Iraq: Twenty Years on, Two Narratives Emerge


I recently had the privilege to participate in a retrospective symposium marking the 20th anniversary of the American war in Iraq. Hosted by Columbus State University and the National Infantry Museum, the conference brought to the newly renamed Fort Moore, Georgia a diverse assembly of panelists. As a historian and veteran, I had the chance to present 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.

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.

Lessons “Learned”

Tales of the American veteran experience at the symposium were powerful. The stories I heard reinforced my notion that the vast majority of U.S. servicemembers went to Iraq hopeful that they were part of some larger, benevolent mission, only to be disappointed by the experience. And yet any visible sense of bitterness seemed absent.



Rather, combat veterans in particular leaned into testimonials that highlighted both an individual and institutional preference to focus less on the political and social context of their war, and more on tactical “lessons,” often in a deliberately didactic manner. Here were tutorials that, if properly excavated, could be universalized for future warriors. Perhaps this choice should be unsurprising, given that none of these veterans were involved in the political decisions leading to one of the worst foreign policy decisions after 9/11.

Instead, what emerged were prescriptions for anticipating the rise of local insurgencies, for properly preparing for “future threats,” and for accurately “targeting” the enemy in population-centric warfare. One veteran lamented that the Army, as an institution, had been unprepared for the war it embarked upon and had lacked the “intellectual capacity” to prepare for both countering insurgencies and for implementing “Phase IV” post-conflict reconstruction operations. Here were professionals seeking to codify “lessons learned” so their military heirs might not make similar mistakes in the future.

Yet an underlying sense of hubris remained, despite the dubious outcome of these veterans’ efforts. Discussing the Iraqi people, one speaker claimed that “we gave them a stable government,” perhaps to insinuate that our putative allies had failed where “we” had succeeded. (The ghosts of Vietnam die hard, I suppose.) Another veteran panelist, in similar tones, explained how “we were going to restructure the Iraqi army” and how “we were going to rebuild Iraq.” This despite another American panelist’s judgment that “we didn’t understand Iraq at all.”

Among these speakers, the language of “we” and “me” was prevalent. Perhaps that makes sense. War is personal and our stories are just that — our own. Listening to these veterans, however, I couldn’t help but think that tales relying on “my” experience were being extrapolated into the history of the entire war. True, most all panelists acknowledged that where and when one served in Iraq mattered. Multiple, distinct wars unfolded over a 20-year period. One Vietnam veteran similarly recalled, years ago, that the U.S. Army had fought a “mosaic war” in Southeast Asia. That depiction remains apt. But these Iraq veterans seemed to be suggesting that they owned a certain narrative of their war that put civilians — Americans and even Iraqis themselves — at a disadvantage in efforts to make sense of what happened. If you didn’t serve in Iraq, they intimated, how could you speak intelligently of the war and what it left behind?

Overcoming the Civil-Military Divide

Yet relying on “you weren’t there” arguments only underwrites an already expansive civil-military divide in the United States. In fact, the veteran panelists seemed idealistically unaware that they might be contributing to this gap between the military and larger civilian society. One spoke of going to parties and inevitably hunkering in a corner with the three or four other veterans in the room because that’s where he felt most comfortable. Others seemed to be wrestling still with the “thank you for your service” phenomenon that prevailed after 9/11. One Gold Star spouse who lost her husband in Iraq while she was serving in Afghanistan painfully shared that most civilians “had no idea” what the gold star on her jacket lapel even meant. Finally, one special operations aviator thoughtfully wondered aloud about who, in fact, were the “bad guys” in Iraq before catching himself and declaring there was “no way I’m going to talk about this with civilians.”

I understood the reticence, for American veterans from World War II to Vietnam long have shared their frustrations in being unable to find a receptive audience at home capable of understanding the worst of war. But this creates a vicious cycle: How are civilians supposed to debate national security issues when veterans won’t help to educate them about what war truly means from their perspective? Lacking knowledge, what else can citizens do but offer their thanks and leave it to informed others to make foreign policy decisions on their behalf?



Overcoming this divide won’t be easy. It requires civilians to accept their obligation to actively learn about the costs and consequences of war. And it requires veterans to share their pain so others may learn from it. That’s a hard task for anyone who has experienced trauma. But listening from the symposium seats, I wondered if veterans were doing themselves a disservice by not mingling more at parties and sharing the stories that we all need to hear.

Political Questions

This preference for tribal exclusivity contributed to the final element of the dominant narrative among veteran panelists — they had won the war militarily, but others had lost the war politically. The refrain echoed from nearly every single Vietnam memoir I had ever read. In my own comments, I suggested that such a framing is misguided. If we believe a certain Prussian theorist, then one cannot separate the military from the political when talking about war. (Obviously, military professionals, even retired ones, have good reasons for wanting to avoid direct commentary on the political “side.”) Veteran panelists surely debated what “winning” actually meant in Iraq, but most seemed to concur, in the words of one, that the effort was “worth the blood and cost,” at least for the Americans. Of course, he conceded, Iraqis might disagree.

As a historian of the American war in Vietnam, assertions like this proved among the most troubling. Faced with arguments that the “surge” worked from a strictly military perspective or that the war was won militarily, only to be reversed by weak-kneed civilian politicians back home, I question how much we truly will learn from this war. Such claims fail to wrestle with deeper questions because they unnaturally divorce the military from its necessary political context. Do supposed lessons of “enemy targeting” matter if we’re not asking bigger questions about why the United States invaded in the first place and for what purpose? Does it matter if the Army could have improved its tactical performance if we are not challenging our larger assumptions about the use of military force overseas to begin with?

Dominant narratives, of course, are difficult to challenge. They’re dominant for a reason. In this case, military veterans were inclined naturally to share “operational lessons learned,” likely because that’s what they knew best. Scholars of Iraq, on the contrary, cared little for such stories, wanting instead to highlight a narrative focusing on the social, political, and environmental consequences of a long and bloody conflict. How to unite these two accounts will be a challenge for all of us in the years to come. 

One reason for this challenge surely comes from our veneration of veterans, which arguably has clouded our ability to place military affairs in their proper political context. It feels safer to focus on soldier-centric storylines. We can say “thank you” to veterans and embrace their victory narrative — or, conversely, their betrayal narrative — while avoiding more uncomfortable conversations about political malfeasance and culpability. We can share in heroic tales of martial glory that help to bolster a sense of American exceptionalism, while sidestepping the possibility that there are limits to American power overseas. And, perhaps most importantly, we can dodge awkward exchanges with those Iraqis whose lives America left upended in a war of choice and flawed expectations.

The View from Iraq

The Iraqi scholar participants shared a far different narrative, one that concentrated less on military tactics and operations — or on “victory” — and more on the enduring cultural, political, and ecological costs of war. Listening to them speak, I wondered if I was hearing anecdotes about the same war. The challenge for historians will be to weave together these narratives into something more complete than an American story on one side and Iraqi one on the other. Bringing everyone to the same symposium is a start, but without more work people will continue to talk past each other.

Notably, all the Iraqi scholars at the conference were also American. Thus, the distinction in perspective was not between Iraqis and Americans but between Iraq scholars and U.S. military personnel with, relatively speaking, little expertise on Iraq. When veterans used “we” to draw a contrast with, and often dismiss, American civilians who “were not there,” it overlooked the fact that many of these Iraqi-born American panelists had been.

One anthropologist, who studies Iraq’s political landscape and whose family suffered considerably under Saddam Hussein’s regime, began by arguing that American veterans spoke of Iraq in the “abstract” and thus were guilty of “nuanced ambivalence.” It was as if, she asserted, “Iraq was an empty place” before the Americans arrived and, perhaps, even while they were fighting there. As with the veteran panelists, I sensed little bitterness in her remarks and instead more of a hope that other Americans might finally see their long, sullied history in Iraq. No doubt this scholar was correct in asserting that few audience members understood how the United States had supported Saddam during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War or how U.S. economic sanctions in the 1990s had a devastating effect on Iraqi children.

Another professor studying the war’s ecological impacts said that in the land of her mother’s birth what prevailed was the “memory of Americans as agents of terror.” It was easy for any of us to imagine ourselves as “righteous,” she argued, but clearly there were implications when that righteousness was hitched to the world’s most well-funded military establishment. To be fair, it seems plausible that other Iraqis feel differently, or at least more ambiguously, given the diversity of experiences in a chaotic wartime environment.

From these panelists’ perspectives, the religious component of the Iraq war also unfolded in ways far different than what most Americans understood. For those in the United States, the popular narrative pitted Shia against Sunni as if they were sports teams one could root for or against. This scholar, however, suggested that U.S. military commanders had “sectarianized” democracy in their attempts to lessen the violence in Iraq and build a stable, democratic-leaning Iraq. American-style democracy, she maintained, became “infused with ethnic identity.” Before the war, we learned, concepts of identity had rested on more fluid constructs. Of course, sectarian conflict had deeper roots beyond the U.S. occupation and even Hussein’s deliberate attempts to increase sectarian divides in the 1990s. Still, it was hard listening to such informed evaluations and not think of Graham Greene’s well-intentioned yet naïve “quiet” American making local matters worse by his very presence in South Vietnam.

And, as in Vietnamese narratives, these panelists discussed the structural displacement of peoples caused by an American invasion. Wars have an ugly habit of forcibly removing families from their homes and the one in Iraq proved no different. According to one panelist representing the Costs of War Project, the 2003 invasion “displaced approximately 1 in 25 Iraqis from their homes, with fighting connected with the Islamic State contributing to additional displacement.”

Finally, the Iraqi-American panelists opened a conversation that at least some Americans find uncomfortable, about how racism continues to afflict U.S. foreign policy. To one Iraqi scholar, Americans had failed in portraying the complexity of their society. We were “never presented as human beings,” she argued, even if the Bush administration worked publicly to humanize Iraqis. Another maintained that it was necessary to talk about Iraqi deaths, because “if we humanize Iraqis better, we humanize ourselves better.” The historian in me thought of how words like “savage” and “inhuman” have littered our military lexicon for centuries now. The veteran in me knew the use of “haji” was fairly common among American soldiers. Apparently, we still have some way to go in thinking about our “enemies” as human beings and not just as inanimate “targets.”

Uniting Wartime Narratives

Twenty years on, listening to panels bringing together American and Iraqi perspectives of the 2003 war demonstrated that there remain, in emerging American narratives at least, two very different Iraq wars. Even the word “invasion” took on different connotations during this symposium depending on whether the speaker was Iraqi or American.

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.



Gregory A. Daddis holds the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University. In 2009, he served as the command historian of the Multi-National Corps, Iraq. He currently is a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Image: Department of Defense