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The War Nerd November 13, 2003
The War Nobody Watched
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email
Page 3 of 4
And the Iranians kept coming. Like the Russians in WW II, they just didn't mind dying, and it started to spook the Iraqis. Saddam tried pretending nothing had happened: in the spring of 1982 he pulled all Iraqi forces back to the 1980 border. All that did was get the Iranians excited. They kept coming, with a huge human-wave attack on Basra. The poor militia bastards, with no training or coordination, just ran at the enemy yelling about Allah. They died like flies, up against Iraqi tanks and minefields. It was one of the most bloody, stupid assaults since 1945.

Saddam knew he had to do something. Well, you know the saying: "when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." Saddam went shopping through every Warsaw-Pact weapons factory that would let him and his oil money in. He bought everything from MLRS systems to T-62s, but the big-ticket item was a whole fleet of the new Soviet Mi-24 attack helicopter.

If you've read about what the Mi-24 did to the Afghans (before we gave them an edge with the Stinger), you can imagine what a fleet of factory-fresh Mi-24s did to the Iranians' human-wave attacks in 1983. It was a slaughter, and the Iraqis proved that even if they weren't much good at dying, they were good at killing. In one Iranian human-wave attack the Iraqis flew 200 Mi-24 sorties, hosing down the poor Shiite bastards like crop dusters going over a cabbage field.

Saddam's military engineers turned the marshes on the border into artificial lakes, like giant moats in front of the Iraqi lines. And he told his commanders they had one more weapon: gas. The Iraqis started using Mustard Gas, the sickest weapon of WW I. Even the Nazis never dared to use it, but Saddam's troops used it to break up mass infantry attacks. And nobody much cared. That's the story of this whole war: nobody outside of the two countries gave a damn what happened. From 1984 on, the war was like a stuck LP. The Iranians spent lives like Foch and Kitchener on the Western Front, and the Iraqis tried to kill Persians without risking their own cowardly hides.

With the land war stalled out, both sides started looking for other planes of engagement. They found one, the oil depots and tankers that carried Iraqi and Iranian oil to their main clients in Japan.

Like my dad always said when he'd been welding pipe, "An oil depot is basically a big bomb waiting to blow." There's nothing in the world easier to blow up than oil rigs, pipes, or tankers. Saddam started slamming Kharg Island, where the Iranians had a huge depot, early in the war. By the time the war ended Kharg had been hit by 9,000 Iraqi sorties, best video score since Haiphong Harbor back in the Nixon years.

One of the shiny new toys Saddam had stocked up on was our old friend the Exocet, that anti-ship missile that the French were peddling to anybody with a coastline and a grudge. Saddam started using them on any tanker carrying Iranian oil. Iraq attacked nearly a hundred tankers in 1984, scaring the Hell out of the Japanese but not the Iranians.

Iraq was desperate to find some way to hurt these crazy Iranians enough to make them back off. So they tried the old standby, bombing cities, trying to kill as many civilians as possible. That was the debut of the Iraqi Scud attack. The Iraqis fired 200 in 1988, trying to force the Iranians to negotiate. Just like the Scud attacks on Israel in Gulf War I, these attacks were all hype, noise and publicity, good for scaring civilians but with zero military significance.

1988 was a shocker: the Iraqis started winning battles, getting back to their gameplan, the sort of massed-armor attacks their army was designed to do. The Iranians had wasted most of their own armor and artillery early on, so the T-55s rolled right over the Iranian infantry.

The Iranians were finally tired of the war. Everybody who'd wanted martyrdom had found it a long time ago; they signed on the UN's dotted line.

And when it all was over, there was Saddam with this huge army, all dressed up and nowhere to go. He'd learned his lesson about messing with Iran, but Iran wasn't the only oil-rich country in range of his tanks. There was little Kuwait, a big pile of oil and gold with no army to speak of. Saddam had some huge bills to pay for all that materiel he'd put on the AmEx Gold Card, and a wrecked oil infrastructure that didn't have a hope in hell of generating enough income to make the debt.

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Gary Brecher
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