The Most Important Lesson

Bessma Momani on why the human cost of the Iraq War outweighs all others.

By: /
19 March, 2013
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

In the ten years that have passed since the invasion of Iraq, an endless number of lessons have been drawn by military strategists, diplomats, politicians, and public relations analysts from what was, at almost every stage, a complete and utter fiasco. The continuing debates over what Iraq has taught us – is intervention ever the right policy? Can the perils of “nation-building” ever be overcome? What does an effective counter-insurgency strategy involve? – are important, but their value is diminished when they forget what drives them: the human cost of the war. The Iraq War left behind 5 million Iraqi orphans, took more than 100,000 Iraqi lives, forced four to five million Iraqis to flee heir homes and communities, displaced ancient Iraqi minority groups, and devastated much of Iraq’s infrastructure and economy.

These are the human and material costs of an unwarranted war. And they are not one-time losses. These costs will continue to accrue year after year, generation after generation. For what will be the life story of an Iraqi orphan who lost everything in the war? How will the traumas of her childhood impact her future relationships – to her spouse, her children, and her community? What will the refugee children who cannot remember a childhood in Iraq and have only the memories of extended family or strangers to use in building their own narrative, rely upon for a sense of identity and history? What will all the Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Mandaean parents tell their children when they ask about their homeland, knowing they will likely never return? These are not the costs and lessons of war that military strategists and political analysts emphasize, but they are painfully real to many Iraqis today.

There can be no question that the tragedy of Iraq did not end with the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is still plagued by political and social chaos. The country has been torn apart by inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic conflicts that erupted into the space created by flawed U.S. policies.  The destruction of the central Iraqi government’s authority made one sectarian group the boogeyman for all of Hussein’s past atrocities, and the writing of ethnic and religious cleavages into the foreign-guided constitution entrenched political bargaining based on the lowest common denominator of Iraqi identity.  

For those who may not remember, or have never known, this is not the Iraq that so many of its people knew before the war. As has been the case in so many other conflicts, ‘pure’ ethnic or religious identities were imposed on Iraqis to fit various political agendas. Many Iraqis were of mixed background before the war; having a Sunni mother, a Shiite father, and a Christian aunt by marriage was never ‘out of the ordinary’ before 2003, particularly in soon-to-become violence-ridden Baghdad. That this diversity has now been almost entirely obscured is a testament to the extent to which Iraq identity has been distorted by the war. Still, while many Iraqis lament the end of the intra-communal harmony that existed under dictatorship, they would not wish to return to the draconian ways of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Some apologists for the invasion of Iraq say that 2003 was an early chapter of the Arab Spring – that the American-led regime change in Iraq encouraged many others in the region toward democratic revolutions. But this is a false comparison. Iraq was not like the other countries of the Arab Spring where the people rose up against dictatorship. Iraq did not experience a genuine uprising authored by the Iraqi people but a top-down, externally-driven political exercise. Now, imagine that the social and political revolution that swept the Arab countries in 2013 had transformed Iraq, instead of the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. How many lives could have been saved and changed for the better?

This anniversary will be taken by many as an opportunity to reflect on questions of ‘legitimate intervention’. Comparisons will inevitably be made to the situation in Syria today, comparisons which make it all the more important to remember the real lessons of the 2003 war in Iraq: The costs of war are immense, and never just material, and only the people of a country have the right and power to initiate a legitimate revolution.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter

Also in the series

An Unachievable Goal

An Unachievable Goal


Michael Bell on why the thinking behind the Iraq War guaranteed failure.

Iraq Through the Lens of 1882

Iraq Through the Lens of 1882


Paul Sedra considers the occupation of Iraq through the lens of the British occupation of Egypt.