The United States and a coalition of allies invaded Iraq twenty years ago this week. Although the war (mostly) ended several years ago, memory of the conflict, its preparation, and its aftermath continue to color (and to some degree poison) American politics.
It’s worthwhile to compare and contrast the Iraq experience with the immediately previous example of a catastrophically disastrous American military intervention, the Vietnam War. The war on Iraq was deeply consequential for American politics, arguably more consequential than the war in Southeast Asia.
To be sure, the Iraq War did not inflict the same kind of physical and demographic damage to the United States as the conflict in Vietnam. The death toll of the war was a fraction of that of the Vietnam War, although the overall casualty totals are somewhat closer because of advances in medical technology, protective equipment, and tactical doctrine. In terms of damage to equipment and the material foundation of the US military, the Iraq War was also less devastating than the war in Vietnam.
But politically the Iraq War was central to the elections of 2004, 2008, and even 2016. In 2004 George W. Bush defeated John Kerry on a strongly pro-war platform, with Kerry arguing for a negotiated, staged withdrawal of US forces. In 2008 the Iraq War was again the centerpiece of the campaign, with Barack Obama touting anti-Iraq War credentials against a hawkish John McCain. Iraq took a backseat in the 2012 election although it again gained salience with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
In 2016, Donald Trump used his ambiguous record on the war to defeat hawkish candidates in the GOP primary, then turned that argument against Hillary Clinton, one of the most hawkish members of the Democratic Party. Joe Biden slow-motion repudiated his support of the Iraq War between 2005 and 2020, and the issue had largely lost salience by the 2020 election.
Still, the contrast with the Vietnam War here is extraordinary; in 1980 the United States elected an extremely hawkish President who had strongly advocated participation in and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Running on a pro-Iraq War platform today would be considered suicidal in either party.
More broadly, the Iraq War contributed to a general loss of faith in the institutions of US governance. The Bush administration clearly misled the country as to the strength of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and to the threat that such weapons would pose. In fairness this is difficult to parse, because there are many sources of this loss of faith, some of them (Watergate, the Vietnam War, Iran-Contra) preceding Iraq by decades.
The 2008 Financial Crisis also dealt a devastating blow to public confidence in America’s political and economic elite. Nevertheless, the claim that Bush lied and people died remains a potent rejoinder on both the right and the left to the idea that government can be trusted.
The Iraq War spurred opposition within the United States, although this opposition never reached the size and intensity of opposition to the Vietnam War, perhaps because the Democratic Party itself shifted to an anti-war position by 2006. However, the war had a big impact on anti-system politics on both the right and the left. On the nominal left, critique of the war blossomed into a general critique of American capitalism, represented in part by the Occupy Wall Street movement (taking its name from how the government and media characterized the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan).
On the right the Iraq War helped catalyze (if it did not cause) a shift against the internationalist, hawkish, and free market proclivities of the Republican Party, inciting a fight that continues to this very day in the GOP. The Iraq War was not the only cause of this shift; the Financial Crisis and the global pandemic also contributed. Perhaps because of the lack of conscription, the Iraq War did not cause the same kind of collapse in esteem for the military as its Southeast Asian predecessor.
Culturally, the Iraq War has not come close to having the footprint of the Vietnam conflict. Vietnam movies began to win Academy Awards as early as 1978, when Deer Hunter and Coming Home took very different approaches to the war. These were followed over the next decade by such monumental films as Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket. The Iraq War has not received anything close to the same treatment; Oscar winner The Hurt Locker is now lightly regarded and rarely watched, with 2014’s American Sniper receiving much the same treatment. The fact that far fewer people served in Iraq than served in Vietnam may explain the diminished degree of cultural relevance.
The Iraq War Aftermath
Arguably, the Iraq War has left fewer scars on American politics than the war in Southeast Asia; the polarization of American society today still holds not a candle to the violent disruption the US experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Americans are still in Iraq today, staying only with the grudging compliance of the Iraqi government and with no serious political engagement from the American public.
The idea that the United States might willingly do something like the Iraq War, involving the conquest of a distant country and the reconstruction of its political institutions, seems altogether absurd. That said, in the 1980s and 1990s it seemed absurd that the United States might once again undertake a war similar to the one it conducted in Vietnam.
Author Expertise and Biography
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.