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Saddam's Heroes

Saddam's Heroes

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Published by: Don Gomez on Oct 11, 2012
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After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, General Ra’ad Hamdani worked with historians from

the US Army to piece together an understanding of the Iraqi military under Saddam. On the topic

of “heroes,” Hamdani passionately spoke at length about the “thousands and thousands” of

heroes from the war with Iran, most who were killed in the war (Woods, 2009: 97). He

concludes, saying “What is sad is that we had heroes who survived the war, but they were

dismissed by Saddam because he accused them of something or another.” (Woods, 2009: 97).

Saddam went to great lengths to prevent popular heroes from emerging during and after

the war with Iran. Before the 1986 Ba’ath conference which saw the temporary reassertion of the

Iraqi officer corps, successful commanders were often pulled from the front before they became

too popular (Workman, 1994: 155; Marashi, 2008: 164). After victory was declared in 1988,

Saddam and his generals undertook a media campaign in which success was attributed to

Saddam’s “military genius” (Marashi, 2008: 173). When I asked Mahdi if there were any heroes

from the war, he replied:

Saddam and his generals. [Izzat] Al-Durri.18

His [Saddam’s] brother-in-
law. They were on TV, they got medals and trophies. They said thanks
for the soldiers, thanks for the martyrs. Uday and Qusay got 20 medals.
Al-Durri got 12 or 15. And the Republican Guard got some medals.

To Mahdi, the lavish televised ceremonies seemed to be the reason for the war in the first place,

with the soldiers and martyrs, those who fought the war, a mere afterthought.

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18 A prominent Iraqi commander.

During the war and long after it, soldiers who became well known and popular began to

die in mysterious accidents (Marashi, 2008: 175). General Kamel Sachet, a Special Forces

soldier who was widely respected throughout the Iraqi army as a popular hero was executed by

Saddam, ten years after the Iran-Iraq War, under the cover of the US bombing of Iraq known as

‘Desert Fox’ (Steavenson, 2010: 261).

Seemingly, the only heroes were dead martyrs. Saddam had a number of memorials

constructed during and after the war to cement the victory in sculpture and memorialize the war

dead. The ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ was built in 1982, the first ever such memorial to be

built while the conflict was still ongoing (Inglis, 1993: 22). The memorial is described as “‘a

titled Behemoth, which looks like a flying saucer made from reinforced concrete and frozen in

midflight’; it ‘represents a traditional shield ... dropping from the dying grasp of the archetypal

Iraqi warrior’” (Inglis, 1993: 28).

On those same grounds stands perhaps the most well-known monument in Iraq, the

famous ‘Swords of Qadisiya’ or ‘Victory Arch.’ Construction began in 1986, two years before

victory was declared, at a time when victory seemed highly improbable (al-Khalil, 1991: 10).

The site consists of a pair of arms, fashioned after Saddam’s, holding crossed swords, with a long

parade ground between the two pairs. The monument is made of the melted weapons of Iraqi war

dead. At the base of each arm lay piles of Iranian helmets, said to be captured during the war.

A less well known monument was constructed near Basra, in southern Iraq and the site of

some of the most intense fighting during the war. One hundred and one statues align the

waterfront, each modeled after a fallen Iraqi soldier, with the exception of one, which is modeled

after Saddam. The statues face the water and each has an outstretched arm pointing towards Iran,

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indicating that Iran started the war. Kareem joked that Iraqis refer to this memorial as “ass

street,” because while the fingers point towards Iran, the backsides of the statues face Iraq.

Alwar and Kareem described an attempt by the regime to make December 1 an Iraqi

‘Remembrance Day,’ in which Iraqi society would commemorate the war dead. As they

remember it, the day was marked by politicians wearing pins or patches in the shape of the Iraqi

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, similar to the British poppy worn in November. Politicians

appeared on television wearing the pins, but the general public did not participate. The idea never

caught on and eventually fizzled out.

After the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam sought to cement himself as the “military genius” that

delivered victory to the people. Celebrations, parades, and award ceremonies lauding Saddam

and his inner circle as heroes poisoned the concept of heroism for the war generation. Saddam

actively sought to stomp out emerging heroes, even long after the end of the war. The

construction of memorials, mostly with the intent of praising Saddam or blaming Iran for the

war, did little to enhance the status of Iraqi veterans in the eyes of the public, and initiatives to

enact an Iraqi ‘Remembrance Day’ failed. The glory was consumed entirely by Saddam.

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IV - Conclusion

When I began this research, the question I was most interested in answering was how

Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War were treated compared to veterans of the invasion of Kuwait.

From a non-Iraqi point of view, 1991 seemed to be the year in which Iraq began to slip. My

initial hypothesis was that veterans of the invasion of Kuwait would be treated worse than

veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, since, I believed, the invasion of Kuwait would be considered

much more unpopular than the Iran-Iraq War.

Instead, what I found is that the two wars blur together. The army never demobilized. The

wars were fought by the same people. No distinctions were made by the public on which war

was more just or which veterans were true heroes. Both were considered unjust and both led to

needless destruction, loss of life, and loss of youth. Veterans generally received no assistance

from the state regardless of which conflict they fought in.

I also expected to find veterans proud of their military service, but upset that they were

used in an unjust war with little to show for it. Instead, I found that these veterans do not want to

be veterans at all. Compartmentalizing military service as separate from the experience of being

a drafted Iraqi man, forced to fight in an unjust war under Saddam is uncommon, at least with the

veterans I spoke with and according to prior research.

Although I was not able to interview any Iraqi officers, I can surmise through research

that they are more likely to hold nostalgic feelings about military service, despite the hardships.

Indeed, one of the conclusions of this research is the existence of multiple competing armies

within the Iraqi armed forces, and with that, multiple competing experiences. Members of the

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Republican Guard, who were often volunteers or specially selected, likely have very different

experiences and feelings towards their war service than draftees of the Regular Army.

Jabar describes the Iraqi desire to “leave the national space” as one of the lasting legacies

of the conflict on the war generation (2004: 135). While he means this in the literal sense of

leaving Iraq for another country, it might be extended to mean leaving the ‘national space’ writ

large; attempting to shed the entire episode from memory. This is accomplished through

purposely not remembering. Talking about war is common for returning soldiers, and potentially

essential for ensuring healthy transitions back into society (O’Nell, 1999; Ben-Ari, 1989; White,

1999). By not talking and ignoring the memories of war, Iraqi veterans may be hindering their

own reintegrations.

Through the interviews, two themes were expressed that deserve further consideration;

the insistence that there were no veterans assistance programs or organizations, formal or

informal, that existed in the aftermath of the war, and the demonization of Iranians.

It seems strange and works against previous research to suggest that Iraqi veterans would

completely seek to shed their identity as veterans. Shortly after the Iran-Iraq War and before the

invasion of Kuwait, Jabar identified a “clannish” solidarity between veterans (2004). In that

space is where one would expect to find the beginnings of veteran networks. The rush into

Kuwait and the resulting fallout may have stomped out any budding veteran movement, but it is

an area that demands further exploration.

Additionally, where Iraqi veterans may be quick to admit that the war with Iran was

unjust, they are also likely to display open animosity towards Iran and Iranians. How much of

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this animosity stems from personal experience and to what extent is it the result of Saddam’s

“othering” of the Iranians through mass media?

Going further in understanding the experience of Iraqi veterans requires three things

which were not accomplished in this research: 1) seeking out Iraqi written sources in the

dominant literature as identified by Simons (i.e.; military performance, soldier memoirs, and

non-fiction adventure, 2) bringing in the voices of Iraqi civilians, and 3) speaking with a wider

range of veterans, representing the different services (Popular Army, Regular Army, Republican

Guard, etc.) from both the officer and enlisted ranks. Research on Iraqi veterans have largely

relied on interviews with former members of the Iraqi military, without speaking with Iraqi

civilians on their notions of military service and returning veterans. Speaking with a large

number of Iraqi civilians who lived through the Iran-Iraq War and the era after might offer new

details, especially concerning civil-military relations.

Finally, most research relying on interviews with Iraqi veterans has been conducted

outside of Iraq with Iraqis living in the diaspora. The current security situation makes researching

in Iraq difficult, but it is unknown what effect living away from Iraq might have on veterans’

memories of the conflict. Future study might benefit from sustained research conducted inside

Iraq. While Iraq today continues to suffer from near daily terror attacks, hopefully, the slowly

improving situation will allow for this level of research to be conducted in the near future.

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