Perhaps the most vicious war of the late twentieth century, the 1980-88 conflict between Iran and Iraq deserves a fresh appraisal. In The Iran-Iraq War, Johnson, a former U.S. army officer, intended to provide a politically neutral analysis of the

Perhaps the most vicious war of the late twentieth century, the 1980-88 conflict between Iran and Iraq deserves a fresh appraisal. In The Iran-Iraq War, Johnson, a former U.S. army officer, intended to provide a politically neutral analysis of the conflict that would explain how it shaped subsequent events in the Middle East. Such an undertaking is a worthy goal as bias mars many works on the subject: Stephen C. Pelletiere's The Iran-Iraq War: Chaos in a Vacuum[1] astonishingly questions whether Iraq used poison gas against the Kurds at Halabja while Farhang Rajaee's The Iran-Iraq War: Politics of Aggression[2] downplays Khomeini's promotion of revolutionary activity in neighboring countries. Further, since most of the voluminous literature on the Iran-Iraq war was written during or shortly after the conflict, few books explain how the war influenced the region's history.

Unfortunately, Johnson's book leaves largely unfulfilled its promise to explain "how the war shaped the region and set in motion the events that followed." Reminding readers that Saddam Hussein's motivations for invading Kuwait in 1990 included increasing Iraq's oil reserves to pay potentially mutinous returning soldiers and to revive an economy shattered by war does not suffice.

While Johnson avoids repeating as fact the wartime propaganda of either belligerent, he promotes the discredited "October Surprise" conspiracy theory. That story maintains that, to increase Carter's unpopularity and win the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan secretly promised to supply the Iranians with weapons if they would prolong the hostage crisis until after the vote. Investigations by The Village Voice, Newsweek, and The New Republic, as well as two congressional inquiries, exposed the allegation as a fraud.[3]

Although Johnson claims that the time is ripe for a reappraisal of the conflict illuminated by over two decades of hindsight, the book relies too heavily on aging secondary sources and not enough on newly available primary ones. The 2003 invasion of Iraq provided access to much archival material relevant to the Iran-Iraq war, including 2.4 million pages recovered by the Iraq Memory Foundation documenting the Anfal campaign against Kurdish insurgents at the end of the war. Hopefully, authors of future books on the Iran-Iraq war will avail themselves of these resources.

Despite these shortcomings, Johnson does masterfully describe the military operations without getting bogged down in technical information. This book, along with Efraim Karsh's The Iran-Iraq War,[4] is a good primer on the brutal 8-year conflict. For a more technical account, consult Anthony H. Cordesman and Abraham R. Wagner's The Lessons of Modern War, Vol. II: The Iran-Iraq War.[5]

[1] Praeger Publishers, 1992.
[2] University Press of Florida, 1993.
[3] Daniel Pipes, "Remember Ronald Reagan's October Surprise? It Never Happened," History News Network, Mar. 29, 2004.
[4] Osprey Publishing, 2002.
[5] Westview Press, 1990.