Book Review


SPECIAL OPERATIONS IN IRAQ is a kind of Boy’s Own account, for adults, full of derring-do about Special Forces operating inside Iraq disguised as petrol smugglers before the 2003 invasion and executing special missions afterward. With jingoistic swagger brave heroes battle it out against the foreign enemy. I was reminded of stories 50 years ago that glamorised war - the abominable slaughter of thousands and the destruction of homes and lives. This myopic proselytizing reinforced the idea that all our wars were just and necessary to defeat the forces of evil aggression that threatened us and our way of life. Whilst reading I was struck by the way that the contradictions between fact and fiction in war are sharper and more profound in Iraq. It was a war of choice which the CIA advised would end in tears; with widespread Iraqi death and uncontrollable chaos and destruction. “Don’t attack Iraq” was the universal slogan.

Elsewhere there are some interesting facts. For example:

the British SAS entered Iraq, via Jordan in August 2002. Their mission was to watch Main Supply Routes for troop movements and to gather intelligence on possible targets (and) to encourage insurrection.”  Months of meticulous military planning (had culminated in) the original preferred date for a war against Iraq (of) November 2002.”

This suggests Blair is not the “pretty straight guy” he pretends as he must have been in on preparations long before he admits.

“During their time in Iraq, the SAS were able to link up with various agencies operating in the region, such as MI6, the CIA and, of course, ‘Gray Fox’, the US Army’s covert intelligence arm, a death squad and a re-creation of the Vietnam War Operation Phoenix assassination programme. At times, there appeared to be more agents from overseas operating in Iraq, than there were Iraqi agents. Most were there to find evidence of Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction programme, as this was the premise for going to war with Iraq. To accomplish such a complex task required massive Special Forces resources, both from the UK and the USA.”

Hans Blix and his team were also looking. Blair later admitted that there never was evidence of WMDs. The excuse for the deception was that Iraq was difficult to penetrate. The book describes a different version of events with agents roaming freely around Iraq for the best part of a year before invasion, checking out weapons’ sites and sabotaging communications and transport. Meanwhile, Naji Sabri, the Iraqi foreign minister working for the CIA, advised there were no WMDs. 

The book is liberally peppered with photographs of sophisticated military hardware and Special Forces in action. The tone is upbeat with stories of small groups of crack troops always coming out on top and “eliminating the enemy” despite daunting odds. However, less than halfway through the book with “major combat” over, cracks appear. Suddenly it’s urban warfare in an occupied country where foreign troops aren’t welcome and are viewed with suspicion and distrust by local populations and irregular militia:

“I have to say that I don’t care for this place too much, as nobody seems to give a shit for us. All I ask is for a bit of respect to be shown to us for what we did over here. We’re Americans and we bring freedom. I want to know why these guys are attacking us every goddam day. They’re not all bad, but how do you tell the difference?” “Keeping the peace is proving to be far more demanding than winning the war ever was.” 

The Iraq war caused untold human suffering to people who had already endured dictatorship and sanctions for generations. The predicted collapse after invasion was made worse by absence of planning and preparation, compounded by the victors eliminating all existing security and administration. War should carry a health warning. It is never a good idea. This war was an extremely bad idea and the Boys Own versions will be left on bookshop shelves.

Noel Hamel