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America Never Learned the Lessons of the Iraq War

It is time, however belatedly, to learn the painful lessons of the 2003 Iraq War – and the many that have followed its awful pattern since.

Carl Gustaf
Sky Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment engaged targets with the Carl Gustaf 84mm weapon system in Grafenwoehr, Germany September 8, 2018 during Saber Junction 18. Exercise Saber Junction 18 is a U.S. Army Europe-directed exercise designed to assess the readiness of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade to execute unified land operations in a joint, combined environment and to promote interoperability with participating allies and partner nations.

The (Continuing) Costs of Failing to Learn Iraq’s Most Obvious & Painful Lessons – Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush told the American people that at his orders, “American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and defend the world from grave danger.”

We know now that the “grave danger” about which Bush so stoically warned, was in fact a non-existent threat of weapons of mass destruction.

As so often seems to be the case, it wasn’t the original sin that was the problem but the two decades of compounding failures that have followed.

The Iraq War: We Never Learned From It 

The lessons we should have learned within the first 12 months went ignored – and have been repeated to our harm ever since.

Whatever Bush’s true motivation may have been for launching the war against Iraq in 2003; the problems started accruing almost immediately.

Ironically, the challenges were initially masked because of a spectacularly successful ground offensive. The U.S.-led coalition completed the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s conventional forces in mere weeks, marked by Bush’s infamous landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 festooned with a banner, “Mission Accomplished.”

It was here that Bush could have cauterized the mistake of the war and sought to withdraw the troops as quickly as possible. Bush could have worked with many officials in Iraq to use their military to secure the country and start the process of forming a new government, accelerating the withdrawal of the coalition military.

Instead, the U.S.-installed Coalition Provisional Authority did the worst thing possible: disband the Iraqi army and demonize the Baath Party, stripping them of any ability to hold office. This political party was overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims and overnight threw hundreds of thousands of militarily trained Sunnis out of work and made it nearly impossible for them to feed their families. Further, Bush refused to withdraw the U.S. military and transitioned into an occupation force. By the spring of 2004, a Sunni-led insurgency had metastasized. It only got worse from there.

Having chosen not to end the war, Bush instead changed the objectives. No longer was the war merely to save the world from a “grave danger,” but now it was to change the very form of government in the region. In November 2003, just nine months into the occupation, Bush said the establishment “of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.” As would soon become painfully clear, however, Bush’s war didn’t inaugurate a wave of democracy. It unleashed the spreading of conflict and violence. Unfortunately, the next administration would perform no better.

Obama won the 2008 presidential election on the promise of ending the Iraq war. Almost three years into his administration, Obama announced that by the end of 2011, all American troops would be out of Iraq and the war formally over. But that didn’t last long. At the first sign of trouble, he sent them right back in. 

In June 2014, a then-little known Islamic radical group, ISIS, made a modest attack on the Iraqi city of Mosul. The Iraqi army the U.S. had spent eight years training, melted away when tested by the much smaller ISIS forces, sending Baghdad into a panic. At that moment, American interests were in preventing the terror group from spreading beyond Iraq and Syria and defending American citizens worldwide. It was not, however, in defending Baghdad.

What Obama should have done was clearly communicate that the U.S. would defend American interests but Baghdad was responsible for its own security. As I wrote often during this period, ISIS was always a dead man walking, as it didn’t have the capacity to hold the territory it took from Iraq and Syrian governments. Had Obama remained firm, Baghdad would have eventually defeated ISIS, even though it would have taken them likely years longer. But it was always Iraq’s fight, not America’s. Obama neglected this and sent U.S. troops back in. They are still there to this day.

Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden have all perpetuated or continued a bad pattern of believing that the deployment of U.S. combat power is a good tool – a preferred tool, a policy option of first choice – through which to attain beneficial political outcomes. We’ve seen how disastrous our 20 year war in Afghanistan was. Add to that the disaster of the Libyan intervention of 2011, our decades of military intervention in Somalia, other locations throughout Africa, and still in Syria. None of these missions have improved American national security but all of the have great costs in blood and treasure.

It is time, however belatedly, to learn the painful lessons of the 2003 Iraq War – and the many that have followed its awful pattern since – and acknowledge that America’s Armed Forces are intended to defend our country and deter potential foes from attacking us or our allies. It is not designed as an instrument to obtain by force – or perhaps it is more accurate to state attempt to obtain by force – a preferential political outcome. Ignoring this key lesson will only get more Americans killed and waste yet more trillions of dollars.

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. T. Martin

    March 20, 2023 at 1:47 am

    What’s amazing is that no one in a leadership role seems to have learned anything since Viet Nam. A good place to start is: “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War” June 1, 1995 by Harry G. Summers (Author). I think he wrote the book for use at the American War College. He bases his reasoning on Von Clauswitz (‘On War”). Note: this stuff should be required reading in high school. His summary is usefful: 1) Wars should have clearly defined objectives; 2) Wars should be supported by the people of the country waging them, & 3) The people of that country are going to have to be willing to pay the cost (blood & treasure) to achieve success. Apply this simple algorithim, backward to Iraq II or Afghanistan or forward to Ukraine; US losers from the git go and what was achieved for all the wasted expense. One might as well ask Siri or Alexys. Good luck getting an intelligible response.

  2. Commentar

    March 20, 2023 at 2:52 am

    America is a bloodbath nation where every year 30,000 to 40,000 people die of gunshot wounds.

    How to learn anything.

    The Iraq war has merely taught America that the greater the violence dished out, the greater the harvest of success (flow of foreign blood).

    The US and its allies turned Iraq into one big massive human abattoir, a fact completely ignored by western media, especially the likes of Reuters and AFP.

    From Joint Vision 2020, America has now embraced NATO 2030.

    What do they meant for America.

    They envision that in the coming global battlefield of war, or the arena of global slaughter, America & its henchmen must control all the combat domains with an iron grip or iron control.

    Peace not required or desired.

    Only required is total victory after total slaughter of all recalcitrant forces

    Genghis and Hitler would beam with pride and admiration at America and its amazing plans for the future of mankind should they be still alive today.

  3. Michael Droy

    March 20, 2023 at 9:33 am

    I’m missing the bit here where the US armed ISIS in Syria and backed Israel, Saudi and Turkey in their support for ISIS back then and even today.
    ISIS was a US+friends tool to attack Syria from the start.

    It was a US friend (if hardly reliable – Nazis and ISIS are dangerous friends). Never a US enemy.

  4. David Chang

    March 20, 2023 at 12:02 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Thank you Mr. Davis, you tell a good question and help us to think more political issues of military.

    We know that it is easy to start war, but difficult to end it; it is easy to encourage abortion, but difficult to end it. Since the 20th century, war has been more cruel, like abortion, murder people quickly without thinking about right or wrong.

    Since the first half of World War II, there have been wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Ukraine, and many wars in Africa. These wars may be terminated by signing treaties. Or it may be temporarily suspended due to negotiations, but the dispute will not disappear because of this. This dispute is like the current dispute in Israel and the dispute within the African Union.

    When the atheists renamed the war of religion to the war of socialism, time became the most important issue, we have less and less time left, the army is less and less people, budget and fuel, and everywhere People who believe in atheism, even politicians and officials in the United States have started to promote atheism, such as the dispute between East and West.

    Sad message from Africa:
    “The major challenge: to (re)know feminism, as theory and practice of action

    We thus had to claim our priorities, in the face of a generalization of feminist struggles.

    We started from models and agendas produced by a dominant, and let us say it, “arrogant” West (Mernissi, 1984). It was necessary to “situate” our priorities in our historical contexts and living spaces, and then place them on the international agenda as an African agenda. Forty years later, many of these struggles have led to definite advances, including the right to a voice in Africa itself and in the world, our contribution to the platform of the Beijing Women’s Conference (1995), the drafting and voting of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on women’s rights (2003). This so-called Maputo Protocol obliges signatory states to guarantee women’s rights, including the right to participate in the political process, social and political equality with men, greater autonomy in their health decisions, an end to female genital mutilation, the legalization of abortion, and so on., to name just a few salient points.”

    We think about the time issues brought to us by the Iraq war, which are still the time of war planning, the time of reserve training, the time of weapons manufacturing, and the redemption and the interest payments of government bonds.

    So we can find the answer in the first half of World War 2, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. Now more and more people in Asia  oppose the war made by the United States. They believe that the policies of the Democratic Party are the policies of the United States, and believe that the Democratic Party’s provocation of other socialism parties is the aggressive act of the United States in the world.

    However, in the U.S. presidential elections in recent years, the enemies of the U.S. military are not only people wearing military uniforms and arms, but also civilians without weapons. However, more and more U.S. military no longer believe in God, but believe in atheism, so the moral behavior of the U.S. military is the duty of the U.S. military. However, the foreign policy of the US military should not be to promote atheism, but should be to promote the grace of God and Ten Commandments, so that people in the world will bear their obligation, and help each other with the Unified Command Plan.

    God bless America.

  5. Dan Farrand

    March 22, 2023 at 5:02 pm

    I’m sad to say that I supported the war in Iraq. However, I acknowledge today that I was wrong. Being wrong does not diminish the United States. Unfortunately those who run US policy today are the last small group who cannot acknowledge that Iraq was a disaster for the US.

    One of the greatest costs that you do not mention, is that 20 years of constabulary warfare reduced the US military to a constabulary force. I remember reading articles describing how artillery units in the Army were being converted to MP battalions.

    The damage probably goes much deeper than that. A whole generation of officers and NCO’s who are experienced in fighting against an enemy that cannot really defend itself. A nation that imagines that war itself is a kind of video game and a mindset that thinks of casualties as somehow exceptional rather than normal.

    One wonders if another unacknowledged cost might be the entire premise of a volunteer military ?

  6. Sir Winston the Nazi Slayer

    March 24, 2023 at 2:09 pm

    It seems that Putin didn’t learn the lessons of the Iraq war.
    Putin thought the Russians would be greeted as liberators in Ukraine. Sound familiar?

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