The Throwback War
Your March issue contains the article “The Throwback War: Iran vs. Iraq,” by Robert M. Citino, a very well written and informative article that I greatly enjoyed reading. Citino seeks to establish that war as a relic of the past, not only tactically but ideologically as well, stating, “The use of an ancient faith to mobilize the Iranian people harks back to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries or, further still, to the Crusades.” While mobilizing forces on the basis of faith indeed has centuries-old origins, and such strategy arguably took a bit of a break during the era of nation-states, in recent decades we have undoubtedly seen a revival in ideological fervor motivating armies across the globe. Therefore, instead of viewing the Iran-Iraq War as a throwback in terms of ideology, we could look at it as a harbinger, one of the early examples of the return of the ideological struggles that characterized the wars of the past and foretold the wars of our times. In this sense the 1980–88 conflict was not behind its time, but rather ahead of it.
Floral Park, N.Y.
Kudos to Robert Citino and Military History for his outstanding article on an important conflict which so many know so little about. Citino is to be congratulated on his scholarship and analysis.
However, after being a part of President Ronald Reagan’s effort to use Iraq as a surrogate against the greater threat of Iran, I cannot agree with Citino’s conclusions regarding the effect of that conflict on U.S. security and key national interests, or his lessons for today’s generation.
Reagan had a keen understanding of geopolitical strategies, including the objective of securing U.S. and Western security interests in the Gulf—a fundamental tenet of U.S. foreign policy that stretched back to World War II. That objective was first underwritten by our best ally, Great Britain, and then, after it departed the region, by the shah of Iran. When the shah fell during the Jimmy Carter administration, and the radical Iranian government essentially declared war on the United States by seizing our embassy and holding our diplomats hostage for 444 days, it fell to the Reagan administration to rectify the situation and reassert U.S. influence in the area.
Reagan reached back to the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—clearly the last president before himself that had a deep understanding of the notion that superpower leaders use allies and surrogates before their own combat power is wastefully thrown at every situation on the planet that the superpower does not like. So, in the same vein in which Roosevelt used an objectionable Joseph Stalin against a greater threat of Fascism and Nazism in World War II, so Reagan planned to use an objectionable Saddam Hussein against the greater and clear-and-present threat of radical Iran in the early 1980s.
There followed the unfortunate mistakes of the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad and a lack of attention to detail on the part of the George H.W. Bush administration. As a result, America fought two unnecessary, high-cost and wasteful wars against the wrong enemy in the region. If we had kept Saddam in power as an ally—one who admittedly needed to be watched and controlled—his Iraq would be facing off against a dangerous common Iranian enemy instead of U.S. forces and, to a lesser extent, Israeli forces.
That is the lesson to be learned from the past 30 years of conflict in the Persian Gulf. Superpower leaders can afford to be wrong occasionally—they can never afford to be naive.
Colonel Wayne Long
U.S. Army (Ret.)
Rob Citino responds: I agree with Colonel Long that the perfect is often the enemy of the good in foreign policy. Diplomacy is a messy business, and it has to work it-self out in a complex mix of ideals and hardheaded policies. So it was with using Saddam Hussein against Iran, throwing one bad regime against a worse one.
At that point, however, I have to disagree respectfully with Long’s arguments. I find it hard to believe that U.S. foreign policy—made now in the clear light of the international media, split-second communications and Facebook—could have been nimble enough to “keep Saddam in power as an ally” for over a decade, while simultaneously watching and controlling him. Who would have “controlled” Saddam from invading Kuwait?
My own take: Superpowers can never afford to be naive, but they should be wary of being too clever. I think arming Saddam was an example of the latter.
[Re. “What We Learned From Gallipoli,” by Anthony Brandt, March:] The United States also learned from Gallipoli. The Army Corps of Engineers used the results of this operation to justify asking for appropriations for coastal defenses. The agency told its oversight committee, the House Committee on Military Affairs, that the Turkish repulse of modern British and French land and naval forces showed that this type of defense, if upgraded, could defend the coasts of the United States. The committee accepted this argument and approved the corps’ request for funds.
The Marine Corps during the same session of Congress also discussed Gallipoli with its oversight committee, the House Committee on Naval Affairs. The Corps argued that by studying the lessons of Gallipoli and receiving more money from Congress, it could develop a modern amphibious force that could successfully land on defended beaches. The committee accepted this argument and approved its request for funds.
Martin K. Gordon
Adjunct Professor of History
University of Maryland University College
I am contacting you to alert you to an error in the January 2013 issue of Military History. On P. 35 [“Facing the Tigers,” by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck] the map shows a 21 SS PZ DIV near Carpiquet Airfield. I can find no reference to justify the identity of such a unit.
Editor responds: During the editing process we inadvertently transposed the number of that unit. Elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend were present during the fight for the airfield. We regret the error.
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