[From a talk given in a symposium on the Iran-Iraq war, organized by The Committee for the Defence of the Democratic Rights of the Iranian People (CDDRIP) and held in New York on 8 September 1984.] 


I want to begin with some comparisons that highlight the fact that this war is special in many ways. One way that has not been given due attention is with regards to its size. By any standards, the scale of the war bears comparison only with the most momentous events of our times. At a conservative estimate, some 300,000 people have been killed on the battlefield so far; other estimates put the casualties as high as 6-700,000. That means more dead in four years of the Iran-Iraq war than in the sum of all Arab-Israeli wars over the last forty years, inclusive of all the casualties of nine years of civil strife in Lebanon. There have been more refugees created by this war than by the formation of the state of Israel, and of course the economic devastation of both Iraq and Iran is of an order of magnitude far greater than anything caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Yet another way of comprehending the scale of this war is to compare it with a very different kind of epoch-making event – the Vietnamese war of national liberation, which, over some twenty years, resulted in over a million direct casualties.

These kinds of comparison draw our attention to two factors. First, there is the question of size, which is obviously coupled to that of the overall impact of the event on the populations of the two countries. The direct casualties of war are only the visible tip of a gigantic iceberg of pain and suffering which permeates not only the body politic, but every pore of a society’s being. This is obvious. But I have felt it necessary to repeat the obvious because there is a tendency to view this war as a somewhat peripheral event and with a certain degree of complacency, as if once the killing stops, life will simply go on as usual. This is not that kind of war, and such complacency (which is normally linked to overly optimistic prognoses of how soon the slaughter will stop) is not only misleading, but fails to see the true dimensions of what is a momentous event in the future of both countries.

The second aspect I want to draw your attention to concerns the important sense in which this war differs from all those to which I have compared it thus far. The Iraq-Iran war is the first total war within the Third World. This is not a colonial war, not an imperialist extension of some great power’s zone of influence; it is not an outcome of machinations by insidious outsiders, nor is it a proxy conflict. It is not, nor has it ever been, any of those things. This obvious fact by no means implies that other countries, whether from West or East, from this bloc or that, do not try cynically to take advantage of the fighting, or to find ways of profiting from the misery it has brought to the Iranian and Iraqi people. I take for granted that this is going on all the time in various forms. My point is that such moral cynicism, such international hypocrisy and double standards, are not intrinsic to the conflict, whether in its origins or in what has sustained it thus far at these levels of casualties.

The Iran-Iraq war is an event that Arabs and Iranians must come to terms with on the basis of the polities that they have created in the postcolonial age, and on the basis of their own histories and political traditions. We may not like the regimes that are leading us into this senseless slaughter, but they are the genuine, if unsavoury, offspring of our own societies. This places a new and different kind of responsibility on us, for this time at least we have no one to blame but ourselves.

So what kind of a war is this? What forces or laws sustain it in its murderous course? What is its essential nature? These are the questions that I will be dealing with.

Once again, however, let us start considering these difficult and painful questions by looking at what this war is not. This is not a war over possessions such as territory, or natural resources of wealth. It is not even a bid to gain influence over another society’s independently constituted state. The Iraqi Ba’th, and the Arab regimes that support the regime, would like to make us think that issues of this nature lie at the roots of the war. The Ba’th in particular has gone to great lengths to dress up its original aggression in such clothing. Learned professors in the West, and even [US] State Department analysts, have written whole books devoted to the history of a so-called ‘territorial’ dispute which, before 1975, hardly anyone inside Iraq knew existed.

It should not be necessary before an Iranian audience to have to refute in detail this line of argument. The very name of the war inside Iraq – Qadisiyyat Saddam – which is also the sense in which it is popularly conceived, points to the fact that territory is not, nor has it ever been, the main issue.1 Furthermore, if chunks of territory were really at issue – as they have been in all Arab-Israeli wars – then the war would have ended long ago, and the levels of casualties would have been much lower.

Khomeini, like the Ba’thist leadership, realize that this war is not about territory. At bottom that is why, so long as Khomeini is alive and determining policy, the so-called moderates amongst the clergy (who are receiving much attention in the press these days for their apparent willingness to compromise) will not prevail. This does not necessarily mean that the long-awaited ‘final offensive’ is going to materialize in the short term; it simply means that the termination of the war requires far more than a simple papering over of a few formalities about borders and ‘non-interference’ in each other’s affairs.

But then, we must ask, if not about territory, what is the killing all about? This question must be seen as made up of two separate parts. The first is: how did it start? The second stems from the realization that when an event of this magnitude is set in motion, for whatever reason, it takes on a life of its own, it begins to obey its own internally generated rules. It is not enough simply to identify what set the thing in motion, it is necessary to probe the logic of the event itself as it pursues its murderous course.

This rationale can derive from structures deep within a society’s most cherished traditions. When whole populations gear themselves up for an engagement of such traumatic consequence, they reach out for anything and everything that has gone into their own formation; they reach out to these deeply felt structures as weapons with which to defend themselves and push forward for victory. In different ways we have already seen this happen to both the people of Iraq and Iran. Once it begins to happen, however, the reasons that originally set this momentous event in motion diminish in significance. Half a million dead later, who gives a damn whose flag is flying from the boats that use the Shatt!

To return to the first part of my question: how did the war start? There can be no doubt that Iraq was not only the first to engage in large-scale hostilities, but also the first to conceive of the idea of total war against Iran. Preparations and planning were probably underway from the spring of 1980, and it is not unreasonable to establish the early part of this year as the date in which the idea first occurred to the Ba’thist leadership.

Notwithstanding propagandistic hyperbole from the new Iranian regime regarding the Ba’th, there can be no doubt that Iran was caught off guard when the invasion came on 22 September 1980. Whatever might be the long-term expansionist dynamic of Khomeinism, the regime was preoccupied at the time with the intense conflicts building up between the Islamic Republic Party and clerics on one side, and Bani Sadr and his supporters on the other. The hostage crisis was in full swing and internal tensions were escalating rapidly. Thus while both Iran and Iraq were certainly engaging in inflammatory accusations and border violations in the months preceding the invasion, the notion that these could be used as a pretext for broader aims was undoubtedly in its origins solely a Ba’thist one.

Why did the Ba’thist leadership, or more precisely such an absolute and ruthless leader as Saddam Hussein (in whose person an unprecedented degree of power has been concentrated since the purge of 1979), conceive of the idea of total war? Megalomania and regional ambition undoubtedly form part of the answer. Imagine the scene that might have been played in the summer of 1981 – date of the Non-Aligned Nations’ Conference, scheduled to be held in Baghdad since 1977. Consider the implications of a victorious Saddam Hussein, only recently host of the anti-Camp David Arab Summit in Baghdad, now receiving the mantle of Third World leadership from none other than Fidel Castro, and disposing of so-called Arab territory as the spoils from a fragmenting Iran. He would have been undisputed master of the Gulf, and the symbol of a new expanding regional power – a force to be reckoned with and feared from one end of the Arab world to the next. The only question would be: whom was he going to strike at next?

These are the dreams that we can reasonably imagine passing through his mind as he weighed up his options. A demonstrably successful projection of Ba’thist power, no matter how slight, would have catapaulted Saddam personally, and the Ba’thist movement in general, far beyond even Nasser’s regional status during the peak of his popularity in the wake of the 1956 tripartite aggression against Egypt. Here was a man out to make his own Suez, not by standing up to imperialist powers and Zionist aggression on Egyptian territory, but by himself taking the initiative to launch an aggression that would achieve all this and more, by breaking the spell of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The distance between 1956 and 1980 is the distance that separates one era’s colonial and expansionist wars from this new phenomenon that Saddam inaugurated – the Third World’s first truly indigenous great war. One must never forget to give even the devil his due. Moreover, Saddamism is as important a phenomenon to Iraqi politics, and Arab politics in general, as Khomeinism is to Iranian politics. It is a phenomenon rooted in violence, in the manipulation of the tools and means of violence to achieve expressly political ideals. Saddamism is not plain thuggery, as so many people mistakenly believe. This is not another Papa Doc or Idi Amin on the rampage. Saddamism represents something far more complex, and far more political.

To understand this phenomenon, one must go beyond the personal motivations of this individual, and delve into the broad societal preconditions that made such an unprecedented concentration of absolute power possible in Iraq. It is these pre-conditions that went into the formation of a man like Saddam Hussein, and that made it possible for him to act out his fantasies. Even more important, they are the very same preconditions that lie behind the answer to what is, for Iraqis at least, the single most important and agonizing question of the war: why has the Ba’thist regime not fallen, despite the great reversal of this war some three years ago? Why has Iraq’s overwhelmingly shi’i soldiery not defected; and why are the Iraqi people still willing to fight? How is it possible for a regime that so miscalculated in its original aggression, and that has cost its population such misery and hardship, to continue to survive apparently as strong as ever?

In Argentina, when the Galtieri military dictatorship went to war over a few islands, it was toppled after less than 1,000 Argentine soldiers had been killed. So how does the Ba’th survive in the wake of hundreds of thousands of dead, a devastated economy, and a four-year war it had originally assumed would end in less than two weeks? Even if the regime were to fall tomorrow, these questions would still be valid.

These are of course very difficult questions, and in the short time available to me, I can but suggest the direction I think our answers must take.

In the fifteen years of Ba’thist rule preceding the outbreak of total war against Iran, Iraqi society had been transformed. It is today virtually unrecognizable to those who knew it in the 1950s and 1960s. Leaving aside the sociology and economics of the matter, let us consider a few of the central political expressions of those changes. I shall conclude by suggesting the relationship of these to the questions I have put forward.

I would identify at least six characteristics of the new Ba’thist political structure that are relevant:

  1. By 1980 there were one million organized members of the Ba’th Party, in a country of twelve million people. The party had become the main vehicle of privilege and advancement in society.
  2. A transformation in the structure of power had taken place, away from the army and into the institutions of the party. A country that had been governed by the military since the 1958 revolution was now ruled by one mammoth all-pervasive party. In effect, this meant an enormous expansion of various networks of the security services such that they now permeated, controlled and monitored every detail of the country’s internal life.
  3. There was a phenomenal and completely unprecedented expansion in the number of institutionally armed men. It has been estimated that by 1980 the total personnel in the security services, the army and the party militia amounted to a staggering 640,000, in a country of twelve to thirteen million people. This represents just under 20 per cent of the economically active urban labour force, and it far outstrips anything achieved even by the Shah.
  4. All internal political opposition had been crushed. Even more important, the Iraqi Communist Party (for forty years the main opposition force in Iraqi politics) had not only had its membership steadily killed off, but had of its own accord conceded to the Ba’th the space that the ICP had once occupied in Iraqi politics by entering into the Ba’thist government. All the traditional polarities and allegiances in Iraq’s political arena have been shattered, and new ones have not yet taken their place.
  5. Fear had become the only cement that held the body politic together. All other forms of organization not directly controlled by the party had been wiped out. The public was atomized and broken up as an entity independent of the Ba’th. A society that had once revelled in politics and political discourse – it was a sort of hobby in every family – was not only subdued and silent, but had become profoundly and genuinely apolitical.
    Fear was the agency of that transformation in Iraqi politics – the kind of fear that comes when not only are you afraid of what your neighbours might report about you to the local secret police, but also when you are careful of what you say in front of your own children, in case in their innocence they blurt out something that turns your whole family’s life upside down for ever. This is a fear that penetrates the soul and distorts the mind. It cannot be bracketed off and set aside, because it has entered into the psychological constitution of each and every citizen. Iranians still do not know this kind of fear; Khomeinism is certainly capable of inducing it, and perhaps the Iranians have already picked up some pointers from the Ba’thist experience. So far, however, they have not achieved the levels of internal organization that are required to create this awesome bond.
    The horrific genius of Ba’thism, the fundamental basis of its power, is that it has fashioned this fear out of the raw material that Iraqi society provided and placed it at the centre of the modern Iraqi condition. This it has done by changing the more commonly known kind of fear, which is essentially negative and withdrawn – a state of suspension in the otherwise active interaction of two intact agencies – into a new kind, of positive, if fragile, bond between the regime and the Iraqi people.
  6. Finally, and contrary to popular belief, the Ba’th has presided over a breakdown in purely local Iraqi nationalism, which in any case was never very strong. The Ba’th has replaced it with new bonds to its own party and regime, derived in the first place from the fear that it has succeeded in inculcating, and also from the fact that the regime has succeeded in compromising literally hundreds of thousands of people in its terror.
    The Ba’th as a party is pan-Arabist, and this nationalism goes to the very core of its ideological formation. It is impossible to understand Ba’thism without recourse to pan-Arabism. The main implication of this is that, as a party, it finds the frontiers of the modern state of Iraq (as these emerged following the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire) to be too confining, and effectively nothing more than a temporary base from which to spring outwards and realize its true mission, the unification of the Arab world. The utopian and fictional character of such long-term goals does not for a moment prevent them from remaining at the heart of Ba’thism, both as a movement and as a party in power. Iranians, who are today experiencing a regime whose model of the perfect polity is the four years of’Ali’s caliphate thirteen centuries ago, will understand this all too well.

These, then, are the six pre-conditions for the emergence of a personality like Saddam Hussein bent on the pursuit of a war such as the one now tearing our societies apart. They are also the primary facts we need to work with, and whose interconnections we must understand, when we wish to answer the questions: why has the Ba’thist regime not yet fallen, and why has Iraq’s shi’i soldiery not defected, or simply refused to fight?

The 1968 Ba’thist regime changed all the parameters affecting societal and state-organized violence in Iraq. This it did gradually and haltingly, but nevertheless inexorably. The expansion of the means of violence – army, police, security apparatuses, networks of informers, party militia, and the party and state bureaucracies – eventually underwent the classic inversion: from being a means to an end (the elimination of opponents) they became horrific ends in themselves, spilling mindlessly across the borders that had once contained them. The violence that had been buried in the subconscious culture of Iraq’s mosaic of religious sects and ethnic groups now surfaced, as a new kind of fear drove through all political and private space that had once existed by virtue of the remoteness and feebleness of state institutions and concerns. At this point a true regime of terror set in, one whose deepest roots lay in the growing fear people now had of each other.

In a very important sense war – any war, it hardly matters against whom – is an inevitable outcome of the unchecked growth of the means of violence, particularly when this growth is so structured as to compromise literally masses of people in its terror. It is these features of Iraqi society under the Ba’th that afford some insight into what is, after all, the final human catastrophe: a society held together because it cannot find light in the overthrow of those who plunged it into darkness.

The Iraqi people’s most basic instincts of self-preservation warn them that a defeat by the Iranian forces would still result in a measure of Ba’thist victory, a victory they would snatch from the jaws of their own deaths in the form of the emptiness they would leave behind. This emptiness would only give rise to more dead and more killing of Iraqis by Iraqis. There is simply no other explanation for the markedly improved performance of the Iraqi army once the tide of battle had turned decisively in favour of the shi’i clerics. The case simply cannot be sustained that the Ba’th’s pan-Arabism has, despite itself, given rise to a genuine Iraqi nationalism, and it is this which has held the Iraqi army, polity and society together in spite of the great turn of this war.

One final observation needs to be made before I move on to the second part of my question relating to the nature of this war. It used to be the case that the Ba’thist regime had no analogue in the surrounding region. This is no longer true. Khomeinism has introduced into the politics of this part of the world an awesome capacity for this same kind of terror; one that comes on the back of a far-reaching revolution, and for this reason one that could eventually make even the worst excesses of the Ba’th look like adolescent fumbling.

The Islamic regime in Iran today lacks the all-pervasive organization of society that the Ba’th Party has achieved inside Iraq over many years. It is therefore not quite there yet. But Iranians ought to feel deep inside themselves the need to understand the horror that Iraq has become under the Ba’th; they should feel this need because there are so many signs within Iranian politics under the mullahs that point in a similar direction. Needless to say, all the trappings would be different; but the structure of political life, the kind of fear I have been talking about, the atomization of a public, the eradication of all freedoms: the seeds of all this certainly exist under clericalism in Iran today. It is just possible therefore that Iranians may be looking at a pale reflection of their own future in the abomination that Ba’thism has created in Iraq. After all, it takes two kinds of madness to conduct a war with this degree of destructiveness: the first to start it and the second to keep it going.

I constantly find myself drawn to such symmetries, not only between the two regimes as independently constructed entities, but also and more obviously between the Iraqi and Iranian conduct of this war. It is in the nature of such a momentous head-on collision to highlight parallels of this kind, parallels that penetrate deeply into the heart of the question we started off with: what is the nature of this new kind of war of the Third World? Closely related to this, lurks another more paradoxical kind of question: could there have been such loss of life, such destruction, such a devastating human price to this conflict, if such symmetries did not exist? I leave this thought with you as we turn now to the war as an event in its own right, putting aside the problem of why it started.

In military terms, the full extent of the Iraqi miscalculation was apparent by the end of the first week of the fighting. The rest of the course of the war can be broken down into the following phases: first, slower and more costly Iraqi advances culminating in the capture of Khorramshahr; second, a stalemate lasting through the spring of 1981; third, an Iranian counter-offensive which eventually drove the Iraqis out of all Iranian territory; and finally, another stalemate lasting until today and marked by much higher levels of casualties.

Throughout these stages the fighting has been marked by one specific characteristic, which in my opinion is quite remarkable for the consistency with which it has appeared. Neither side in this war has been able to come even close to a reasonably accurate estimate of the other’s strengths and weaknesses, or even to learn from its own or the other side’s mistakes. At the start this was mostly a feature of Iraqi military thinking; later on, however, it became characteristic of Iranian behaviour on the battlefield. This could be illustrated by dozens of concrete examples from the initial Iraqi strategy: the use of the air force, the absence of a fall-back strategy, the mindless and counterproductive bombing of Dezful, and so on. In effect, this absence of strategy is the only consistent pattern in four years of warfare. Invariably it is expressed in the tendency of each side to up the ante and elevate the stakes, the moment the other shows signs of conciliation.

Failures of judgement and the overestimation of one’s own capabilites occur in all wars; gross negligence and abject stupidity are also very common; utter disregard for even one’s own soldiery not infrequent; but a consistent inability on both sides, and even at times unwillingness (particularly on the Iranian side) to judge the other realistically in order to map out an intelligible strategy for pursuing war aims that have as their final objective the more or less efficient overthrow of the adversary, this type of ingrained mental blockage is much less common.

A war in which only one side takes leave of its senses is very different from one in which both sides do. The differences reside in the number of casualties, the outcome of the fighting, the essential meaning of the killing, and, as a consequence, the positions that people feel morally obligated to assume as regards the conflict. Such a war also affects the judgement of those doing the dying, and their motivations for continuing to do so. With only one side pursuing a consistently irrational strategy, the tendency to be demoralized, uneasy and even rebellious, is reinforced; once it is established, however, that both sides are intent on such a course, and that for neither side has the war any tangible material goals, the soldiery’s resolve and ideological commitment to its own side tend to stiffen.

This is exactly what happened to the morale of the Iraqi army; it went in on a wave of xenophobia and anti-Iranian chauvinism, but flagged appreciably when nothing seemed to go according to plan and stiff resistance was being met in the towns and cities; it then improved greatly once the ‘all or nothing’ human wave strategy lost its initial confounding novelty, and revealed itself as fundamentally ideological, and thus ‘strange’ to outsiders. The only way to understand Iraq’s newfound position of strength today is the reference to the insanity – there simply is no more polite way of putting it – of Iranian military behaviour on the battlefield over the last three years.

Whenever Iranians have fought in defence of their homes and towns, and in effective isolation from the clerical leadership, they have by all accounts done well against vastly superior odds. Nothing shook the Iraqi army more than the tenacious defence put up in cities like Khorramshahr and Abadan. The character of such fighting is defensive and guerrilla-like, with snipers and entrenched scattered pockets putting up a sustained resistance to armoured and infantry advance. The nature of the combat was such as to place life at a premium, and so tactics evolved which tended jealously to guard it. When the clerics took over, the military conception changed dramatically. The idea became to use the occasion of the war to prove how good a Muslim one was; winning versus losing obviously took on an entirely new meaning.

It must be admitted that if a large enough number of people are prepared to commit suicide, then even in modern warfare almost any fixed position can be overrun. The problem is a simple matter of applied mathematics; it is an equation made up of numbers of people, the speed at which they can run, and the distance they have to cover on one side, versus the firepower and rate of delivery on the other. Using such ‘tactics’ in the Basra region in the summer of 1982, Iran lost in two attempts 100,000 men and boys. They failed to take the city or cut off the road to Baghdad. None the less, with time on their side, a respectable flow of oil revenues starting to come in, an initial series of victories to bolster morale, and tested formidable Iraqi fixed positions, the mullahs tried again and in the same location.

In February and March 1984 some 500,000 Iranians were amassed for what was billed as the ‘final offensive’. In the initial battles that ensued, the Ba’th used poison gas for the first time. Reporters who were allowed in have described scenes of carnage in language rarely found in modern journalism. ‘Carpets of bodies’ and ‘hell on earth’ are the sorts of phrases that cropped up to describe the fighting around al-Qurnah, and what became known as the battle of Gzaeil. One Iranian doctor on the front lines, who was sent to Europe to accompany gassed victims and was obviously shaken to his very depths, has told of what he saw: bodies left unburied, prisoners shot at point-blank range, the wounded left on the field to become carrion for desert jackals. Gone was the slightest implication of compassion, if it had ever existed before. ‘I have seen young boys burned alive’, he said. ‘I have seen Iranian and Iraqi boys tearing each other literally with their nails and teeth. It is raging hate against raging hate’.

To say that the Ba’th and the clerical leadership in Tehran ‘took leave of their senses’, and acted irrationally in pursuing even their own goals on the battlefield, presumes some kind of shared sensibility on their part – not wisdom, military experience or deep theoretical understanding, but plain common sense. This faculty is not an inner quality of the individual mind, something concerned with abstract reasoning and the reckoning of consequences; it is the series of judgements and perceptions made by us, as human beings who share the same world and gauge its reality on that basis. It is therefore a profoundly political sensibility concerned with human behaviour and political affairs.

Both Saddam Hussein and Khomeini possess this sixth sense when dealing with their own self-made worlds. Both have assessed, for example, their own human raw material in a consistently shrewd and calculating manner, surprising the sceptics time and again. The two most important questions of this war originate in this fact. The first, which has already been discussed, concerns the Iraqi regime and why it did not fall long ago. The second and parallel question concerns the Iranian situation: why is it that Khomeini has continued to be successful in his mass recruiting drives despite unprecedented, and militarily meaningless, levels of casualties?

By the same token, when Khomeini and Saddam Hussein deal with each other, that very same strength which each has when firmly implanted in his own world turns into a colossal weakness. The commonality, to put it mildly, is lacking; consequently, the absence of simple common sense in Ba’thist Iraq and Islamic Iran is not a reflection on the sanity or otherwise of those who have made up these worlds, or those caught up in their vice-like grip. It is an outcome of the air of unreality that exists, not so much in people’s daily routines, as in the fictitious goals that their lives are wound up with and to which they are being consecrated.

For Saddam Hussein, the world outside his grasp, the world he does not control and has not made, appears to him in a guise other than that which presents itself to our common sense. He did not need the Shah’s ex-generals and Bakhtiar trotting in and out of Baghdad in the months before the war to tell him that the Iranian revolution was rotten right through, and that the masses were just waiting for his signal to rise up in revolt. He knew that already, from ‘history’, as his choice of the name al-Qadisiyyah expresses so aptly.

For Saddam Hussein the appearance of the Iranian revolution – the millions who marched, fought and died for it, and the voluntary, near-unanimous lodging of all their hopes and aspirations in the person of Khomeini such as to render his and their will one and the same thing – all this was discounted at the outset. It was other than what it seemed on the surface. The Khuzistani Arabs would welcome his liberating army, rise up in arms, and perhaps even secede to Arabdom, their rightful inheritance, just as their ancestors had once done on the plains of Qadisiyyah at the expense of the mighty Sasanian empire. That they did not do so, and even fought him tenaciously in Ahwaz and Khuzistan, testified not to his error of judgement, but to their treachery.

Madness in this strictly political sense is expressed in the act of subordinating each particular incident, every development on the battlefield, each individual human life, and of course the sum of all lives, to such indefinite, distant and fictional goals as those held by the likes of Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Here are two warring world-views that cannot help themselves in their drive to take away from all of us that which we have in common. It is the complete absence of common ground that not only does away with common sense, but also in the end generates the madness of the killing in this war.

When Saddam Hussein tells the world that if it were within his power he would go so far as to start World War III before relinquishing office voluntarily, no one should doubt that he means exactly that. With people like this it is very hard to distinguish between a genuine intention and a propagandistic flourish. On the whole, such people tend to believe in their own utterances, and however monstrous a proposition might seem from the standpoint of our common sense, it is essential never to indulge in the all-too-common tendency to shy away from its insanity.

Politics is the domain of discourse and human interaction. Paradoxically, this very domain that is capable of causing such strife is itself extinguished once the killing begins. Politics ended between Iraq and Iran the moment the war began. It had ended much earlier in Iraq. As we have seen, this termination of politics in Iraq lay at the heart of the answer to the question: why did it start? Therefore, far from this being a conflict that ‘continues politics by other means’, as that great theoretician of warfare, Clausewitz, once wrote, it is the action of extending raw, unbridled and mindless violence into new and uncharted frontiers.

This is the essential nature of the Iran-Iraq war; it is a nature that arises in the first place from the deep-seated hostility that two world-views have, not only towards each other (for then there would be hope; at least there may exist on this planet other world-views with which they are compatible) but also towards everything human that stands outside of them. The two perfect symbols that sum up the ultimate meaning of the Iran-Iraq war are the human wave strategy and poison gas, neither of which lends itself to a strategy in warfare designed around expressly political ends. Both are fixated on death as an obviously non-political end in itself, whether it be the purposeless slaughter of non-combatants, or the death of one’s own soldiery.

On these grounds I would conclude by saying that the moral meaning of a war like this – something we have not directly addressed so far, and a meaning which it does not share with Arab-Israeli wars, or many other kinds of wars – resides in the simple truth that its mere occurrence has taken away from all of us one more chunk of an already battered humanity.

[Next speaker: Joe Stork – Oil, Arms and the Gulf War] 

[See also Matzpen‘s editorial on the war, 10 January 1981]

  1. The battle of Qadisiyyah (AD 636) marks the fall of the pre-Islamic Sasanian empire, and the Arab conquest of Persia.