Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History - Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods

This review has been submitted to the Canadian Army Journal. 

Title: The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History 
Author: Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods
ISBN: 978-1-107-67392-2
Publisher: Cambridge UP
Year: 2016
Pages: 397
Photos/Maps: 0/11

The Iran-Iraq war ran between 1980 and 1988 and effectively devastated generations of young men (estimated casualties for Iraq: between 550,000 and 1,040,000 and for Iran: between 1,050,000 and 1,930,000) as well as effectively bankrupting both economies (Iraq: 159 Billion USD//Iran 69 Billion USD). Relatively speaking, little has been written about this war due mainly to it being overshadowed by the Desert Storm operations as well as Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it holds lessons for the military professional to learn from. The authors have focused on primarily the Iraqi side of the conflict and have undertaken extensive analysis of documentation captured during the collapse of the Saddam regime. They readily acknowledge that their study is still somewhat limited by the lack of access to Iranian documentation but it certainly sheds a much broader light on the political, operational and economic facets of the war on the respective adversaries.

The military commanders on both sides of this conflict were hamstrung by individual styles of government that bread atmospheres of insecurity and mistrust amongst leadership. Decision making was as much a product of battlefield realities as it was political oversight and expectation. The authors have done a noteworthy job of tracing the impact of these realities as they translated into battlefield success or failure (with its resulting consequences).

Of particular interest is the study of the multi-faceted layers that prompted the Iraqi’s to launch against the Iranians: perceptions of internal weakness amongst the Iranians who were in the latter stages of a revolution against the secular establishment, international (read Arabic and US) support to undermine the Iranian Ayatollah, a desire to become a paramount power in the Middle East and deep seated hatred and mistrust between the Arab and Persian ethnic groups.

The authors also study in detail the respective operational methodologies of each player; noting for example the continuing failure of the Iraqi’s to be able to exploit significant technological and resource advantages over their larger but internationally isolated counterpart. Additionally they look at the Iranian’s use of poorly trained but highly motivated volunteers looking to defend and advance the Iranian revolutions domestic agenda through human wave doctrine. The effect of these is traced forward throughout the conflict years and its ultimate impact on the wars outcome.

This war is interesting as the stakes for each respective government went far beyond the loss or gain of territory. Each recognized that a peace might only be achieved when one or the other was utterly exhausted. The Iranians acknowledged this reality first and, rather than risk collapse of the Ayatollahs regime, they accepted a humiliating defeat and the consequent results. A significant part of the ultimate success of the Iraqi’s was the recognition by Saddam of the need to reinforce competence amongst his generals as opposed to the traditional sycophancy. As the authors point out however, this policy was quickly reversed once the war was successfully completed.

A very well crafted analysis of the war and its long term effects upon the region right up until the collapse of Saddam’s regime. The effect of religious, ethnic, governmental and opportunistic policies and the international attention/support provided Iraq and denied Iran upon the ultimate outcome of the war is a key learning outcome from one of the most recent intra-state wars in modern history.

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