The Iraq War

James P. Gates

The Iraq War by John Keegan. Alfred A. Knopf ( html), 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019, 2004, 255 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).

John Keegan is the latest military historian to enter the fray and publish an “immediate history” of the Iraq war. Although such history can never stand as the final word on an event, it can prove useful by providing background in the context of the time during which the event takes place, and, in terms of outlining the sequence of events, it can ultimately serve as a starting point for further study. The Iraq War does all of these things very well–although some better than others–and offers a unique, if brief, history of the second Gulf War.

Where does one begin a book on the Iraq war? Keegan starts with the Ottomans, brings us forward through the creation of modern Iraq after World War I, and then provides a discussion of Saddam Hussein’s rise to power. Although this may seem excessive at first glance, his argument offers an interesting contrast to most discussions published thus far and gives the reader some much-needed context and background of America’s latest war.

Of particular interest is Keegan’s discussion of the rise of extremist Islam. Until the fourteenth century, Islam–or at least Islam under the Ottoman Turks–was arguably the most enlightened society in the world, outside of China. Unfortunately for Islam, and perhaps the West as well, Muslim religious leaders closed their collective minds to intellectual development, stressing religious study instead. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after 1918, a perversion of Islam emerged which emphasized that the faithful seek ultimate worldwide triumph through strict adherence to Muhammad’s teachings, including violent action against the nonbeliever–a view bound to lead to confrontation with the West. In one of his key insights, Keegan recognizes that, in a sense, the terror war had been germinating in the heart and soul of Islam long before 11 September 2001.

After his brief history of Iraq, Keegan discusses the lead-up to the war. According to him, after the first Gulf War in 1991, the neoconservatives, as they would come to be known (including Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Richard Perle, among others), advocated seizing the “American moment”–the opportunity to change the world for the better. This philosophy emphasized three basic premises: (1) preemptive attacks on nations that might threaten the United States, especially with weapons of mass destruction–a course of action that would probably entail bypassing the United Nations; (2) a belief that historically tribal people and those led by autocrats could become “politically enlightened and economically prosperous” (p. 97); and (3) a belief in a democratic domino effect–that is, once one nation in a region transformed into a democratic, free-market state, neighboring countries would follow suit. Much of America may not be aware that our strategy of unilateralism, “democratic imperialism,” and preemption started not in 2002 but in 1992.

The Clinton years sidelined this plan, but with the advent of George W. Bush’s presidency, the neoconservatives were determined to implement their strategy. The 9/11 attacks provided the needed pretext. In fact, Bush became interested in regime change as early as December 2001. After the fall of the Taliban, the administration turned its attention to Saddam even though Keegan believes that the links between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime were tenuous at best. Unfortunately for Saddam, the United States did not differentiate between religious terrorists and dictators. The author does not present this information in a condemning tone; in fact, he believes that the world is better off with Saddam out and with a US and British presence in Iraq. Furthermore, he notes that it took political courage for President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in the face of world opposition. His presentation is a matter-of-fact examination of the changes in US strategy from containment to offensive exportation of our governmental system. This fascinating examination of the background and prewar context is Keegan’s strength, leaving the reader well versed in the climate leading up to the start of combat operations.

I find the remainder of the book, however, somewhat less satisfying. Keegan moves briskly through the American and then the British portions of the war with enough anecdotes to whet the reader’s appetite but fails to delve deeply into the strategy and tactics of the different forces. For example, the book insufficiently examines either the failure of the Apache attack helicopters of the Army’s 11th Aviation Regiment as opposed to fixed-wing airpower, or the amazing speed and flexibility of the US and British armies. The bottom line is that even though Keegan offers adequate treatment of the actions, readers interested in a battle narrative or deeper discussion of airpower’s contribution should examine other works, such as The Iraq War: A Military History by Williamson Murray and retired general Robert H. Scales.

Keegan’s book will not be the last word on the war, nor is it intended to be. Instead, in 255 pages, The Iraq War serves up a concise, current history of the conflict. It is a good starting point for those of us who want to learn more about the war’s background in the context of the time it occurred.

Lt Col James P. Gates, USAF

Woodbridge, Virginia

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Air Force

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group