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20 Years On: The Avoidable, Anguishing, and Awful 2003 Iraq War

CAMP KOREA VILLAGE, Iraq (May 15, 2007) - Sergeant Christopher L. Mc Cabe fires his rifle during monthly range training here May 15. The Marines and sailors of Detachment 1, Combat Logistics Battalion 2, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), provide necessities and services to coalition forces throughout the area of operations. Mc Cabe, a Bellaire, Ohio, native, is the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the maintenance section, Det 1, CLB-2, 2nd MLG (Fwd). (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Thomas J. Griffith)

Next Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). In an attempt to make sense of the past two decades of American military operations in Iraq, we must begin by recognizing our military engagement in Iraq isn’t at the two-decade mark. With only one brief hiatus, our military futility there goes back three decades.

My Experience in Iraq 

The first time I engaged in combat was the afternoon of February 26, 1991, in northern Kuwait against the Iraqi Tawakalna tank division. The Desert Storm Battle of 73 Easting was a short, violent, and fierce tank battle, which resulted in my unit, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, gashing a hole in the Iraqi defenses, allowing other American armored divisions to pour through to complete the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s invasion force. I would never have believed it had someone told me that 32 years later, there would still be about 2,500 American troops in Iraq.

Following the crushing defeat the American-led coalition imposed on Saddam, the majority of the half-million combat force withdrew back to their home stations. But then-President George H.W. Bush kept a number of U.S. military forces engaged there, first in a quasi-humanitarian mission in the Kurdish region, Operation Provide Comfort, and later with a northern and southern no-fly zone. The latter two operations were still in effect at the time Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, ordered, ordered a direct invasion of Iraq. 

From 1992 through the beginning of OIF, the U.S. Air Force averaged a stunning 34,000 air sorties per year in the performance of those twin no-fly zones. Successive American administrations had intended those military measures to force Saddam to comply with various UN mandates and to make him a more passive figure in the Middle East. Not only did the extraordinarily expensive decade-long effort fail to produce anything of value for the United States, but if anything it made Iraq more belligerent.

Adapting to New Strategies

Undeterred by the first decade of failure, Bush 43 pressed ahead with yet more coercive measures against Saddam, ultimately resulting in the now-infamous invasion in March 2003 based on erroneous intelligence data claiming that Saddam possessed – and was a threat to use – weapons of mass destruction.  At the time of the 2003 invasion, I was a senior captain in the Army, serving in the Army Operations Center, in the bowels of the Pentagon. 

I vividly remember we had spent months readying “sensitive site exploitation” teams to launch into Iraq as soon as it was safe, securing and safeguarding the many chemical and biological weapons we were sure existed. I was very confident these teams would find, catalog, and safely eliminate the very many chemical and biological weapons that our leaders had assured us were there.

On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell made a remarkable and powerfully emotional presentation to the United Nations Security Council in which he flatly stated that “Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons,” and claimed, “that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent … enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets.” 

For good measure, Powell also warned the world of the “sinister nexus between Iraq and the Al Qaida terrorist network.” This was supportive of Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” Anything that connected Iraq to the September 11 attacks – still an open and painful wound in America in March 2003 – was especially persuasive.

On the night of March 19, 2003, Bush somberly addressed the nation to announce “on my orders” war against Iraq had begun. The reasons, he argued, were compelling: “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” Bush sternly stated. “We will meet that threat,” he concluded, by sending the U.S. Armed Forces to war in Iraq “so that we do not have to meet (that threat) later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.” 

As part of the October 2002 congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq, the Congressional Budget Office provided a range for the estimated cost of the war. Taking the upper end of all categories (deploying the force, conducting active hostilities, redeploying the force, and conducting occupation duties), the cost for an eight-year war would have run just under $450 billion. As it turned out, as of the first full withdrawal in December 2011, the cost was estimated to have been (including the war in Afghanistan by 2011) a staggering $4 trillion

The Cost of Iraq War

The worst of the cost, however, was the human toll.

The United States military lost soldiers to a total of 4,431 deaths and 31,994 wounded. In a vastly underreported category, the members of the U.S. Armed Forces also suffered staggering numbers of unseen casualties: hundreds of thousands suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (one study suggested fully 20 percent of all those who deployed to Iraq suffered from PTSD), and an estimated 350,000 who suffered traumatic brain disorder injuries. And what did America “win” for this extraordinary expenditure of financial and human capital?

Virtually nothing. When Obama fully withdrew the force in December 2011, the eight years of effort up to that point was exposed as having created a hollow Iraqi Security Force that disintegrated in June 2014 at the first test against ISIS – after which Obama immediately returned U.S. troops to protect the regime in Baghdad. There are still 2,500 troops in Iraq today, and no end in sight.

I’m sure Baghdad still appreciates the U.S. providing a military force for its protection. The United States, on the other hand, has done nothing but pay for the 32 years of military excursion in Iraq, in both blood and treasure. Our security is not more secure because of our military presence in Iraq. 

In fact, these three decades have arguably degraded our national security, as we have gotten ourselves into more debt, but more importantly, have wasted entire military careers of our service members on training for unnecessary small-scale counterinsurgency fights at the expense of preparing for potential peer-on-peer conflicts that are both more likely – and more consequential for our long term security.

As is now well established, our entry into this war was based on either incompetent leaders or outright fraud and lies. Each person can judge for themselves, but regardless of which is right, the consequences for our Armed Forces and our country have been an unqualified failure. If there is any lesson to have learned from these three decades of unnecessary conflict, it is that we the people must demand accountability from those who lied us into – and lied to keep us in – wars. What would make a great first step, however, is to end our unnecessary deployment into Iraq today.

Author Expertise and Biography

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.



  1. TheDon

    March 17, 2023 at 10:51 am

    Iraqi’s are free and bravely held elections.

    I hope others learn about freedom especially to overthrow the corupt saudi kings.

  2. Duckman

    March 17, 2023 at 11:56 am

    Three deployments to Iraq including boots on the ground during OIF. Could not agree more with this article. Mr. Davis is correct in that we were already in a low-scale war with Iraq prior to OIF. I dropped bombs on them myself in 1998. I witnessed great bravery by our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. Sure, the world is a better place without Saddam but was it worth it? I don’t think it was.

  3. Dan Farrand

    March 17, 2023 at 2:31 pm

    I supported the war in Iraq while simultaneously feeling in my bones that it would not end well. Why did I support it ? Because I reflexively supported every commitment of US combat power. I was a citizen of the Empire and believed in the Empire.

    However, one day I listed to an interview with General Tommy Franks. I paraphrase: a reporter asked him what came after the destruction of the Iraqi army. General Franks replied, “thats not my concern”.

    I think this sums up the perpetual failures of US military leadership. For General Franks, it was war for wars sake. Not for him the idea that war is politics by other means.

    He might say that politics is up to the civilians, but I judge that to be a cop-out of the highest order.

    When I heard that interview with General Franks before the actual invasion began, I knew the entire exercise would fail because we had no coherent, achievable political objective in mind…other than perhaps, the destruction of a Russian client state which has always been an obsession of neocons like Cheney.

    Now the same, reflexive absence of thinking is at work in Ukraine. The unspoken idea is that America can afford any number of failures over any number of decades.

    However, that is a conceit. Neither the US military nor the US economy has ever recovered from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. US power is in decline and as we see the new woke American values that are held up as future nation building goals, I’m inclined to be glad of it.

  4. 403Forbidden

    March 17, 2023 at 8:52 pm

    The iraq war was (still is) illegal, and on same level as hitler’s march into poland in 1939. “The poles shot at us.”

    Today, the killer 2003 offensive against iraq is being replicated exactly by the biden administration against TikTok.

    No proof, but plenty of accusations, lies and threats being hurled.

  5. Jai

    March 17, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    Desert Shield was done right and well justified.

    But yeah the 2003 version was a lousy move made for lousy reasons, and much should (and hopefully has) been learned from it.

    Fortunately US support for Ukraine is a clear example of doing it right with a sound strategic and moral foundation.

  6. C Ryan

    March 18, 2023 at 12:22 pm

    Everyone (except top Pentagon brass) fails to recognize the obvious. Iraq’s central location, highway system, water ports and airfields make it a logistics goldmine to stage any operations in the greater Middle East. It was necessary in 2003 to galvanize public support just to get our boots on that ground. Did they lie? Not really (WMDs DID exist in Iraq). Did they embellish? Yes, absolutely. Is the world safe from International Islamic Terrorsim 20 years later? Yes. It was the most brilliant gambit the US ever made and quite frankly, we made the world safer in spite of souring public opinion. Mission accomplished.

  7. Old Airborne Dog

    March 18, 2023 at 12:43 pm

    “our entry into this war was based on either incompetent leaders or outright fraud and lies.”

    This is what generally gets published here as lightweight commentary that is either deliberately or through nuance stripped of nuance and context.

    Multiple things can be true at once, and certainly Iraq was not done well – no better than Afghanistan, when both turned from warfighting to concentrate on “democracy projects” and “nation building”.

    But there is zero mention that Saddam Hussein NEVER complied with the ceasefire agreements that ended hostilities during the Gulf War with Coalition troops just a few hours from his palace.

    A real analysis of everything right and wrong with the US versus Iraq would take serious people – unlike the author, to work with all of that.

    But an equally sophomoric and superficial analysis would be this: when Perfumed Prince’s whose military careers are with their fellow careerists in The Five Sided Clown Show that is the Pentagon apply their genius to how wars should be fought, shyte shows like Afghanistan and Iraq is what you get for results.


  8. Jim

    March 18, 2023 at 6:14 pm

    The Question:

    Can we learn from the Iraq experience?

    So far, the jury is still out.

    But it’s not looking good.

    See Ukraine.

  9. David Chang

    March 19, 2023 at 12:16 am

    God bless people in the world.

    The Iraq War is the same wrong as the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Afghan War.

    The first wrong is that U.K., and U.S. Democratic Party cooperate with  Communist Party since World War II, they help Communist Party occupy Asia and mainland China, which cause the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Afghan War, and help the Soviet Russia to be the leader of Sinai Peninsula to cause Iraq War.

    The second wrong is that most political, international relations and law scholars in the United States determine America policies with atheism, such as Frankfurt School and Chicago School, like the thought of Communist Party. But John Rawls and Henry Kissinger do not think about political issues with atheism.

    The third wrong is that many people in America believe atheism. Presbyterian believe socialism and evolution, and join the World Council of Churches guided by the Soviet Union. This cause churches in America and Asia to promote liberation theology, and make more people to join this alliance for worshiping people as God.

    From the Vietnam War to the Iraq War, America political parties, scholars, and churches repeat these three wrongs above.

    However, the U.S. military do not think about these wrongs. Even though many military officers remember the Vietnam War, they still do not admit that the cause of the Vietnam War is that Democratic Party help Communist Party to occupy mainland China and propagate atheism, democracy and progress. Therefore, most U.S. generals do not talk that Iraq is a socialism country, and they do not talk that the democracy promoted by U.S. Democratic Party is the atheism. When the U.S. war policy on Iraq is to make social democracy Iraq, like the Communist International promoted by the Soviet Union, even though the U.S. military defeated Iraq President Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still a atheism country, atheism scholars say that is Islamic socialism.

    This is the same situation in the Western Pacific. Two governments of one-China, the Taipei Authority and the Peiping Authority, both believe atheism, and the Presbyterian propagate liberation theology in Asia, which also make the entire East Asia church to believe atheism. So the USMC in the Western Pacific will be like in the Vietnam War. People in Asia do not welcome the US military, and Asia college students think that the US military invade Asia. Most people in Asia oppose morality and worship image, so they think US military as the most valuable, but after they think that they will die in war, they think that the U.S. military make this dangerous situation, so they oppose war like Communist and Democratic Party, and dump the US military.

    As the Vietnam war, America soldiers fight alone in Afghan and Iraq. Even if the people of Afghan and Iraq do not think the U.S. military as an enemy, they do not help the US military, but keep to believe atheism. This is also wrong in the Ukraine war. The president of Ukraine has not confessed sin and repents to God. Even if the U.S. military help Ukraine to counterattack socialism Russia, they are helping the Ukraine people for socialism Ukraine, while keeping the socialism Eastern Europe.

    Therefore, people in the world should oppose democracy and universal values. People should protect other people by the justice of God, because God gave us life.

    God bless America.

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