Review of 'The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History' by Williamson Murray and William M. Woods.
by Paul Iddon
|Saddam Hussein in the 1980's. / Public Domain.|
In a post-war study to evaluate the eight-year war Iran fought with its neighbour Iraq the following was written in order to explain why the initial counter-offensive Iran mounted against Iraq in the summer of 1982, shortly after Iraq withdrew from Iranian territory, was a dismal failure,
“… the enemy [Iraq] was fighting in their own land and naturally they were familiar with the area … [T]he enemy, by retreating to its borders, in fact deepened and thickened its defensive line and reached a stronger defensive posture. In addition to this, they prepared themselves to fight against the invasion of infantry forces and to stop and control the invading waves.”
Another Iranian history written up around 1988 comes to similar conclusions and proclaims that,
“On the third and fourth year of the war, based on the lessons they [the Iraqis] had learned in the battlefield, the Iraqis decided to employ new tactics and reorganized their forces to meet the new method of [our] operations. For us, confronting the 'new' enemy required new planning and different tactics, if we were to preclude a stalemate.”
Yet another more recent history (Steven R. Ward's 'Immortal: A Military History of Iran and Its Armed Forces') sums up the failure of that disastrous period much more succinctly when it summed up Iran's strategy, or lack thereof, as being the equivalent of using “a hammer to destroy an anvil.”
All of the above is quoted in Williamson Murray and William M. Woods' new history of the Iran-Iraq War 'The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History' which was recently published by Cambridge University Press. The book is one of three which explore in-depth the perspective from the former Saddam Hussein regime during the major conflicts it was engaged in throughout its tyrannical reign. What makes it unique as a history of the period is the fact that it is based almost entirely around Baghdad's point-of-view as revealed by the documents produced by the Iraqi regime at that time which were secured after the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. While it doesn't reveal much new about the Iranian perspective during the war it is nonetheless an important addition to our understanding of that war.
In relation to that aforementioned pivotal moment in the course of the war, that point in mid-1982 when Iran went on the offensive against Iraq after its liberation of Khuzestan, the authors sum up very well the failure of the Khomeini regime to adequately prepare an efficient and thorough counter-offensive – which of course enabled the Iraqi regime to solidify its hold on power as well as kill thousands of young ill-trained and ill-equipped Iranian youths who were sent directly into the killing fields which were Iraq's well prepared defenses,
'Tehran came increasingly to rely on low-technological military, which resulted in a military force largely consisting of limited mobility infantry armed with light weapons, rather than on a combined-arms manoeuvre force. In the end, relying on human-wave attacks was of little use in a stand-up fight against Iraqi forces equipped with superior technology and heavy weapons and with some ability to coordinate combined arms. Thus, the direction Iranian mobilization ended up in minimizing the potential that the remnants of the Shah's army might have represented the mobilization of a new, and effective military.'
On the whole the book can be slow to move along at times. This isn't to say that the book is tediously written, it likely derives from the account being true to the nature of that lengthy war as opposed to the books narrative style. The Iran Iraq War was after all the longest conventional war in the twentieth century yet one of the most scantly documented ones. Which is what makes histories which encompass hitherto unrevealed sources like this one does important to our understanding and comprehension of that conflict.
Iraqi documents in general reveal that the Saddam Hussein regime was just as conspiratorial and warped as his public pronouncements indicated. Saddam's misjudgements were often severe and since those who knew better feared him many of Iraq's most important decisions were made according to his many simplistic whims. One document refers to his discussion of the situation in Iran in February 1979. On that occasion he proclaimed Iran to be, “a big country of five nations, bordered by the Soviet Union. [It] has oil and has built a lot of big facilities, but big only because there is a difference between something big in size and the quality of its size. I equate this, my comrades, to a hunter who shoots the wing of a rock-dove with one bullet. It is not the bullet that kills the [bird] but it is [its] fall on the ground that kills it; that is its weight that was its affliction in this situation.”
Noting the clear similarity to his mentality later when he defied the international community in 1990 by annexing Kuwait the authors quote Saddam discussing the reason that Iraq decided to withdraw from Iran in June 1982,
“We did not withdraw because of the enemy, but because we wanted to provide a psychological cover for our army. I swear to God, if the whole world wanted us to withdraw, we would never have withdrawn and would have stayed there and [fought] the enemy the same way, but because of some losses our army suffered we decided to withdraw.”
Ever mindful of the Israelis conspiring against them official Iraqi memorandums often forwarded very conspiratorial assessments. For instance in October 1981 when the Iranians launched an air raid on an oil facility in Kuwait the Iraqi regime officially speculated that this attack was carried out as a broader conspiracy in order to pressure the United States Congress to approve the then controversial sale of sophisticated AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia. While it is still not known precisely why the Iranians launched that strike (unclear mysteries like this make one yearn for a day when historians can have unfettered access to Iran's documentary records from this period) they speculate within reason that it was likely to warn off a then important financier of the Iraqi aggressor.
The authors don't discuss much the US aiding and abetting of the Iraqi regime during this time. In a footnote they speculate that while the support of Saddam clearly went against many of America's stated principles it was more likely than not grounded primarily in a Cold War realpolitik oriented worldview. They also refer to a document from the Iraqis which demonstrate just how unspecific the nature of the intelligence the Iraqis were receiving from US sources were. One handwritten note on a document which warned the Iraqis of a coming Iranian offensive against their forces in Iran in 1981 outlines that important data missing from the report include elementary things like, “the nature of the new [upcoming] military attack, the size, the location whether [it will take place in the] north, south, or the middle” of the 800-mile front both countries were fighting on.
In many accounts of the conflict the war in the air has often been overlooked. This book however discusses at considerable length the abject failure of the Iraqis to enact a Six Day War opening salvo to take out the Iranian Air Force in September 1980. The authors also refer to the fact that the Iranian Air Force played a prominent role in defending Iran and various Iranian assets during the war. I mention this for the simple reason that claims made by General Azarbarzin that Iran's F-14 fleet was briefly flown out of the country to have their AIM-54 Phoenix missiles dismounted has led many to conclude that Iranian F-14s only served as mini-AWACS units throughout the war. The work of authors Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop however dispute that. They have referred to numerous cases of Iranian F-14s using their Phoenix missiles with resounding success against Iraqi planes throughout the course of the war. Their work is referenced in footnotes many times throughout this book when the aerial dimension of that war is discussed.
In 1981 when the Iranians attempted to disable the Iraqi Osirak reactor with their F-4 Phantom jets Iraq's air defense failed to react to their attack. Iraqi documents reveal that after the attack the Iraqis weren't even sure if the aircraft covering them were F-14s or F-16s – the latter of which would have likely signaled direct Israeli cooperation in that raid. The book recounts that one senior Iraqi military adviser suggested that the Iranians may possibly have misled Iraq's air defense by painting their planes with Iraqi air force markings. This led the minister of defense to remark, “Tell them … a MiG does not look like a Phantom.”
Interestingly during the wars “War of the Cities” phase the Iraqi Air Force attempted to target Iranian Scud launchers. The authors rightfully point out that such missions had no more success than the ones the American-led coalition would launch against Iraq's own Scud batteries during the course of the proceeding 1991 Persian Gulf War. Perversely enough the Iraqis inexplicably claimed around that time when the first Iranian missiles hit Baghdad that the explosions were in fact car bombs being set off by “Iranian terrorists”, a claim they would later retract due to the fact it brought into serious question Iraq's stability and internal security.
Another noteworthy memorandum referred to in the book is one which shows that when discussing where to fire their missiles the Iraqis took into account the populations of the areas they were targeting as well as their racial make-up. The memorandum they quote outlined how R-17 missiles should be fired at the following targets whose details were given as follows,
• Ahvaz (489,000) 90% Arab, 5% Persian, and 5% Lur.• Khurram Abad (515,361) 90% Lur, 5% Kurd, 5% Persian• Nahawind (119,255) 80% Persian, 10% Kurd, 10% Turk• Masjid Sulayman (179,000) 85% Persian, 10% Arab, 5% Lur• Khorramshahr (562,334) 90% Shi'a Kurd, 10% Persian• Brujard (231,834) 90% Lur, 10% Turk
One quivers at the thought of what may have happened Iranian urban centers had Saddam Hussein acquired more sophisticated and destructive weapons to unleash upon Iran. Even early on in the war, 1981, he discussed casually the possibility of flooding Tehran by destroying the dams to its north.
War aside the book gives us a good surmise of both Iraq and Iran's history in the run-up to the war. Even though the book is about the war purely from the Iraqi perspective the authors nevertheless demonstrate that they are quite knowledgeable when it comes to their understanding of Iran and its modern history. Writing about on the manner in which the Iranian heartland itself has been naturally shielded by mountainous terrain from invasions – in a manner not unlike how the vastness of Russia has seen to wanton conquerors perish and fail – over the years the authors quote the leader of an Indian Army division into Iran in 1941 named Lord Slim who noted amongst other things he experienced in Iran that,
“The road to Kermanshah which we must follow rose sharply into the mouth of the pass and, climbing in curves and loops, vanished among cliffs and gorges to emerge, three thousand feet higher … It looks as if a handful of men could hold it against an army many times the size of mine.”
Regarding recent history many of the documents reveal a lot about the Ba'athists preoccupation with eventually confronting Israel. However what the book is also worth reading for is the history it gives of the fallout between the Hussein regime and the Assad regime in Syria. In January 1981 Saddam Hussein discussed the prospect of Iraq and Syria forming a singular unified Baathist polity not unlike the failed Nasser-era "United Arab Republic" between Egypt and Syria. Saddam contended that the Arab nations collectively constituted a proverbial tent with Iraq representing the only "central post" and Saddam by extension the sole leader of the Arab nation as a whole. As he said himself late in 1979 as far as he was concerned with Syria's Hafez al-Assad "it is either collision or merger. There is no middle ground in this matter."
The Baath rivalry between the two Arab states is referenced a few times throughout in the book. On one noteworthy occasion Saddam's general disdain for the lack of action of other Arab countries saw the Iraqi dictator furiously respond to Syrian claims that they were merely waiting for Iraq to join them so they could go on and destroy the State of Israel together. Declaring the Assad regime to be little more than “liars, crooks and cowards and worriers” Saddam reiterated an old Iraqi proverb which says the Iraqis would “show up so fast that our heads would arrive before our feet” in response to any call to confront the Israelis.
Late in the war Hussein also asserted that,
“As far as the war, we do not need Hafez al-Assad … to fight with us. He cannot fight and he does not want to fight, and even if he is willing to fight, he is incapable of fighting, because this war only Iraqis will handle it. We do not need him for the war … I hope this day will never come, wherein I have to shake al-Assad's dirty hand, with the blood of Iraqis on it.”
The book briefly notes that King Hussein of Jordan attempted to reconcile the Baghdad and Damascus regimes in 1986 and even, with Soviet assistance, got Assad and Saddam to meeting in western Iraq in April the following year. However it was clear that heavy investment by Iran into Syria's economy ensured that alliance remained bought. As it essentially does to the present day.
What is more interesting however is what Saddam was more cautious about around that time. And that was the winds of change that were evident even then. The rise of a particular brand of Islamist politics saw Saddam take a more cooler and level-headed, by his standards, approach. Documents demonstrate that he saw an opportunity to utilize such fervor to his advantage since such a current was “not only directed against the Ba'ath … it is directed towards the prevalent circumstances in the Arab world, which no one is satisfied with.”
In short The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History is a good addition to other books already available on the subject. However in and of itself it is not a thorough account of the entire war and wouldn't be an appropriate book on its own if one is seeking to garner a broad overview of the wars events and its numerous nuances and complexities – especially whereby ordinary people on both sides and their experiences are concerned. It is nevertheless a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the war in detail as it gives us a very valuable and unique insight into the inner-workings and machinations of one of the regimes engaged in that very bloody and very costly and lengthy war.