20-years-ago, on March 20th 2003, American and British troops invaded Iraq to remove a tyrant who had used chemical weapons against his own people. This ruling despot, Saddam Hussein, had received the South Park cartoon caricature treatment so we all knew he was a baaaad man. Authorities and experts (spoiler alert: beware expert consensus!) claimed that Hussein owned or was trying to create chemical weapons and nuclear weapons which at any moment he might deploy in a 9/11-style attack. At this unique juncture of world history, the powers that be even had a colour-coded terror alert scale, inspired presumably by Froot-Loops cereal, where citrus warning lights broadcast over news reports warned us daily how likely we were to suffer another vicious attack.
The so-called War on Terror (which arguably only continued until Hurricana Katrina changed the media narrative in September of 2005) was above all a psychological war where freedoms were suspended in the name of public protection while, tragically, the human consequences in faraway countries were all too real in terms of death and carnage.
Meanwhile, in the rustic Kootenay town of Creston, B.C. I was a horticulture student and the older folks in town were mortified about impending war: consensus was that, thanks to Colin Powell’s duplicitous (and later discredited) display to the UN of Iraq’s supposed threat, a new Vietnam War was about to begin. Thing was, I pointed out at the time, you need two great powers to tango in a proxy war and there was no Chairman Mao looking to aid Hussein in the way that had unfolded during ‘Nam (a contrast to Ukraine today for obvious reasons) with Ho Chi Minh.
There’s no underestimating the antiwar sentiment that prevailed in Canada during 2003, though. The Iraq War seemed like another brutalization of the best hopes and dreams of a generation seeking a kinder, more equitable future for the world. Many draft dodgers had migrated north to Canada, and specifically the Kootenays, where I lived. Some educated us, in a manner only possible through experience, that war for a so-called good cause was something to be very wary about. Many Vietnam veterans took to the local Co-Op radio airwaves to note that besides the carnage unleashed on a foreign country, war also led many brave soldiers to return home as shattered images of their former selves. And 58,000 US troops never returned home at all (National Archives, 2018). War could get big and bad really quickly, we realized.
Tragic irony shortly befell the people of Iraq: tales of chemical weapons being used by the invading Americans came to light: a combination of white phosphorous and explosives which American forces, with macabre humour, dubbed “shake and bake” had been deployed to turn combatants and civilians alike into human candles. Horrible, right, and not something depicted in your average favourite video game (Fidler, online).
So much for the moral high ground; war here revealed itself as an atrocity by nature. By 2006 the medical scientific journal, The Lancet, concluded that were “654,965 excess Iraqi deaths related to the war, of which 601,027 were caused by violence” (The Lancet in BBC, 2011). War really was hell. Just as we’d been warned by the draft dodgers who’d made peaceful lives for themselves in Canada to avoid the endless carnage caused in Vietnam by American aggression. What’s more, to the average Iraqi, war had not brought a better life: “Saddam Hussein in the 1980s led a country that was “awash with oil wealth, was secular, had good hospitals, roads, and education, but there were also ruthless killings of opponents, and an insane cult of personality”(Sewell et al. 2023). After the invasion, and to this day, Iraq is a far poorer and more destitute country than it was in the 1980s; even basic electricity is still spotty (Sewell et al., 2023). Back in the 80s Hussein actually received funding from Ronald Reagan during a war with Islamic Fundamentalists ruling neighbouring Iran (who’d in 1979 taken American hostages, an act for which they receive ire to this day) (Hersh, 1992).
By 2003, after already having lost a war with America in 1991, Iraq was a shell of its former self, such that the invading troops had little trouble achieving their objectives. Unlike Ukraine today, no imperial patron emerged to defend the beleaguered regime. Behind small wars throughout history lies big funding from major powers. Perhaps there’s a small lesson for we at AU fighting the good fight of academic betterment. As students, we often need patronage from one or more sources if we are to fight our nobler battle: the struggle to scholastically conquer new regions of learning that we may create a realm of enlightenment for our future selves.