Burying our Heads in the Sand: the 2003 Iraq War and the Excuse of the ‘Benefit of Hindsight’

The cacophony of war has always been part of the human condition. However, our capacity for compartmentalisation is boundless, and this ability has enabled us to commit atrocities against one another whilst detaching ourselves from any sense of blame or remorse. Through this detachment and disassociation, along with our growing distance from the past, we are able to completely ignore any responsibility to learn from our mistakes or understand the repercussions of our actions. We easily state that we cannot judge those who made errors in the past since they did not have the same ‘benefit of hindsight’ as we do. 

Today, such neglect of logic and morality is predominantly seen in Western governments as they fail to explicitly address the role they have played in the destabilisation of other nation-states. Whilst it is often argued that pinning guilt and blame on a specific party is unhelpful in international politics as this can lead to further resentment, when historical actions are examined on a deeper level, it can be seen that the actions of Western states have directly contributed towards current threats to both national and international security, and this retrospection can teach policymakers how to mitigate such mistakes in the future.

In March 2003, under the pretext that Western intelligence agencies had uncovered evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, US President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of the country by US forces. Joined in Operation Iraqi Freedom by contingents of troops from other nation-states, including the UK, the US military rolled into the country, aiming “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people” (‘President Discusses Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom’, 2003, the White House).

Since the events of 2003, there has been much public debate regarding whether the invasion was a mistake, particularly as it was later revealed that there had been no WMDs in Iraq in the first place. Such a mistake has been very difficult for Western governments to distance themselves from due to the immense degree of public exposure it received.

However, less attention has been paid to how the US-led coalition failed to mitigate Iraq’s descent into violence once the invasion occurred. Due to this lack of criticism Western governments have been able to detach themselves from the fact that their choice of military tactics and socio-economic policies played a direct role in the destabilisation of the country, the growth of militias and terrorist organisations, and, consequentially, the growth of threats to international security. As a result, most public discourse today surrounding the insecurity of Iraq focuses upon the presence of Islamic fundamentalism, violent extremism, and an ‘irrational’ hatred for the West. Brushing under the carpet any part we had in the destruction of the country’s security, and hence ignoring any responsibility to understand the implications of our actions and any obligation to learn how to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future.

During and after the invasion of Iraq, US-led forces and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) (set up as the transitional government of Iraq by the international military coalition), made many mistakes, but the four biggest were perhaps: immediately failing to provide security, especially with regard to physical infrastructure; the implementation of the policies of de-Ba’athification; the disbanding of the Iraqi army; and utilising an increasingly brutal force against insurgents, which often directly infringed on the rights of non-combatant Iraqi civilians. Had the coalition forces adopted a different approach in these four key areas, Iraq’s destabilisation may have been averted.

Firstly, on arrival in Baghdad, the coalition forces immediately failed to establish any sense of security. Looting became commonplace, hospitals, schools and government ministries, excluding the oil ministry which was immediately secured, were stripped bare (‘Once Upon a Time in Iraq’, Documentary, BBC). The pre-existing infrastructure needed in order to govern the country and provide the people with basic necessities was gutted, deeply hindering any future attempts to rebuild the country.

Secondly, the CPA quickly announced a policy of de-Ba’athification, aiming to rid Iraq of the Ba’ath Party, the head of which had been Saddam Hussein. The policy declared that any Ba’ath party member who worked “in the top three layers of management in every national government ministry, affiliated corporations, and other government institutions (e.g. universities and hospitals)” should be removed from their position, banned from future employment in the public sector, and would possibly face a criminal investigation (Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 1: De-Ba’athification of Iraqi Society, 2004). Yet, as Iraq before the invasion had been an authoritarian state, the vast majority of Iraqis were Ba’athists. Hence, vast numbers of people lost their jobs due to de-Ba’athification, with few people able to fill such positions. This further damaged the existing infrastructure and the institutions of Iraq, whilst leading to a drastic increase in unemployment figures.

Not content with its policy of de-Ba’athification, the CPA also announced that the entire Iraqi security forces (including the armed forces, the police and the presidential security units) were to be disbanded, as they were thought to still be loyal to Saddam Hussein. This put 100,000s more people out of their jobs and onto the street, with a surplus of ex-military arms in circulation (J. Pfiffner, ‘U.S. Blunders in Iraq: De-Ba’athification and Disbanding the Army’, 2009).

With a physical infrastructure that was no longer able to supply the basic needs of the population, and a huge increase in unemployment, sentiments towards the US-led forces soured. Those who had initially supported the invasion began to feel a closer affinity with Saddam’s supporters. Due to the coalition failing to establish a sense of security, people started to take the unravelling situation into their own hands, and vigilante groups were set up. As discontent towards coalition forces grew, insurgencies also formed and swelled in numbers. Violent attacks began to take place against the US-led troops (‘Once Upon a Time in Iraq’, Documentary, BBC).

Violence begat more violence, as the coalition forces responded by utilising increasingly brutal tactics. However, as it was incredibly difficult to separate insurgents from non-combatants, the military coalition often did not make a clear distinction between the two. Civilians became caught in the crossfire, literally and metaphorically, as the homes of families were searched up to three times a day for potential insurgents. Entire villages were circled in barbed wire, trapping civilians in their own homes. Detainees, whether it was proven they were an insurgent or not, were subject to dehumanising treatment. Families became both furious with and terrified of the US-led forces.

It appeared to many Iraqis that their honour and that of their families had been assaulted. They had been humiliated by an occupying army in their own homes (Ibid). 

The previous attempt by the US-led forces to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, and therefore their trust and cooperation, had failed. Angered by the coalition forces’ brutal tactics, more and more Iraqi civilians joined insurgencies. Al-Qaeda also gained a foothold in Iraq, capturing the town of Fallujah, just 40 miles from Baghdad (Ibid). 

These events – the looting of infrastructure, the policy of de-Ba’athification, the disbanding of the Iraqi military, and the US-led force’s brutal and dehumanising tactics, not only against insurgents and terrorists but against civilians who then turned to violent extremism as a result, all contributed towards the destabilisation of Iraq. If the US and her allies had acted differently in these areas, perhaps Iraq would be in a much better position today. 

There are those who argue that we are only able to be critical of these actions now, due to ‘the benefit of hindsight’. However, this is a dangerous precedent to set – an excuse which can be used to pardon any mistake, any crime committed in a time of war. It is not just the right of the people to be able to criticise the past and present actions of their governments, but in fact it is their duty to do so. To cower away from arguments via the implementation of such excuses hails the death of healthy discourse, of political discussion, of democracy. It is an absolute moral imperative that we must not fail to learn from the mistakes of our predecessors. But the broad statement that the perpetrators of such actions could not have possibly known better, as they did not have ‘the benefit of hindsight’ as we do, immediately shuts down any such debate, blocking any attempt to hold our governments, and ourselves, accountable.

It is also vital to acknowledge that there is a long history of Western intervention in the region, including in Iraq, and therefore most grievances amongst the Iraqi population and towards Western states did not suddenly first materialize as a result of the 2003 invasion. 

If there is to be any hope of establishing stability and security in Iraq under a healthy democracy, the grievances of the people must be understood. Nation-builders and peace-makers must understand the reasons for acts of violence committed by a certain part of the Iraqi population. Whilst the violence itself may be unjustifiable, those who have committed such acts will believe that they have just reason for doing so. Although we may not sympathise with or condone such acts, we must understand the reasoning behind them. Such understanding begins with scrutinising our own actions. Questions of “how did we get here?” “how did we contribute towards this?” give us needed perspective. Morality is everything. Humanity is everything. We must not allow the excuse of our governments not having ‘the benefit of hindsight’ stifle such criticism, discussion, and progress.

Ella Handy


‘President Discusses Beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom’ – the White House

Once Upon a Time in Iraq’, BBC Documentary

Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 1: De-Ba’athification of Iraqi Society, 2004

U.S. Blunders in Iraq: De-Ba’athification and Disbanding the Army’ – J. Pfiffner

The views in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club

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