The War’s Effects on Society
In Iraq, and undoubtedly in Iran also, the end of the war came as a tremendous relief to civilians and soldiers alike. The enormous cost in human and material losses had taken a grave toll on society. Iraqis had witnessed a vast amount of suffering, borne somewhat unfairly by conscripts’ families and the poorer elements in society. Many Iraqis were still imprisoned in Iran; many more had died. On top of the human toll, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the Iraqi economy was in shambles.
Economics professor Abbas Alnasrawi (among others) has calculated that the Iraqi regime started the war ﬂ ush with oil money, only to end it eight years later badly in debt (Alnasrawi 2001, n.p.). In 1980, Iraq’s oil income was calculated at $26.1 billion; by 1988, the government could only muster $11 billion to lift the country out of its economic crisis.
Moreover, Hussein had contracted a vast amount of debt owed to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States. Posing as a champion of the Arabs and the defender of the “Eastern gate” of the Arab world, he had demanded and received billions of dollars to continue the war. By the ﬁ rst decade of the 21st century, after U.S.-led coalitions had twice invaded Iraq, Baghdad’s coffers were virtually bare, prompting many of its creditor nations to cancel all or part of Iraq’s debt.
Ideological viliﬁ cation had entered the vocabulary of both countries. In Iraq, war propagandists, of whom Hussein was perhaps the most versatile, had crafted a pastiche of pre-Islamic, Islamic, and Arab slogans to inspire and “educate” the masses so that they could support the war effort. The Iranians were depicted as “Magians” (al-majus, the pre-Islamic term for the Persian population in Iran). The entire war was called “Saddam’s Qadisiyya,” in reference to the site of the famous battle of 673 in which the Islamic armies had routed the Persian Sassanians.
One of the canniest ways this propaganda campaign was carried out was through state television and the radio. This author remembers that in 1981, Iraqi government television frequently showed the president touring the outlying villages of Baghdad. Invariably, at the end of each tour, his present to Iraqi farmers and villagers was a television set for each household, thus cementing the state media’s hold on the ordinary Iraqi.
The Baathist focus on a mix of ideology and patronage to serve the ruling clique’s interests during the Iran-Iraq War has received its most elaborate treatment in the recent work of political scientist Eric Davis. Davis argues that the return to history to bolster the state’s position during the war did not begin with the conﬂ ict itself but appeared well before it (Davis 2005, 176–199). In the boom years of the late 1970s, Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the instrumentalization of history, both as a discipline and as a call to arms for the ordinary Iraqi.
The state introduced a systematic overhaul and reinterpretation of historical memory to mobilize consent and prompt popular support for the Baathist-sponsored understanding of both the past and the present. Through the use of Mesopotamian myths, folk symbols, poetry conferences, archaeological ﬁ eldwork, the institution of museums, and the expansion of state-produced history journals, the government drove home the point that it was maintaining and resurrecting asala (authenticity) as the watchword of “Iraqi Pan-Arab thought.
For the Ba’th, authenticity is ﬁ rst and foremost about creating and policing cultural boundaries” (Davis 2005, 171). For example, the state used allusions to the Shuubiyya as a tool to discredit Iran and by extension Iraqi Shia and all other groups that opposed Arab nationalism. Shuubiyya had been a movement in early Abbasid Iraq dominated by Persian scribes and litterateurs that protested the privileged position of the Arabs within Islam and demanded equality for all Muslims.
In Iran, on the other hand, overtly Islamic symbols were employed to maintain popular support. According to political scientist Farideh Farhi, “[T]he emphasis on Shi’i values, Shi’i generated epic aspects of the war, mourning, opposition to existing values in the city, martyrdom, action as opposed to words, purity and devotion, and spiritual rewards in the afterlife [became] the most important elements of the culture of war propagated by the war machine in Iran” (Farhi in Potter and Sick 2002, 104). In both countries, the symbolic vocabulary used during the war was retained in the postwar situation, partly so that the immense sacriﬁ ces on both sides could be manipulated for political gain and national consolidation.