Studying moments in history allows us to make sense of not only our past as individuals and societies but our present as well. This includes dark moments that have filled history on a scale that many seek to forget or simply push aside. These moments have come in the form of genocide, war, small-scale conflict and terrorism all within the modern era and most either using nationalism, patriotism or religion as a pretext to inflict injury and pain. While perhaps at times conflict is inevitable it is essential to understand that besides the infrastructural, geopolitical and security facets associated with these dark moments (e.g. WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraq War, etc.) there are very real ramifications on everyday people, communities, cultures and societies. The long shadow of conflicts, including their micro-level impact, regardless of their scale, should be examined and understood. One of these dark moments is the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Both nations and their people continue to be haunted and affected by this violent watershed moment in modern history.
The Iran-Iraq War officially began on September 22, 1980. It commenced with the full-scale invasion of the Iraqi military into Iran under the assumption that the war would be quick, easy and victory would be definite. The invasion consisted of air raids followed by a massive ground invasion. The primary direction of Iraq’s offensive was the southeast region of Iran, the oil-rich Province of Khuzestan. The aim was to seize the Arvand Rud (Shatt al-Arab River) and the cities of Khorramshahr, Abadan, Ahvaz and Desful.
Additionally, in the north, an Iraqi infantry division moved into Iranian Kurdish Panjwin. In the center, another Iraqi division took Qasr-e Shirin and also secured the ridge that ran along the Baghdad to Tehran road. In the south they took Mehran, a hydro-electric power station, an Iranian airbase at Vahidyey, advanced to the Zagros Mountains and dominated the road network in the southeast. But in truth, the realities of this war extends beyond military operations, geopolitical strategies or a fight for oil-rich land—Khuzestan and a strategic waterway.
What initially seemed like an easy victory evolved into a bloody war of attrition that lasted eight long years and is considered the longest conventional war in modern times. Given the number of associated deaths and injuries (soldiers and civilians), it is also considered one of the bloodiest wars in modern history. This brutal war claimed over a million lives, soldiers and civilians, and physically and psychologically injured millions more in both Iran and Iraq. Much of the death, injury and destruction were related to what is called the War of the Cities. This consisted of a series of artillery shellings, missile attacks and air raids on major cities in Iran, including Ahvaz, Tehran, Tabriz and Shiraz. While Iran retaliated against Iraqi attacks on Iranian cities by targeting cities such as Basra and Baghdad, the sheer scale of death and destruction on the Iranian side of the border far exceeded that of the Iraqi.
…war was not only waged in the battlefield soldier to soldier but also against innocent civilians—men, women and children.
The echoes and long shadow of this dark watershed moment in modern history continue to impact the people of both Iran and Iraq, albeit in different ways and has forever altered the dynamics of the wider region. And as the years go by and memories begin to fade of the horrors and atrocities faced by volunteer and conscripted soldiers and civilians, it is essential not to forget the realities that occurred on the ground no matter the intensity of the traumas suffered and endured or the desire to forget. It is important to remember the nuances of this dark moment in history and to remember the sacrifices, the fears, and the ugly realities associated with the Iran-Iraq War. This includes recognizing that the war was not only waged in the battlefield soldier to soldier but also against innocent civilians—men, women and children. It is important to remember the sound of the sirens as they filled the streets and people’s homes and echoed in hollow spaces as imminent death was possibly fast approaching. It is important to remember the moment(s) the bombs were dropped, and the earth shook beneath one’s body as a result of the intensity associated with the impact that bombs and missiles had within civilian areas. It is important not to forget that you were both relieved that you and your loves ones were still breathing and healthy (if you were one of the lucky ones), but deeply saddened because in all likelihood some other innocent was not—even if you were only in elementary school at the time. And if you were not in either Iran or Iraq during the duration of the war and were a member of the diaspora, it is important to remember the fear and worry that existed in the hearts of thousands abroad for the safety and security of their loved ones. It is also important to remember the mother whose son will never come home to give her a warm embrace and despite knowing that he has passed, for years desperately clings to the hope that her son was a prisoner of war and that he would come home one day.
As the years go by and the memories begin to fade, it is vital to respect the legacy of our past regardless of what side of the border one is from and aim to not forget regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum. The need to remember far exceeds politics or political positioning. Moreover, it is essential to elevate our understanding of the complexities associated with the Iran-Iraq War beyond that of military or geopolitical strategies, and the advancement of interests and truly understand the macro-level impact that this war had on everyday people. Without taking history and basic humanity into consideration and seeking to both remember and understand the importance of the realities and impacts of the Iran-Iraq war, the mistakes of the past may be repeated with possibly even worse outcomes in Iran, Iraq or elsewhere.
In memory of my Amoo Iraj a conscripted soldier during the Iran-Iraq War who passed too soon and my grandmother who always hoped he would return.