Leading article: Iraq: doomed from the start

Related Topics

"We're supposed to learn from the mistakes of history, but we keep making the same mistakes," says Lawrence Colburn, a US veteran who returned to Vietnam to mark the 40th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. Today's anniversary of My Lai and this week's fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq allow us to look at the parallels between two disastrous wars.

Of course, Iraq and Vietnam are very different. Some of those who warned against military action in Iraq because it would be "another Vietnam" weakened their case by simplistic analogy. It was never likely that casualties among US and allied forces would be as high, or that they would meet a disciplined guerrilla army. But the mistakes of which Mr Colburn spoke were serious and foreseeable.

Mr Colburn was a member of a three-man helicopter crew that landed in My Lai to stop the killing. US troops, frustrated by their inability to find elusive Viet Cong, had opened fire on civilians. There had been no enemy fire, but 500 men, women and children were killed. Colburn and the anti-war veterans who travelled to Vietnam this weekend say they were distressed to see their comrades in Iraq repeat the error of dehumanising the people they were supposed to be liberating. Early on in the Iraq occupation, a US army officer was filmed by the BBC declaring after a roadside explosion, "this town's gonna pay". A mindset of overwhelming force, indifferent to civilian casualties, led as if on tramlines to torture to Abu Ghraib and the creation of an al-Qa'ida-inspired resistance to foreign troops.

Five years on, the sharpest question is that posed in private by David Miliband before he became Foreign Secretary. If the mistakes of the post-invasion phase had been avoided, was success in Iraq ever possible? It is a question that was asked of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, yesterday. He said that the main mistake was "not understanding quite what we were getting ourselves into". But was it not the responsibility of the Government to know? He said that there was planning, "but it was planning for completely the wrong thing" – water shortages and humanitarian supplies. If only they had known, he said, they would have had more troops and "been faster to secure the streets from random violence".

Mr Powell has a selective memory. Mr Blair was visited by six experts on Iraq in November 2002, led by Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman. Another of the six, Toby Dodge, warned the Prime Minister that "we would be going into a vacuum, where there were no allies to be found, except possibly for the Kurds".

The Independent on Sunday has been steadfast in its view that the invasion of Iraq was a reckless misjudgement that would mean death and destruction for Iraqis and make the world less safe. Some of our rivals have adjusted their uncritical acceptance of Mr Blair's beguiling optimism of five years ago. Others have seized on the reduction of civilian casualties since the "surge" of US troops a year ago as evidence that the situation is being turned round. Welcome as that reduction is, the sober reporting of our correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, puts it in its bleak perspective.

So, among the guilty people that we would name as responsible for the disaster of Iraq, we would include journalists collectively, in Britain and America. In our assessment of the winners and losers from the war we include the media among the latter. Partly, this was because journalists and opponents of the war focused too much on the distraction and legal device of weapons of mass destruction, on which, before the war, little could be proved.

Instead, we should have been asking much more searching questions about what would happen after the invasion. Five years on, it has become much clearer that the answer to Mr Miliband's question is that it would have been incredibly difficult to depose Saddam Hussein without unleashing the forces that led to such massive loss of life. Of course, if the Pentagon had looked ahead and realised that it should keep Saddam's army and the Baathist party structure, some of the bloodletting might have been avoided.

But, even if many more troops had been deployed, it is not certain that they could have secured order. Even if they had treated the human rights of every Iraqi with rigorous respect and fixed the electricity, it would have been hard to avoid the collapse of civil society into sectarianism.

The invasion of Iraq was a doomed enterprise from the start, and we were right to say so.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET

£27000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of a mark...

Recruitment Genius: Help Desk Specialist

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides Reliabili...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Managing Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Recruitment Genius: Advertisement Sales Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A publishing company based in F...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

What the advertising world can learn from Zoella's gang

Danny Rogers
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor