ARGUMENT: IRAQ REFLECTIONSIraq: Twenty Years On, Two Narratives Emerge

Published 18 April 2023

Twenty years on, discussions of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq offer two distinct yet incongruent narratives. Most, if not all, veterans of “Iraqi Freedom” tell an inward-facing story focusing on tactical and operational “lessons” largely devoid of political context. Meanwhile, Iraqi scholars and civilians look at the political and social upheaval, concentrating far more on the costs of war than on the supposed benefits of U.S. interventionism.

Gregory Daddis recently participated in a retrospective symposium marking the 20th anniversary of the American war in Iraq. The conference, hosted by Columbus State University and the National Infantry Museum, brought to the newly renamed Fort Moore, Georgia a diverse assembly of panelists. Daddis, a historian and veteran, presented alongside a currently serving U.S. Army officer, an Iraqi interpreter, veterans of America’s armed forces, a Gold Star spouse (and veteran herself), regional scholars from Iraq and the Iraqi diaspora, cultural anthropologists, military historians, and even a former Army vice chief of staff.

Daddis writes in War on the Rocks:

Despite this variety of experiences and opinions, two distinct yet incongruent narratives emerged. Most, if not all, veterans of “Iraqi Freedom” told an inward-facing story focusing on tactical and operational “lessons” largely devoid of political context. Meanwhile, Iraqi scholars and civilians shared a vastly different tale of political and social upheaval that concentrated far more on the costs of war than on the supposed benefits of U.S. interventionism. If these two narratives are allowed to harden in the years to come, historians will never be able to fully make sense of one of the most momentous and tragic wars of the early 21st century. Instead, the challenge remains in reconciling them in order to understand what happened in Iraq during and after the 2003 invasion.  

The contested history of the American war in Vietnam, which I have focused on in my own research, provides a way forward. After Vietnam, far too many veterans and scholars waited for decades before sharing their stories with each other. The symposium I attended demonstrates the benefits of having more candid discussions between civilians and veterans sooner rather than later. The result of these efforts will be a more comprehensive history that draws together the views of soldiers and civilians, of Americans and Iraqis, and of the political and the military.

Daddis concludes:

Narratives, of course, help us to grapple with the past. But narratives of war that divorce the political from the military or the American from the “other” are bound to leave us with a distorted version of that past. Here, the experience of writing history about Vietnam offers a warning that suggests a more fruitful way forward. For decades, Americans reflecting on the war focused on their own tactical successes and strategic failures. Soldiers shared the travails of fighting against a determined yet phantom-like enemy, while senior officers habitually spoke of political missteps that led to defeat. Vietnamese voices far too often remained silent outside of scholarly circles. In short, we had to wait some 50-odd years for the two strands of narratives on the Vietnam War — American and Vietnamese — to finally start coming together and get us to a fuller appreciation of what actually happened.

Americans shouldn’t wait that long with Iraq, and don’t have to if they start bringing these diverse threads together now. Veterans and historians can instead follow this symposium’s example, replicating the inclusion of divergent voices in our storytelling and in our scholarship. Veterans should move beyond their exceptionalist narratives and actually talk to civilians and scholars, while civilians should stop mindlessly thanking veterans and actually engage with the complexity of their experiences. Historians, for their part, should actively seek conflicting sources that challenge our often-incomplete view of the world. Iraqi sources are just as important as American ones, just as Vietnamese sources were (and are) to our understanding of U.S. military interventions overseas. As the U.S. assault destroyed many Iraqi government archives, preserving sources that remain and making them more accessible takes on even greater importance. Finally, America’s collective effort to write the history of Iraq will only succeed when it is no longer beholden to those senior officers and policymakers who have a vested interest in selling the war as an American success story.

If we truly hope to gain perspective from the long American experience in Iraq and obtain more than just a checklist of military “lessons learned,” everyone involved will have to integrate our narratives of the war far more effectively and quickly than we have in the past.