Dina Khoury’s much anticipated study, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom and Remembrance, fills an important lacuna [End Page 476] in the history of modern Iraq. Iraq experienced the 20th century’s longest war in its eight-year conflict with Iran (1980–88). The war’s devastation was exacerbated by the Gulf War of 1991, the subsequent March 1991 Intifada, and the UN sanctions regime (1991–2003). Following the 2003 US invasion, violent internecine warfare ravaged Arab Iraq until 2008. It is no exaggeration to say that Iraq has experienced the most destructive warfare and violence of any country in the Middle East during the last quarter of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century.
To have an in-depth study of the impact of war on Iraq is to be welcomed, especially one that is conceptually nuanced, thoroughly researched and draws upon newly available archives. As with Joseph Sassoon’s excellent study, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party, the author relies heavily on the Iraq Memory Foundation Archives at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Professor Khoury is aware of the ethical issues in using the archive, based on how it was transferred to the United States, and sympathetic to Iraq’s desire to have the archive returned. Nevertheless, she offers a cogent argument for the need to utilize its documents to gain insights into the functioning of Iraq’s ancien regime, a position with which I fully agree.
In addition to new archival material, Professor Khoury relies on a large number of interviews with Iraqis who experienced the wars and violence of the 1980s and 1990s. These interviews are telling; they provide a human dimension to the official and dry tone of the memoranda written by the myriad agents of the Ba‘thist regime’s repressive bureaucracy.
Iraq in Wartime’s first two chapters offer a history of the Iran-Iraq and Gulf wars and the 1991 Intifada that provides the necessary historical contextualization for the study, especially for the non–Iraq specialist. The subsequent chapters convey the results of the incredible effort that the regime organized to oversee and control Iraq’s citizenry during two wars and the UN sanctions regime (1991–2003). In these sections of the book, the extent to which authoritarian rule consistently seeks to document its oppression is forcefully driven home.
The reader is not only impressed by the tremendous effort that was devoted to social control, but the waste of national resources that could have been used instead to promote Iraq’s social and economic development. Having first conducted research in Iraq in May and June of 1980, I was repelled by Ba‘thist authoritarianism, but nevertheless impressed by the tremendous development that was underway, including electrification of villages and efforts to eradicate women’s illiteracy, even in remote villages. All this effort was subsequently subordinated to an unnecessary war that would ultimately, in 2003, leave Iraq in shambles.
One of Professor Khoury’s most important contributions is to foreground three campaigns that were waged simultaneously during the Iran-Iraq War. First, of course, there was the war itself. Second, there was the struggle to suppress two insurgencies — one waged by Islamist parties in the south and another by the Kurds (the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) with Iranian help in the north. Finally, there was a massive effort to keep track of multiple sectors of the Iraqi populace so as to identify “traitors,” “saboteurs,” army deserters, and fifth-column elements. What the author’s analysis highlights is the binary between efforts at social control, on the one hand, and the dissipation of resources through forcing the state apparatus to spend precious time and effort documenting the behavior and thought of Iraq’s citizenry when such effort would have been much more effective if devoted to the ongoing war with Iran.
Indeed, in the early years of the Iran-Iraq War, the Ba‘thist regime’s efforts were directed as much at the home front as in...