A Warrior of the British Army's Black Watch Battle Group in Iraq, 2004

More than a year after ‘winning’ the Iraq war, these British soldiers from Black Watch Battle Group were operating in south-central Iraq in support of US forces. (Photo credit: CC-BY-SA mashleymorgan, Flickr)

The day after I got my call up papers for the Iraq War I had a briefing to give.  Still in civvies, in my role as a military academic, I stood up in front of the general in charge of the British Army’s doctrine and development.  I predicted that the invasion of Iraq would be much like the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  There would be a rapid victory enabled by the British and American armies’ immersion in German and Israeli doctrine of combined arms manoeuvre.  Then there would follow a period of years in which we would fight a harsh counterinsurgency against the very Iraqis who had welcomed us as liberators. A few days later I kissed my young daughter goodbye and got on a train for war.  That was ten years ago.  We have learned something from our mistakes  The evidence? We are not eager to intervene in Syria.  Using armed force to achieve policy aims is an uncertain business, and perhaps we’ll remember that for a generation. Iraq was not an heroic war for me.  I spent the war as a staff officer so far in the rear that I was spending euros.  But, as we did our pre-deployment training, I found myself answering questions from the lance-corporals and corporals around me about why we’d been mobilised.

I explained that we were fighting a war to get rid of a dictator depraved enough to put his enemies alive through mincing machines. I reminded them about the films we had seen about the gassing of the Kurdish population of Hallabja.

We hadn’t gone on to Baghdad in 1991 because that would have involved total war with an Iraq fighting to preserve itself as a state.  I quoted Dick Cheney:

If you’re going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?

Now, I told the chaps and chapesses, the Americans’ eagerness for a fight meant that the passion of their people could support the harsh business of destroying and rebuilding Iraq. When they asked what this had to do with 9/11 and Al Qaeda I said it was a completely different issue.  The American passion to act against Saddam by undertaking total war in Iraq came from 9/11, but Saddam Hussein was a control freak who preferred to sponsor terrorists he could control.  He was a state sponsor of terror, but nothing to do with bin Laden.

Those of us in the rear pined for assignments in Iraq.  We knew that this was our one chance at fighting a war, and we wanted a chance to do it.  Most of the lance-corporals and corporals I was mobilised with signed on for a second tour and spent their time in Iraq with sand on their boots.

The Qadisiya Swords in Baghdad

This was supposed to be the finish line. (Photo Credit: CC-BY Jeremy Weate, Flickr)

Soon after I had returned from my mobilisation I gave a lecture in Germany to the officers of a brigade about to go out to Iraq.  They had largely been told that they were going to conduct a peace support operation.  They expected to spend a lot of time patrolling with berets on and rifles slung, handing sweets out to children. Make no mistake, I told them, the people of Iraq hate you.  They are convinced that we British are simultaneously manipulating the Americans and Israelis, and being manipulated by the Americans and Israelis.  They will do their utmost to get rid of us as soon as they can. Over coffee, a cavalry colonel buttonholed me.  He had spent a great deal of time with Arabs, he said.  He knew them well.  They were lovely people and they loved the British.  They would have him in for a cup of tea and a sticky cake at every opportunity.  I was wrong to think they hated us.

Sharing watermelon between Jews and Arabs in the 'Between Green and Red' Festival, Jerusalem

Arabs are polite and hospitable. That doesn’t mean they welcome British invaders. (photo credit: Hamutal Wachtel)

I told him that the Arabs are lovely people, with a very fine sense of hospitality.  They would consider it the height of bad manners to tell him that they wanted rid of him.  They hosted him, they gave him sweet infusions of nana and cups of thick cardamom coffee and they expressed their love for the British because they were polite.  They were not, however, foolish enough to forget that the way we had gripped the mandate of Iraq in 1920 or the way we had abandoned the Basrawis and Marsh Arabs in 1991.  I wished him the best of luck commanding his regiment in Basra.

We had, at that moment, a prime minister who was willing to send an army off to fight a war because it was the right thing to do.  It was Gladstonian.  It was Churchillian.  The Americans were being taken to war by a shaved chimp who was unclear on a lot of concepts, but we had the privilege of setting out to do the right thing. Where we were wrong was in the assumption, common among policy makers, that the thought is the deed.  In conceiving a war to depose Saddam Hussein our policy makers assumed a linear connection between their intent, the resources at their disposal and the result they wanted.

Saddam Hussein being fitted for a noose

Hanging Saddam was supposed to lead to victory. (Photo credit: CC-BY SA Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, Flickr)

It is this illusory line between the concept and the success of the concept that tempted Menachem Begin into Lebanon in 1982, and in not seeing the Israeli exemplar Mr Blair replicated the experience.

Mr Blair is routinely referred to by his detractors as a war criminal, but this is absurd.  He is not and was not a war criminal in any meaningful sense.  He sought to use his armed forces as a force for good in the world, he sought to depose a murderous despot, and he had every expectation of success.  He probably did not understand how destructive war could be.  He certainly did not understand the nonlinear nature of war.  In that, however, he is unremarkable among the leaders of nations at the turn of the Milennium, the age of Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.

Poster of Tony Blair,

Absence of malice: Tony Blair took us to war for a good reason, but without understanding the implications (Photo credit: CC-BY eddiedangerous, Flickr)

Blair came of age watching the horrific effects of inaction in Cambodia.  His military and strategic experience was limited to minor adventures and bombing Serbia from a great height.  For him inaction was the same as appeasement, and an invitation to yet another genocide.  His senior military advisors, grasping for relevance, were institutionally incapable of recommending against action.  Military action seemed the best way to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Abe Lincoln, now a fashionable figure with his Spielbergian backlighting, taught himself strategy to enable himself to function as a war leader.  Dubya Bush had War College-trained strategists in and out of uniform.  Blair was amply provided with policy advice and tactical nous, but he had no strategy resources.

Bashar Assad, informal, with supporters and a Syrian flag around his neck

Bashar Assad, supported by people who’d rather be downtrodden than Iraqi. (Photo credit: CC-BY FreedomHouse2, Flickr)

All of this has shaped Syria’s misery today.  The Iraqi refugees who flooded Syria ten years ago represented a clear message:  stability is better than freedom.  Electricity ’round the clock is better than human rights.  Clean water and working sewers are more important than democracy.  That message was received by Syrians who have, to a great extent, been content not to join the opposition to Bashar Assad.  Without that message Assad’s regime would not be as durable as it is today.

Smashing a regime and destroying a government is comparatively simple.  Creating civil society is a labour-intensive, resource-intensive hit-and-miss process.  We who left Basra in the hands of the Jaysh al-Mahdi are not going to rush to be the police force in Aleppo.  Bashar prospers from our mistakes. Being in the right was not enough.  What we should have learned before we kicked Iraq to bits is that in any complicated effort, results will not match your intent, and war is possibly the most complicated effort humans ever undertake.  It’s hard to learn from others’ mistakes, but if you don’t try hard you will make the same mistakes yourself.  We did.