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Book Review: The Iran-Iraq War

By (December 2, 2015) No Comment

The Iran-Iraq Warthe iran-iraq war

by Pierre Razoux

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015

Parisian think-tank director Pierre Razoux has combed through piles of documents and miles of annals in order to tell the first long, comprehensive history of the Iran-Iraq War, the longest conventional land-war of the 20th century and, as Razoux points out, the last major engagement of the Cold War. But our author has suffered one labor further in his efforts to make a definitive work: he’s consulted the audiotape recordings Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had made of virtually every word he spoke while in power, which he created, as Razoux puts it, “to leave a record allowing Iraqi historians to glorify his major decisions after his death, but also to keep his deputies and ministers under surveillance.” The tedium of listening to such tapes – or even reading their translated transcripts – is practically cause for awarding a croix de guerre.

This assiduous dedication pays off on every page of Razoux’s book, which is the best, most authoritative history of the Iran-Iraq War yet written in English.

Razoux follows a straightforward chronological approach, beginning his account with the steadily-escalating border skirmishes that eventually give rise to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in September of 1980. With the aid of the book’s first-rate maps, Razoux unfolds the story of Iraq’s early victories, retrenchment, and then the long, bloody slogging-match that followed until peace was imposed in 1988. The book’s sober, evaluative tone is rippled by only one persistent tic, perhaps a faint echo of Stockholm Syndrome from enduring all those audiotapes (or perhaps, more disturbingly, simply this writer’s objective assessment of the facts): the central figure of the conflict, Saddam Hussein, is virtually never portrayed as the outright villain and psychopathic madman he was later made out to be by an Anglo-American press corps eager to create a dramatic through-line for a quite different Iraqi war. Instead of this simplistic grinning devil, Razoux gives us a complex grinning devil, a man to whom he unsettlingly attributes “an astonishing ability to listen.” In the war of wills between the so-called “Butcher of Baghdad” and Tehran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein always comes out the more intriguing – even attractive – figure in Razoux’s account … not terribly stiff competition, but even so.

Since the war very quickly became an interloper’s paradise of gun-running, arms deals, and shadow-puppeteering, Razoux’s account very often strays far from the sands of the Shatt-al-Arab. Saddam Hussein’s reaction to the sordid revelations of the Iran-contra scandal, for instance, in which he learned that his putative ally the United States was selling arms and equipment to his enemies. In this as in all other incidents during the war, Razoux consults the tapes:

In Baghdad Saddam Hussein fulminated against the Americans, accusing them of double-dealing. He called Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld every name under the sun, as can be heard on the audiotapes that systematically recorded all of his conversations. In late 1985 he grew even more furious when he learned that Washington had given Tehran satellite images showing detailed Iraqi military deployment along the front, which had helped Iran capture the al-Faw peninsula. Yet the Iraqi president remained pragmatic. He knew that for the time being he had to tread softly with the White House, since the Kremlin appeared to be moving away from him and the Europeans were objecting to selling him arms, using his country’s insolvency as a pretext. Ever the shrewd politician, he decided to make his American interlocutors feel guilty by asking them to increase their financial assistance and technical cooperation.

Likewise the incident in May of 1987, when an Iraqi war jet flew off-course, ignored challenges, and launched two Exocet missiles into the USS Stark, killing 37 crew members. Washington was naturally furious and demanded explanations, and the Iraqi dictator fulsomely apologized to all and sundry, claiming the attack was a pure and simple accident. Razoux’s analysis of incidents like this is reassuringly balanced on an understanding of human nature:

While all the evidence now indicates that the attack on the frigate Stark was a mistake, it remains unclear whether the incident was voluntary or accidental. While Saddam Hussein certainly had several reason to be angry at the America [sic] administration, none of the recorded conversations he had with his general give any indication of a plot … Every Iraqi general questioned since the dictator’s fall has confirmed that the attack was an accident, though it would have cost them nothing to accuse Saddam Hussein after his death.

As for the possibility that Saddam Hussein gave the order to hit the Stark but lied – convincingly – to his generals and left the whole thing off his infamous audiotapes, well, all big volumes of history such as this one have grip-holds for contention. That’s a large part of their end worth.

The end worth of the war itself is of course something no writer in Razoux’s place can avoid assessing. Some of the assessments that close out this book will settle uneasily with lawmakers in Washington, especially Razoux’s contention that the current Iranian regime (forged almost to a man in the fires of the war he’s just chronicled) is “perfectly rational and pragmatic and thoroughly understands the notions of ratio of power and deterrence.” And one other key conclusion can’t help but read heavy with unintended irony:

The Iranian government also remains careful with its money. It is aware that many states are prepared to buy its oil, or even sell it weapons, but none are ready to lend it money. In other words, economic war – now referred to as “economic sanctions” – works with Tehran.

Those economic sanctions were lifted while Razoux’s book was being printed. Here’s hoping neither his nor anybody else’s services are required for chronicling a future war because of it.