Today is the 23rd anniversary of the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Few Iraqis would commemorate or even remember this anniversary. In Iraqi popular memory, this war has been overshadowed by the sanctions imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of its invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, and by two major wars in 1991 and 2003. Indeed, the 1980s is now nostalgically remembered as “the good days.” Then, food and security were abundant, corruption was not heard of, and electricity and water were available twenty-four hours a day. Health, educational and state institutions also functioned at the time, and infant mortality was the lowest in the world. In light of the turn of events since 1990, it has become difficult (if not impossible) to study the impact of this war on the social and political fabric of Iraq. The almost two-year window before the invasion of Kuwait on 2 August, 1990 was too short to produce studies on this war as experienced and lived by Iraqis. One can only study images, military statements, literature, and statistics to glean an idea about the war from the Iraqi perspective. The destruction of Iraqi cities can no longer be assessed. The impact of the war on Iraqi society has been forgotten, its memory long overpowered by the calamities visited upon this country since 1990.
As an Iraqi who came of age during that war and who has recently conducted archival and ethnographic research on Iraq, I am puzzled by some arguments prevalent in scholarly studies on the Iran-Iraq War. These arguments take the overworked Sunni/Shia binary as their launching point. One recurring argument maintains that Shia Iraqi soldiers proved their loyalty to Saddam Hussein’s regime by fighting against their fellow Shia in Iran. The fact that these Iraqi soldiers, the argument goes, did not turn against Saddam Hussein despite his oppression reflects their strong attachment to their Arab identity. Different assumptions undergird this argument: (1) Shia Iraqi soldiers faced a dilemma during this war, whether to fight against the country of their ethnic affiliation (Iraq) or against the country of their sectarian affiliation (Iran); (2) these soldiers would not have fought against the Iranian army if they were not loyal to the Iraqi regime; and (3) Iraqi Sunni soldiers did not experience this dilemma since they did not have any identification with Iran. This deeply flawed approach appears to be based on false conceptual analyses of the war, ones that ignore or misread facts on the ground. People’s views of the war and the experiences of Iraqi soldiers tell a different story.
The phenomenon of deserters (or afrariyya in the Iraqi dialect, from the Arabic word fera, i.e. to flee or run away) challenges the above-mentioned argument. Military desertion was widespread among Iraqi soldiers and presented a major challenge to the Iraqi government. Deserters were thus punished by imprisonment or death. Stories of deserters being hanged in front of their houses were dominant. Fathers who killed their sons for deserting the army were received by Saddam Hussein and rewarded with medals for their patriotic behavior. During the later years of the war, Iraqi soldiers could no longer escape the battlefield. Death squads were employed to kill anyone who refused to fight and/or attempted to escape or surrender. In reality, both Sunni and Shia Iraqi soldiers fought because they had no choice but to fight. The Iranian army was in front of them, and the death squads were behind them. In order to delay enlistment, some young men in high schools and universities would fail their final exams and retake the courses in the following academic year. This strategy enabled them to gain an extra year or two. To these young men and their friends, failing at school meant gaining a year or two on earth. The lucky few managed to escape the country. Still, the majority was not that fortunate and were forced to fight.
Another misconception is more implicit and stresses that ordinary Iraqis supported the war because of their hatred of the Iranians. While I was only seven years old in 1980, I vividly remember the shock expressed by my parents and their friends when the war broke out. People in Iraq often spoke of the war in terms of Saddam Hussein’s oppression and loyalty to the West: that he was a tyrant who singlehandedly decided to start a war, with the support of Western governments, without considering its consequences and its human toll. The terms used by Iraqis to describe the war are telling. The most dominant ones were “war of attrition,” “policy of dual containment,” and "the forgotten war.” Even then, Iraqis understood that the war was waged in order to debilitate both Iran and Iraq, reflecting the anxiety of Western governments and Gulf countries over Iran and Iraq being the two main powers in the region. Iraqis were also well aware that no one in the West remembered the eight-year war or cared about those Iraqis and Iranians who suffered or died, let alone about Saddam Hussein’s human rights violations in Iraq and heavy bombardment of Iranian cities.
It is true that there were celebrations on the streets of Iraq when the Iraqi regime announced its victory against the Iranian army (According to the regime, the Iraqi army never suffered defeats or considerable casualties). It is also true that Iraqi students took to the streets to express their joy over the bombardment of Iranian cities. An unsuspecting observer would read these demonstrations as manifestations of Iraqis’ support of the war and the regime. These celebrations and demonstrations, however, were always staged. The people who filled the streets of Iraq, dancing and acclaiming the wisdom of the Iraqi President, were state agents with orders to go out and celebrate. Even I had to march in many of these demonstrations, along with other students from different schools in the area. Baath Party members were always present, ensuring schools were complying with such orders. We would just walk, refusing to chant the praises of Saddam despite the Baath members’ orders, all the while looking for an opportunity to escape and go back home.
Likewise, Saddam Hussein’s war propaganda that painted Iraq as the protector of “the Eastern Gate” of the Arab homeland against the Magi Persians fell on deaf ears in Iraq. The representation of the war as another instance of the ancient rivalry between ever-heroic Arabs and ever-hateful Persians was just empty rhetoric that filled television stations, newspapers, and school texts. Any serious threat from Iran to the sovereignty of Iraq seemed far-fetched but nonetheless provided an excuse for the regime to put down all forms of political activism. It also enabled it to curb the power of the Shia religious clerics. In reality, what preoccupied Iraqis then were the safety of their male relatives who became fodder for the war as well as the iron grip of Saddam Hussein’s police state. However, Iraqis had to be cautious in voicing their criticism of the regime. An expression of disapproval could lead to imprisonment, death or forced collaboration. With Saddam Hussein’s banning of travel in early 1983 under the pretext that Iraq was in a state of war, Iraq became a big prison. Iraqis had no choice but to endure the war and hope for its end sooner than later. Yet, the turn of events constantly intensified their sense of disbelief. No one thought the war could go on for eight years. No one believed Saddam could stay in power after several military defeats, or that he would get away with gassing the Kurds. No one imagined the United States and Europe would provide Saddam with hundreds of Scud missiles that he would in turn launch randomly on different Iranian cities.
On 8 August, 1988, Iraqis spontaneously took to the streets to celebrate the end of the war. Iraqis observed this anniversary only once. Shortly before the second anniversary, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. This event set the stage first for the Gulf War in 1991, and for the thirteen-year sanctions that followed. Reeling under the blockade, environmental disasters, and tyranny, Iraqis themselves began to forget about the Iran-Iraq War. We should pause for a moment and remember that twenty-three years ago, Iraq erupted in joy. It was a genuine moment of happiness that the bloodshed would stop. As a friend told me at the time, “we can start dreaming again.”
 Needless to say, some Iraqis supported the war. Some became rich because of the war. Others, like Saddam Hussein’s loyalists, were afraid the regime would fall if the war ended. Still, ordinary Iraqis who were affected by the war directly did not want their family members to die in vain.
 Faleh A. Jabar argues that the power of the underground Shia Dawa Party could have been more limited in reality. The severe punishment meted out to its members made it impossible to secure reliable information on the party. See Faleh A. Jabar, 2003. The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq. London: Saqi Books.