Ignorant Armies: Sliding Into War in Iraq

Reviewed: June 5, 2003
By: Gwynne Dyer
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
188 pages, $19.99

I will admit my bias up front. I’ve enjoyed Gwynne Dyer’s work for years. I’m always glad when the Star decides to pick up a run of his columns and I’ve gone so far as to seek out a more regular supply of them on the web.

When he visited Whitehorse to speak just before the onset of the Iraq Invasion (or Gulf War II - or III, depending on how you rate the Iran- Iraq War in the 1980s) a number of people were impressed that he spoke so long and so logically without apparent reference to notes.

This book would be the notes. He wrote it in three and half weeks during the early winter, finishing it in February, although many of its key points had appeared already in columns written in 2001 and 2002. The publisher rushed it into print to take advantage of the instant hype supplied by the actual war itself, but it is rather better than the usual run of “instant book” that this sort of event often inspires.

The book is fairly evenly divided into four sections, each of which explores an element of the present crisis, a crisis which is far from over.

“A Needless War” sets forth the thesis of the book, that the invasion of Iraq need not have taken place. The crux of the argument is that while Iraq may once have had tons of weapons of mass destruction,, and once had a viable program for the eventual production of atomic weapons, it doesn’t now, and if Saddam had had them Islamic terrorists were the last people he would have given them to. What he wanted was to be the hero of the Arab world by levelling out the balance of power with Israel, the actual nuclear power in the Middle East.

The debate is moot anyway. Dyer is certain most of Saddam’s US purchased WMDs were used up fighting Iran, and the decade long sanctions, along with weapons inspections until 1998, made it pretty certain that nothing much new had been added to the arsenal.

Part two traces the rise of the militant Islamic Arabs from the 1950's when nationalism was their motivating force to today, when failed nationalism has been replaced by religion as a driving force. He reminds us that this is an Arab Islamic problem, and that most of the Muslims in the word are not Arabs, nor do they share Arabia’s problems or its obsession with the USA as the Great Satan.

But, he warns, they might come to if it were perceived that the USA was engaged in some sort of world-wide Islamic pacification operation. A fellow named Huntingdon wrote about this possibility in the early 1990's, and Osama Bin Laden seems to have taken the warning in this book as a goal to reach for. He would like (if he’s really still alive) to cause the West to over react its way into a wave of repression which would spark Arab Muslim unrest and unite the Arab nations into a single force.

Oddly, considering how the second half of the book goes, he is full of praise for the Bush administrations failure to fall into that trap after September 11, 2001. He sees the invasion of Afghanistan as a measured, logical response to the immediate problem of world terror and considers it a model of how to gain world support and get most of what you want with as little damage as possible.

Of the invasion of Iraq, he is much more critical. He calls it a Monty Python (And now for something completely different ...) sort of moment in world history. He can’t find the justification for it, scoffs at the notion that Saddam would have wanted anything to do with Bin Laden (who had Saddam on his own hit list of infidels) and feels that the war we have just witnessed was the result of complex forces which it will take us years to understand.

One thing is clear however, the men currently surrounding President G.W. Bush were nearly all members of something called the Project for a New American Century long before they were swept into power by the Bush victory. They had used the term “regime change” in a letter to President Clinton during his second term. They had an agenda that developed in between Gulf War I (under President Bush I, for whom many of them once worked) and the arrival of President Bush II on the scene.

So the present war is somewhat about America’s position in the world as a hyper-power, somewhat about control of oil (but not as much as some think), somewhat about actual fears, somewhat about Bush II having unfinished business from his father’s term, and somewhat about keeping his own poll numbers up and the fortunes of the Republican Party high.

The final section of the book is the most speculative, and contains some of Dyer’s thinking (articulated in a radio series called “Millennium” in the late1990’s) about the state of democratic advance in the world. He offers a range of possibilities for the outcome of the war (we seem to be seeing something in the middle of his continuum so far), and warns that the USA won’t take too many casualties (announced now every few days since the destruction of the Baathist government) before it pulls out.

While reconstruction plans and lots of money are needed in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the former nation has only been marginally assisted in its recovery since 2001, and the latter is notoriously hard to steer.

In an article in the most recent edition of Saturday Night ( summer 2003) magazine Dyer refers to the US incursions as a Martial Plan, a deliberate pun on the Marshall Plan which rebuilt both Germany and Japan after WW II. The Middle East is an entirely different animal.