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  • The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History Williamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods
  • W. Andrew Terrill (bio)
The Iran-Iraq War: A Military and Strategic History, by Williamson Murray and Kevin M. Woods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 397 pages. $29.99.

Williamson Murray and Kevin Woods have produced an exceptionally detailed and valuable book on the military dimensions of the Iran-Iraq War. This work has many positive aspects, but its most unique feature is the extensive use of previously unavailable captured Iraq documents. Significant numbers of such documents were seized during the US-led invasion in 2003, and were made available to the authors. The Iran-Iraq War therefore draws on a rich array of once-secret Iraqi information, including the verbatim dialogue of the participants in a number of high-level meetings. This study also references a few Iranian internal government documents that apparently fell into Iraqi hands and were later seized by the US military. Additionally, Murray and Woods make exhaustive use of previously published primary and secondary sources on the war. At times, the authors’ narrative tilts a bit toward internal Iraqi activities because their sources on that country are so much better than those for the Iranians. This is a predictable problem, and the authors have done everything one can reasonably expect by drawing as much as possible from those Iranian sources that are available. The book is also rooted in a solid understanding of military strategy and operations and how things can go wrong in modern combat.

Throughout the book, Murray and Woods display an excellent understanding of the Saddam Husayn regime and Iraqi history. Their work explains how Saddam’s personality and prejudices informed the Iraqi approach to the war and the ways in which his initially shallow understanding of modern warfare led to a number of problems and unrealistic expectations. The new material provided also strongly enhances scholarly understanding of some previously well-known aspects of the war. Particularly interesting are the Iraqi intelligence service reports on the chaotic state of Iranian military forces and their government just prior to the Iraqi invasion. Saddam entered the war believing that it would end quickly on Iraqi terms and that the government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would fall from power as a result. This judgement was very much supported by his intelligence organizations, which were hindered by the normal problems of working under a dictator who did not respond well to bad news or disagreement. Additionally, these organizations were further handicapped by a lack of prewar focus on Iran. This neglect occurred in the apparent belief that Iraqi expeditionary forces would eventually go to war with Israel again, as limited numbers of them had in the October 1973 war. The authors note that many Iraqi intelligence officers had been required to learn Hebrew, but very few spoke Persian.

In September 1980 Saddam invaded Iran believing his forces were “quantitatively and qualitatively superior” to those of Tehran (p. 95). Nevertheless, the opening phases of the war highlighted the incompetence of both armies as well as the Iraqi Air Force. Only the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force did well in this phase due to its US-trained pilots and modern US aircraft purchased by Mohammad Reza Shah (for when it was the Imperial Iranian Air Force). Initially, poor operational planning hampered both sides, but at least many of the Iranian forces displayed a strong will to fight. By contrast, Saddam was disappointed by the Iraqi forces’ lack of motivation and tendency to collapse under pressure. Saddam also received a rude awakening over the brutal fighting in and around the Iranian city of Khorramshahr early in the war, which indicated that the Iranian state was not a hollow shell, as he had previously believed. As his problems multiplied, the Iraqi dictator realized that without some drastic changes he could be defeated by the Iranians, who planned to place him on trial as a war criminal. By 1982, a large part of the Iraqi Army had been destroyed, while the regime began to experience serious political unrest at home. Saddam could no longer afford a military led by incompetent cronies who performed...


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pp. 168-169
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