Book Review: The Iran-Iraq War

The Iran-Iraq War, by Efraim Karsh

The second book I have read by the author (review forthcoming), this is the first book that I have ever seen in a library relating to this war.  Although the Iran-Iraq war was an immensely destructive war that helped to cement the rivalry between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims over control of the Middle East, the author notes correctly that no one goes to this war looking for either tactical or strategic lessons on how to fight.  Indeed, neither side of this war comes off looking particularly good.  Despite having a far stronger demographic position, Iran’s attempts to purge its army of the Shah’s adherents on the eve of war gave it an appearance of weakness that provoked the opportunistic attacks of one of the 20th century’s less successful military dictators in Saddam Hussein.  Moreover, once the Iranians went on the attack and attempted to knock the Iraqis out of the war, their unimaginative human wave frontal assaults killed tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of their youth and jeopardized the survival of the Iranian revolutionary regime, leading to a status quo antebellum that left both sides far worse off than if they had managed to make peace at the beginning.

This particular book does a good job of providing a worthwhile account of a pointless and immensely destructive war.  Beginning with the background to war in the recent struggles between Iran and Iraq over control of Iraq’s only outlet to the sea, the author moves on to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side in the run-up to the conflict.  The author looks at the outbreak of war in the surprise Iraqi invasion and the limited objectives that Iraq had from the war before looking at the delicate balance of incompetence that marked the war throughout.  The author gives a portrait of a prisoner of war, one of Iran’s child soldiers, and later provides a portrait of the destruction of a village by Iraqi barbarity.  There are discussions of the effects of the war on other nations, and the poisoned chalice that the ceasefire that ended the war represented to Iranians who believed that they would crush Iraq and demonstrate the strength of their regime and its religious worldview, while pointing out the utter futility of the war in terms of its conclusion and consequences, making this book a remarkably downbeat part of a series on modern warfare.

And it is that futility that marks the most obvious takeaway from the book.  By all rights, the war should never have begun in the first place.  Had Iraq been aware of and conscious of its demographic limitations, it would never have provoked war, and if Iran had been aware of the stark limitations of its tactical strength in battle, it would not have been so quick to reject Iraq’s calls for ceasefire as soon as Iraq’s armies were pushed out.  Instead of having a short and sharp war of the kind that made the 18th century somewhat infamous among military historians or that marked the warfare of the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, what we got instead was a war that provoked a great degree of death and destruction on the level of modern warfare, with a ‘total war’ approach to oil, a recourse to chemical warfare against both foreign and domestic enemies on the side of Iraq, all for the nonexistent gains that marked the warfare of the period between the Thirty Years’ war and the Napoleonic Wars.  Suffice it to say that neither side got anything worthwhile out of the war, and the destruction suffered by both has continued to affect their political and geopolitical standing to this day.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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