"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"As many as one million civilian Iraqis died in the conflict's first three to five years."
Twenty years on, the legacy of the Iraq war is a complex and ongoing issue with various political, economic, and social ramifications. Some of the most commonly cited problems include the loss of life, the destabilisation of the region, and the rise of terrorist groups like ISIS.
The war also had huge financial costs, with estimates ranging from $2 trillion to $6 trillion. Wider impacts include geopolitical repercussions, including strained diplomatic relationships and international tensions. While the profound personal cost of the war on individual veterans and their families, as well as on Iraqi society, is still felt today.
Estimates of Iraqi deaths vary, but some studies suggest that as many as one million civilian Iraqis died in the conflict's first three to five years. Yet, it's important to note that the exact number of deaths is difficult to determine. Different sources may use other methods and definitions of a "war-related death."
Meanwhile, the dislocation of Iraqi society has been long-lasting, with ongoing effects on public health, infrastructure, and political stability.
Research points to increased child mortality due to disrupted medical services, and five million orphaned kids. Without parents and stable communities, each of those kids is vulnerable to radicalisation.
The war, especially its initiation, did immeasurable damage to trust in Western politicians, the intelligence services and the integrity of the media. Few journalists bothered to question the narrative fed from Bush, Blair and others, despite deep suspicions. Hence, last year when the U.S. warned of a pending invasion of Ukraine, many commentators expressed reservations given the legacy of misinformation and the mistrust.
While historians and policymakers still debate the causes of the war, at the core are some simple facts. After the 9/11 attack, the U.S. was keen to end potential threats citing claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Thus, the invasion occurred as part of the George W. Bush administration's war on terror.
Other factors included the desire to promote democracy and stability in the region and to end the rule of Saddam Hussein. Some critics have pointed to other matters, such as the desire to secure access to Iraq's oil reserves, contributing to the decision to go to war.
We now know that the WMDs didn't exist. Moreover, the region is now less stable, and while Saddam Hussein did fall, his departure ignited long-suppressed tribal strife. That rumbles on.
It is now acknowledged that the intelligence about Iraq's WMD capabilities was wrong. Prime Minister Tony Blair led the U.K. to join the war based on an “intelligence dossier” produced by his spin doctor Alastair Campbell. This document suggested that Saddam Hussein could deploy chemical weapons within 45 minutes without warning. The newspapers immediately ran stories that Saddam could hit the U.K. It was all nonsense.
Much later, the Chilcot inquiry cleared Campbell of "sexing up" intelligence to make a case for war in Iraq. While the report was critical of the intelligence gathering and decision-making process leading up to the war, it did not find evidence of intentional deception or manipulation by Campbell. Still, many remain deeply sceptical of Campbell’s actions.
Foreign Office experts tried to warn Blair of the likely disastrous consequences of an invasion, which he dismissed with the words, “That’s all history. This is about the future.” Jack Chirac, the French president, who'd served in the military, reminded Blair of the horrors of wars, asking if Blair realised that the invasion might precipitate a civil war. In his arrogance, enabled by a spineless cabinet and a gullible press pack, Blair pressed on.
The war proper ran from 2003 until the last troops withdrew in 2011. But, the United States became re-involved in 2014 as an insurgency threatened the post-invasion Iraqi government. It was soon obvious that U.S. having invaded didn’t know what to do next as disorder escalated, with any thoughts of “nation building" relegated in the face of violence.
These days Iraq remains unstable. There’s also a high threat of kidnapping throughout the country, with terrorist and militant groups active in most areas.
The answer to whether the invasion of Iraq was worth it is a matter of ongoing debate. For sure, the war had a significant impact on the standing of the West and the United States. The use of flawed intelligence to justify the war and the later failure to find WMDs eroded trust. The war also fueled anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and beyond.
Clearly, neither Bush nor Blair fully comprehended the risks faced by invading, nor did they give serious thought to what came next. Blinded by passion and hubris, they went in and soon prevailed on the battlefield. Yet, that was the easy bit.
This anniversary will be taken by many as an opportunity to reflect on questions of a legitimate intervention. Comparisons will inevitably be made to the situation in Ukraine today, comparisons which make it all the more important to remember the real lessons of the 2003 war in Iraq.
The costs of war are immense, and never just material, while the consequences are unpredictable. Nations can win the war, but still forfeit peace
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.