Breadth and depth of car­nage in the Gulf

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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-


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

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