tried to roar like a lion.
In the final phase of the war, Saddam had understood that he could not win the war either as a modern commander or as a classical Arab warrior. It was then that he started begging his Arab neighbors and the major powers, notably the United Sates, to help get him off the hook through diplomatic means. He had miscalculated across the board, especially by not realizing that his adversary Khomeini was as mad as he himself was and as unmoved by the loss of Iranian life as he was about the loss of Iraqi life.
As Murray and Woods show this was a war that ended with no winners—producing only two losers. The borders did not change and the two regimes remained in place. Later, Saddam’s government was overthrown as a result of his other mistake: invading Kuwait, where he picked a fight with bigger boys.
Iran would do well to grant Murray and Woods, and other scholars, access to the Iranian archives so that the other side of the story is also examined and told.