Breadth and depth of carnage in the Gulf
There is no higher praise for a war historian than calling their work Thucydidean. Pierre Razoux’s history of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) deserves such praise. It has three Thucydidean characteristics: it is remarkably dispassionate about the protagonists in the conflict; the author is meticulous in describing military operations year after year; and he situates the war in a larger geopolitical and historical perspective.
The conflict — the 20th century’s longest conventional war — is depicted as having not only immediate causes but roots in several centuries of territorial disputes. Moreover, its implications for both Middle Eastern security and global power rivalries are put into judicious perspective.
The book includes 30 detailed military maps, making it comparable to The Landmark Thucydides edited by Robert B. Strassler and published in 1996, which throws considerable light on the dense text by inserting many detailed maps of the theatres of operation. Razoux and his editors have done us all a great service by also including so many maps. They enable the reader to follow closely what would otherwise quite often be a bewildering description of terrain and military manoeuvres.
The cost of this conflict was enormous, not least because nothing was gained by either side. The total financial cost to Iraq is estimated at $US452 billion; that to Iran $US645bn. The opportunity costs of such immense expenditure, of course, were incalculable. The war deaths totalled about 180,000 in Iraq (including 50,000 Iraqi Kurds) and a stunning 500,000 Iranians. But there were also the wounded and maimed: about 520,000 in Iraq and 1,300,000 in Iran. There were relatively few civilian deaths: about 5000 in Iraq and 10,000 in Iran. Moreover, Razoux makes clear that both states were exhausted by the end of the war’s second year, but Iran refused every overture for a settlement until, by July 1988 it was on its knees.
From the outset, Razoux exhibits a masterly savoir faire in assessing the interests and the actions of the protagonists, from major states to Gulf emirates, and from international statesmen to military officers in Iraq, or clerics and politicians in Iran. He never condescends or engages in gratuitous moralising.
On several occasions he addresses charges regarding American actions or motives, and shows the charges to be unwarranted. Yet, where error or incompetence occurred, he forensically exposes it. This is notably the case with the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 in July 1988. He describes the event in minute detail, demonstrating that the fault lay neither with Washington nor the Iranians, but with the arrogance and haste of Captain William Rogers, commander of the USS Vincennes.
Occasionally, Razoux’s French background leaps out at the reader. He likens Saddam Hussein’s invasion of revolutionary Iran in September 1980 to the Prussian invasion of France in September 1792, the unexpected French victory at the Battle of Valmy and the quickening of the radical revolution that followed. In their political styles and roles, he likens Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to Maximilien Robespi-
HE LIKENS ALI KHAMENEI TO ROBESPIERRE AND RAFSANJANI TO DANTON
erre, who was heavily involved in the French Revolution and Reign of Terror; and former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to French revolutionary leader Georges Danton. Unlike Danton, of course, Rafsanjani was not guillotined by the Iranian Robespierre; but the psychological parallels are apt enough in other respects (though only a French historian is likely to have thought of them).
Saddam, having opportunistically and recklessly started the war and having tried for years from 1982 to end it, actually won in the end. It was a Pyrrhic victory, to be sure; but there is no doubt that Iraq fought the war both resourcefully and successfully. In the final months, an Iraqi army that was four times as large as it had been at the beginning of the war, better armed and battle-hardened, routed the demoralised Iranian forces and forced Tehran to yield. Not the least impressive aspect of Razoux’s history is