Imperial power: The Iraq war, 20 years onMar 16, 2023
Iraq’s trauma is regarded in some quarters as an ill-gotten remnant of the past: something to be air-brushed from history. But not so for those experiencing the ravages of imperial power. On the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq – March, 20, 2023 – the people of Iraq await a historical reckoning.
How and why do we commemorate past events? It’s a question worth asking in anticipation of what’s likely to be a minor flurry of media commentaries on or around 20 March 2023 – twenty years after the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
Apart from a number of notable exceptions, the build-up to the anniversary thus far has been underwhelming. Few if any mainstream newspapers in Australia – one of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ – have paid much attention to the anniversary. The same appears to be the case in the US, the chief instigator of the conflict.
It’s easy to speculate as to why this retrospective has been so muted; after all, the nations involved in a war of aggression against a sovereign state is hardly something they’re eager to recount. Not that there’s a conspiracy of silence here, but it’s silence, nonetheless. Perhaps commentators gazing at the past think that there’s nothing left to be said. We know about the lies and deceit that led to the war. We’re aware too of how the neocons sought to restructure Middle Eastern politics, and the fact that the mainstream media, by their own admission, more or less supported an illegal invasion. No-one is keen to drag this up. The commentariat might also well ask themselves: why focus on an event twenty years ago when there’s the Ukraine conflict to consider? Far more newsworthy!
Ukraine is flavour of the era. No amount of journalistic space and passionate commentary has been spared to detail every Russian assault and atrocity. Nor has the media held back when it comes to the apparent madness and egomania of the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, depicting him variously as a deranged tyrant, ideological zealot, or simply nuts. Ukraine has been cast as a nation bravely fighting against an aggressive regional superpower, and winning against all the odds. True or not, just as the full geopolitical picture was absent in 2003, so it is with the Ukraine war.
We gaze back at Iraq through various prisms. For the Iraqi people however, the consequences of the US-led assault have been dire: bloodletting on gargantuan scale, ongoing sectarian conflict, political instability, and continued hardship and suffering for ordinary Iraqis. According to a 2022 UNHCR update, there are today over a million internally displaced Iraqis and nearly 5 million IDP returnees who face a, “lack [of] access to basic services and have to cope with destroyed or damaged property and critical infrastructure, a shortage of livelihood opportunities and financial resources in areas of return, and a lack of civil documentation”.
The fact is that few if any Iraqis sought the intervention of the US-led coalition, and even fewer wanted an ongoing US military presence in their country (around 2,500 non-combat US forces remain, although the Iraqi Parliament has asked them to leave).
None of the political or military leaders responsible for the war have faced justice, even after all the deception was exposed. Many have gone on to become elder statesmen, commenting sagely on global affairs. Interestingly, few if any of these former leaders have spoken about the terrible human rights breaches in Iraq, the mass killings and wholesale destruction of the country. They’ve also remained silent on the birth deformities brought about by the use of depleted Uranium, or the savage injuries caused by the illegal use of white phosphorous and cluster weapons. Nor has a word been said about the thousands of veterans in the US, Australia and Britain who have taken their own lives, or those who continue to experience mental and physical trauma.
As former coalition leaders retire to their villas and estates, military veterans and the people of Iraq continue to suffer the consequences of a war fought for less than noble reasons. Acts of commemoration should be the beginning, not the end, of what makes up memory work. The avalanche of books and articles depicting US military triumphs in Iraq, delusionary movies like American Sniper, and the naming of an amphibious assault vessel as the USS Fallujah, cannot disguise the injustice heaped on an already battered nation (remember that around 500,000 Iraqi’s lost their lives in a war with Iran, 1980-8, thousands killed in the first Gulf War, 1990-1, and yes, Saddam was indeed a cruel and violent dictator).
The extent of the devastation caused in Iraq by the US-led alliance is slowly coming to light. But only in fragments. The true scale has yet to be determined. How many Iraqis perished as a result of the US Alliance war on Iraq? Whether a child is violently killed (by bombs, bullets or bashing) or dies avoidably from war-imposed deprivation (lack of food, potable water and medicines), the death is just as final, and the moral culpability of the perpetrator just as great. Indeed, mass avoidable death from deprivation of occupied people indicates gross violation by an occupier of Articles 55 and 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Based on the independent and expert polling by the UK ORB organisation and by top US medical epidemiologists, the US Just Foreign Policy organisation has estimated that there were 1.5 million violent deaths in the Iraq War between 2003-2011. UN Population Division data indicate a further 1.2 million Iraqi avoidable deaths from war-imposed deprivation in this period.
The 2003 invasion compounded a decades-old Iraq carnage, most at the hands of imperial powers. The book, Body count: Global avoidable mortality since 1950 by Gideon Polya, posits an avoidable mortality-related history of every country in the world, including Iraq from 1914 onwards. The British interest in invading and conquering Iraq began with the discovery of oil in adjacent Iran in 1908. Six years later, at the outset of the First World War, the British invasion ushered a long period of conquest for oil and imperial hegemony. The upshot was death and destruction on an epic scale, with avoidable deaths from deprivation between 1914-1950 totalling about 4 million. During the Gulf War (1990-1991) and sanctions period (1990-2003), violent deaths and avoidable deaths from deprivation totalled 200,000 and 1.7 million, respectively.
In the period 1990-2011, there were 1.7 million violent deaths and 2.9 million avoidable deaths from war-imposed deprivation, a total of 4.6 million fatalities. In the period 2011-2020 during the war against ISIS (a violent by-product of the invasion), there were about 100,000 violent deaths and 300,000 avoidable Iraqi deaths from deprivation. Put another way, post-1990 war-related Iraqi deaths from violence and deprivation totalled around 5 million, chiefly as a result of the US Alliance actions.
The slow violence resulting from the Iraq War continues to have a deadly impact on that country’s people. In 2020, for example, the under-5 infant deaths as a percentage of total population for Iraq was 52 times greater than that for Japan, and 14 times greater than that for impoverished and sanctioned but peaceful Cuba. Iraq’s trauma is regarded in some quarters as an ill-gotten remnant of the past: something to be air-brushed from history. But not so for those experiencing the ravages of imperial power.
The people of Iraq await a historical reckoning.