The number of American troops in Vietnam peaked in 1969. Twenty years later, Born On the Fourth of July, which dramatised the maiming and political awakening of one soldier, came out. Even after Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, even after the protest songs of Edwin Starr and Creedence Clearwater Revival, artists weren’t done with the subject.
Now consider the Iraq war. Twenty years on, its cultural footprint consists of . . . what? The Hurt Locker? A sub-theme in some passable novels?
Yes, US casualties were far higher in Vietnam. Yes, a conscript war scars a society in a way that an all-volunteer one can’t. But Iraq was easily the most controversial war fought by a western state in the past half-century. It set citizen against citizen in Britain and Germany as much as in the US (no European nation participated in Vietnam). Those who lived through it might have assumed it would mark our culture for a generation: that pro and antiwar would become signifiers of one’s wider worldview, even one’s tastes, as Leave and Remain now are in the UK. Instead, it is often an ordeal to persuade the young what a saga it all was.
And that, I think, is what makes this 20th anniversary so eerie. At least within the western world, the Iraq war has left little trace.
It didn’t shake politics. Some leaders fell (José María Aznar of Spain). Others were re-elected long after the occupation soured (George W Bush and Tony Blair). But there was no systemic change. How a politician acted over the war soon faded as a test of their patriotism, or judgment, or anything. The current US president voted for it. So did each UK prime minister since 2003 bar the last two, who weren’t MPs at the time. Had these leaders voted the other way, it wouldn’t have stopped their ascent.
At the margins, Donald Trump’s pledge to end the “forever wars” might have helped him in 2016. But it is hopeless to attribute the populism of recent times to some post-Iraq disenchantment with elites. Populists do well in France, which stayed out of the war. The Tea Party loathed Barack Obama, who opposed it. If anything soiled the good name of the governing class, it was the 2008 financial crash.
Did the war at least bring a lasting change in foreign policy, if not to personnel? It is hard to identify one. There has been no Iraq version of Vietnam syndrome: no reluctance to use or threaten hard power. By 2011, the west was engaged in Libya. France spent nine years in the Sahel. Vast troop deployments are harder to imagine, true. But the idea isn’t unspeakable in the public square. Joe Biden suggests, again and again, that America would defend Taiwan, which it doesn’t recognise as a state and isn’t formally obliged to protect.
It is possible, I suppose, to string together a case that its agonies in Iraq unnerved and abashed the US, which made it underreact to Russia’s actions in Georgia, Crimea and Syria, which emboldened the Kremlin and which led to the present war in Ukraine. But we are piling assumption on heroic assumption here, in a chain of causation stretching two decades.
Even in the narrow field of military doctrine, the change wrought by the Iraq experience (and the Afghanistan one) turned out to be fleeting. Who now, as Ukraine fights for its life, and the US and China tool up, thinks that conventional interstate wars are passé? Who will pen an op-ed to the effect that counter-insurgency and “asymmetry” are all?
There is an intellectual lesson here, on the impossibility of knowing the significance of an event at the time. The Covid-19 outbreak was going to transform cities, air travel, even personal manners. I now keep having to be reminded that it happened. The Iraq war, another life and death matter, isn’t so forgettable, if only because it was a choice: an act of commission. But were we to rank the discrete events of the century so far by their effect on the west, it comes well below the crash. And the elevation of Xi Jinping. And, though the point is that we can’t yet know, the Ukraine war.
For Iraq itself, the consequences of the war haven’t stopped playing out. For the wider region, the secondary effects include the rise of Isis and a stronger hand for Iran. In the countries that nominally started it, though, the war has left a fainter mark — politically, culturally — than was conceivable at the time. It is an event that now seems at once profound and ethereal. As a reminder that it happened at all, we have these neat, round-number anniversaries, and the graves.