Lessons from the Iraq War

‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ Martin Luther King

Last week Sir John Chilcot, Chairman of the Iraq Inquiry, released his much anticipated report investigating the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. The purpose of the Inquiry was to examine both the causes and consequences of the conflict with a view to identifying lessons for going forward. In the 6000-page report, Chilcot highlighted crucial areas of failure in the run-up to the war through to the post-war occupation, including oversights in the gathering and use of intelligence, an exaggeration of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and a ‘wholly inadequate’ level of post-war planning.

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The revelations in the report are particularly damning when reflecting on the countless civilian lives that were needlessly lost as a consequence of the conflict, not to mention the fact that Iraq is less stable today than it was in 2003. Chilcot’s report has also provoked considerable anger from the families of military personnel, whose loved ones were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in a war now widely seen as ill-advised, unnecessary and illegal. As the public continues to process the findings of the report, it will be crucial to draw lessons from this experience in order to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated. The extent to which the mistakes of the Iraq war can be avoided in the future will, however, depend on developing a better understanding of how this conflict arose in the first place.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not occur in a vacuum; it was very much a product of – and heavily influenced by – the context of 9/11 and its aftermath. Although it has been 15 years since the tragic events of 9/11, it is worth recalling just how momentous this attack was. Nearly everyone remembers where they were on that day and how they came to learn about what had transpired. It was, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic spectacles of violence ever witnessed in human history.

Amid the destruction and despair of that September morning, something quite remarkable occurred. Something which many of us seem to have lost sight of since. This attack didn’t just happen to Americans – it was an attack on the entire world. Even those who didn’t lose loved ones that day were profoundly moved and deeply affected. This became evident in the tremendous outpouring of love that emerged in the initial hours and days following the attack. From the ashes of the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, an overwhelming and unprecedented sense of unity, heartfelt compassion and love arose across the planet. It felt as though someone had pushed the pause button, and for the briefest of moments the earth stopped spinning as we awoke to the truth that we are all connected.

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Sadly, the sense of love that arose from the ashes of 9/11 soon dissipated and gave way to an opposing paradigm of fear. Fear that a similar attack would occur and a desperation to use any and all means imaginable to prevent it. From that point onward, fear began to take hold of our hearts and became the basis of nearly every misguided policy decision that came thereafter. It was in this context that the invasion of Iraq was conceived and ultimately executed.

Through the lens of fear, decision-makers exaggerated the threat of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), drew non-existent connections between Saddam Hussein’s regime and terrorist groups, and rushed into war without exhausting peaceful measures first or adequately preparing for what would come next. It was also in this spiralling climate of fear that some of the most terrible atrocities were committed against Iraqis, as witnessed by the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison and the tragic death of Baha Mousa.

Perhaps the greatest of irony of traversing the path of fear is that it has actually created what our political leaders had hoped to avoid when they set out to invade Iraq. While there was no significant terrorist threat emanating from Iraq in 2003, there certainly is now. ISIS – a much more pervasive and menacing force than Al Qaida – grew directly out of the conflict in Iraq. What is more, many counter-terrorist strategies have actually emboldened and empowered extremists, as the number of attacks, both in the region and around the world, have grown steadily.

As we come to terms with the conclusions of the Iraq Inquiry, one of the most important lessons we can take away is the utter futility of trying to defeat acts of terror and violence from a fear-based stance. As Martin Luther King once said: ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’ So if we truly want to undermine acts of violence and terror that offend every precept of our common humanity, we must find a way to restore, and then build upon, the unity, compassion and love we saw and felt in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. However short-lived it may have been, it was a much truer reflection of our nature than the disastrous and fear-inspired conflict that followed thereafter.

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