The Iraq War was far bloodier for the United States than supposed, and its meaning over the past two decades keeps subtly shifting, affected by the march of current events.
The conventional fact is that roughly 4,000 American servicemen and women were killed. That is a narrow version of the truth. When you add in the number of American contractors and civilians killed, the number is closer to 8,000. Tens of thousands had life- and family-changing injuries: that is, the loss of a major limb, or the loss of at least one eye, or facial burns. When you consider the loved ones directly affected by each seriously wounded veteran you have tens of thousands more, mainly working-class Americans, with which the policy elite in Washington in general does not interact. This is to say nothing about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed.
The Iraq War, though far more important than supposed in terms of American casualties, may turn out to be less important in terms of geopolitics. Iraq was a far-flung, imperial-like adventure gone awry, from which the United States, with all of its natural and economic resources, matched to an enviable geography, has simply moved on from. The US defense establishment may be behind in planning and acquiring the weaponry needed to deter China because of a decade of counterinsurgency in the Middle East (including Afghanistan), but progress in this regard has been steady and impressive. Yet again, what will be striking to historians looking back on all this is how despite the blunders of Iraq and Vietnam, the American Empire, so to speak, lumbered forward. Blunders on such a scale would have crippled minor- and middle-level powers, but not the United States. And because America’s margin for error is so wide, it breeds a certain amount of decadence in Washington.
America for almost two decades lived in the shadow of the Iraq failure—until Russia invaded Ukraine. For almost two decades, caution and restraint were the reigning paradigms (however unspoken, however disregarded in an instance or two). This was an obvious reaction to Iraq. But Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has led to renewed war fever in Washington. It’s not that the lessons of Iraq have been disregarded; rather, they have been overshadowed. Yes, there is a group on the Republican right that feels the United States should be more cautious in Ukraine. But more of Washington wants the Biden administration to send even more weapons, faster. The White House, by sending tens of billions of dollars in weaponry to Ukraine, without risking the life of an American soldier, while also being careful not to allow the war to spread, may have gotten the balance right. And if that turns out to be the case, it would mean that the lessons of the Iraq War have been integrated into Washington’s foreign policy mindset, without overlearning them.
I suspect that the view of the Iraq War will change again if Iran undergoes an upheaval. Regime change is no longer a dirty word in regards to Iran. And it is at least possible to imagine the collapse of the clerical regime there within a few years. When one considers that Iraq’s general instability and exceedingly poor performance as a democracy has had much to do with Iranian interference in Iraq’s affairs, a new system of governance in Tehran may lead to much greater political progress in Baghdad.
Finally, whereas the Vietnam War, which occurred in an age of mass conscription, changed America and its culture, the Iraq War, occurring in an age of an all-volunteer military, mainly changed Washington only. The rise of Donald Trump was only marginally caused by the Iraq War. (The greater cause—but not the only one—was the dislocation in the labor market caused by China’s integration into the world economy.) Vietnam helped give birth to rock music, radical politics, and the notion that the government, which had gotten the country through the Depression and World War II, and sent a man to the moon, could not wholly be trusted anymore.
Iraq, by contrast, had few cultural effects. It did split Washington into new factions, and change of this sort in Washington can have global implications. I remember seeing a photo of Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz together in a huddle with Colin Powell and James Baker III during the First Gulf War in 1990–1991. Those were the days before such men became enemies because of Iraq in the 2000s. It was Iraq that caused elements of the Republican right in Washington to drift further toward neo-isolationism. And it has been Iraq that helps account, in part, for President Joe Biden’s caution in sending weapons to Ukraine, so as not to allow the war to spread to NATO countries. Iraq will remain a cautionary tale for years to come.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.