The Iraq War
The Iraq War began when American- and British-led coalition forces invaded the country in March 2003 and officially ended in December 2011. Waged on false grounds, it was immensely costly in both lives—nearly 4,500 U.S. service personnel and at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed—and treasure, with total U.S. costs estimated at upwards of $3 trillion. Ten years after the war’s start, we look back at some of its causes and events.
Some observers believe President George W. Bush took office in January 2001 already determined to wage war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Bush’s cohorts began suggesting (falsely) that Iraq was to blame. By his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush was sounding the alarm that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the world. Over the next year the president and his advisers, consulting with the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, built their case for the forcible overthrow of Saddam’s regime: Iraq, they declared, was developing and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, in defiance of a U.N. resolution, and was secretly supporting Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the 9/11 attacks. Neither claim would prove true. The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003.
Saddam was indisputably evil, but Bush’s hostility toward him may have had oedipal roots. In 1991 his father, President George H.W. Bush, led an international coalition to evict Saddam’s army from Kuwait, which Iraq had illegally annexed, but decided it had no grounds to enter Iraq and depose Saddam. Did Bush II intend to prove he could accomplish what his father did not?
President Bush and his Iraq War coarchitects—Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and other administration officials—expected the U.S. and its “coalition of the willing” to win the war swiftly. Their conviction rested on the military’s plan to compel Iraqi surrender with the Shock and Awe strategy: establishing immediate and overwhelming dominance. The strategy, in fact, worked—at first. Coalition aircraft mounted an unremitting aerial assault against targets in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, and elsewhere while ground forces attacking from the south made rapid progress through the country. After the war’s first days, the demoralized Iraqi army barely put up a fight. Baghdad soon fell, and the coalition declared victory in mid-April, less than a month after hostilities had commenced.
Unfortunately, the administration failed to plan properly for the post-invasion period, rejecting outright the prediction by U.S. Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki that several hundred thousand American troops would be needed to maintain order following Saddam’s fall. By late 2003 the Iraqi insurgency was in full swing, pushing the country toward civil war and eventually trapping the U.S. in what seemed like an inescapable quagmire.
The U.S. military’s Shock and Awe strategy gave the coalition forces a quick, though ephemeral, victory in Iraq. Soon after entering Baghdad, U.S. marines helped topple a colossal statue of Saddam Hussein, staging the event, broadcast around the world, to appear as if it were solely the spontaneous act of gleeful Iraqi citizens. The dictator himself, however, was nowhere to be found, and in ensuing months he proved as elusive as the weapons of mass destruction his regime had purportedly harbored. But unlike the WMDs, Saddam actually existed, and on December 13, 2003, American soldiers found the bedraggled ex-dictator hiding in a “spider hole” at a farmhouse near his hometown of Tikrit. Put on trial before an Iraqi special tribunal in 2005, Saddam was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death; he was hanged on December 30, 2006. It was an ignoble end (almost immediately viewable on YouTube) for a tyrant who, ironically, had not always been regarded as a foe by the U.S. government. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, the U.S., wanting to limit Iran’s power in the Middle East, had supplied Saddam’s regime with various sorts of assistance, including money for weapons.
“In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” President Bush announced from aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, “Mission Accomplished” spelled out on a banner behind him. The speech was premature. The Shock and Awe strategy had subdued the Iraqi military, but establishing peace in a society deeply riven by ethnic and religious conflict proved a more formidable undertaking. The Coalition Provisional Authority that began governing Iraq promulgated “de-Baathification,” a policy that deprived Iraqis who had belonged to Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath Party of any civic role and that became a catalyst for Sunni insurgency. Shiites led by radical clerics such as Muqtada al-Sadr also opposed their country’s occupation, and their militias attacked Sunnis, battled coalition forces and fought one another. Tensions regularly flared between Iraq’s Kurdish north and Arab south. Non-Iraqi militants associated with Al Qaeda—which had had minimal presence in Iraq—were inspired to enter the country and join the fray. By 2006 the war appeared unwinnable, an entrenched crisis. That led President Bush, in January 2007, to order the Surge, an increase in American troops that brought the total deployed in Iraq to 169,000 by September.
President Bush approached the Iraq War with cowboy swagger, vowing to “shock and awe” with military might and issuing his “bring ’em on” challenge to insurgents. A year into the invasion, Bush policy aroused worldwide shock and disgust when CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes II and a New Yorker article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh made public the maltreatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. military police and CIA operatives at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad. The abuse—photographed by the perpetrators themselves—included beatings, sexual humiliation, sodomy, rape and, in at least one instance, a “coercive interrogation” so severe it caused an inmate’s death. Ultimately, 11 soldiers—including Specialists Charles Graner and Lynndie England, lovers at Abu Ghraib who appear mugging and pointing in many of the pictures—were convicted of crimes related to the scandal. The prison’s commanding officer was demoted, but punishment extended no further up the chain of command. In a statement to a U.S. Senate committee, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld accepted “full responsibility” for the Abu Ghraib events, calling the prisoners’ treatment “sadistic, cruel and inhuman,” but not, however, naming it torture. (That term was replaced in the administration’s lexicon by the uncowboyish “enhanced interrogation techniques.”)
The photographs of grinning American soldiers giving thumbs-up signs while abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison were not the first to capture that queasy combination of glee and atrocity. Among the Iraq War’s more horrific images were those showing triumphant Iraqis posing with the burned bodies of American private military contractors hanging from a Euphrates River bridge in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold, on March 31, 2004. The four contractors had been ambushed and killed by insurgents, and their corpses were mutilated and set afire by a local mob, which then strung up two of them. The U.S. countered the deaths with two invasions of Fallujah, an unsuccessful attack in April and another in November. The Second Battle of Fallujah was among the war’s deadliest engagements, resulting in 95 American and 1,200 to 2,000 insurgent fatalities. The Fallujah campaign also involved serious abuses on the part of American forces, including the use of white phosphorus incendiary weapons, the point-blank shooting by a Marine of an unarmed Iraqi prisoner in a mosque and, possibly, the execution-style killings of 21 Iraqis, whose bodies, bound and blindfolded, were discovered in a mass grave in Fallujah in 2011.
During the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, American troops performed a street-by-street, house-by-house sweep of the city, inciting lengthy pitched battles between coalition soldiers and Iraqi insurgents. In the Iraq War, however, traditional combat was relatively infrequent. Rather, the country was racked by a string of bombings committed mostly by Sunni militants (some affiliated with Al Qaeda) targeting Iraq’s majority Shia population and by Shiite death squads attacking Sunnis. Multiple bombings in Baghdad on September 14, 2005, for example, killed 150 and wounded 500-plus. Adding to the carnage produced by such terrorist acts were the deaths and injuries caused by improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. These homemade bombs, often detonated remotely (sometimes by cell phones), became Iraqi insurgents’ weapons of choice against coalition forces. During the height of the war, significantly more coalition deaths resulted from IEDs than from conventional combat operations. On the very morning in 2004 that an Iraqi mob ambushed and killed four American contractors in Fallujah, five American soldiers had been killed nearby when their vehicle rolled over an IED. Caught unprepared, U.S. soldiers had to resort to scavenging scrap metal for “hillbilly armor” to reinforce their vehicles.
Two-thirds of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Three years later the numbers had reversed, and two-thirds disapproved of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. Even the president had admitted to mistakes. Iraq had, in most people’s minds, descended into civil war, while casualties suffered by American troops—often sitting-duck victims of IED booby traps—continued to climb. Antiwar sentiment led to the Republican Party’s loss of control of both houses of Congress in the November 2006 midterm elections, but that power shift did not bring about the war’s immediate conclusion. Quite the opposite: In January 2007 President Bush, ignoring most recommendations made in the report released in December 2006 by the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, ordered a temporary but sizable increase in the number of American troops committed to Iraq. The so-called Surge was followed by an ebb in violence—IED attacks, for instance, had dropped by more than three-quarters by summer 2008—but its role in calming the conflict remains under debate. Some observers give greater credit to changes in coalition tactics, including partnering with Sunni tribal sheikhs to establish secure zones, as well as crackdowns by the Iraqi military on Shiite militias.
Some soldiers grow addicted to war. That is the perspective of The Hurt Locker, a low-budget, independently produced film that won the best picture and five other Academy Awards in 2010. The Hurt Locker follows a three-man U.S. Army bomb-disposal unit on its missions in and around Baghdad early in the Iraq War. The team is led by Sergeant First Class William James (rivetingly played by Jeremy Renner), a “wild man” whose insane dedication to his job—disabling IEDs before they explode—regularly puts his own life, and the lives of the soldiers he commands, at extreme risk. The film provides an almost unbearable look at the brutal realities of a conflict in which innocent civilians, including children, were sacrificed for the insurgents’ cause.
The Bush administration tried to hide the war’s realities from the American public, forbidding the photographing of military coffins, and even conjuring tales of valor that recall patriotic war movies of the 1940s. For one example, the Pentagon initially portrayed Jessica Lynch, an American soldier taken prisoner by the Iraqis, as a hero who went down shooting. Distressed by the fabrication, Lynch disputed it, noting, “The truth of war is not always easy to hear.”