Small Wars Journal

Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War

Fri, 12/07/2012 - 5:30am

Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War by Kevin M. Woods, et al.  Published by the Institute for Defense Analysis Alexandria, VA in conjunction with the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center, Washington D.C.  214 pages, 2011.

I have always been an advocate of teaching America’s military leaders about conflict, culture, and military history of the Middle East using direct Arabic sources.  In this way, we can begin to cultivate the empathy needed for a part of the world enabling U.S. military leaders to truly understand the human terrain of the area of operation. In my own military career, I have had the privilege of publishing essays highlighting the memoirs of Egyptian, Syrian, and Algerian military leaders, as well as writings on or about al-Qaida written by Arabs.  So it should come as no surprise that I am an avid admirer of the work of Dr. Kevin Woods and his colleague Williamson Murray who have brought to life the Iraqi perspective on various conflicts, ranging from Operation Desert Storm to their latest work, the second volume of “Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War.”

Using documents housed at the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) coupled with interviews from Iraq’s military leadership they are engaging in the best tradition of what America’s military historians do: get us inside the minds of decision-makers and former adversaries. The introduction highlights “Project 1946,” in which German General Franz Halder worked with U.S. Army historians to provide insight into the Nazi war machine and decisions of the German General Staff along with their interaction with the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.  This volume features interviews from Lieutenant General Ra’ad Majid al-Hamdani, who served as battalion commander in the Iran-Iraq War and rose to become Commander of II Corps of the Republican Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom; Major General Mizher al-Ubaydi, leader of the Iran section of Iraq’s military intelligence; Major General Aladdin Hussein Makki Khamas, Director of Iraq’s Combat Development Center; Lieutenant General Abid Mohammed al-Kabi, Chief of Iraq’s Navy from 1982 to 1988; and finally Major General Alwan Hassoun al-Abousi, wing commander during the Iran-Iraq War. 

Readers will learn of the evolution of Iraqi intelligence capabilities from two Persian speakers to a unit of 2,500 personnel dedicated to collection and analysis.  The education of Saddam Hussein in the art of war and the intellectual Achilles Heel of the Iraqi dictator deep-seated insecurities, coupled with an eloquent discussion of his balancing competent technocratic generals, with promoting sycophantic, loyal, and what were termed “Bedouin” generals.  An utter lack of vision of Iraqi leaders occurred during the outbreak of the war with Iran.  How modern technology and conceptions of warfare were absorbed with difficulty by military formations that did not have a high degree of education.  There are discussions of when the Iraqis decided to deploy chemical weapons and the authors are clear about how these generals being interviewed skirted the subject to avoid responsibility. A key question is why Ayatollah Khomeini decided to engage in artillery skirmishes along the Iraqi border on September 4, 1980 coupled with an April 1980 covert campaign to undermine the Baathist regime in Iraq, culminating with an assassination attempt on Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, that led into Saddam’s calculus to invade Iran.

There are discussions of battles, terrain, tactics, and the role of regional countries, as well as the United States and Soviet Union from an Iraqi perspective.  These officers have a visceral loathing for Iranians and Persians, which shades their point of view.  Only Major General al-Ubaydi of military intelligence showed any empathy to Iranian capabilities and culture.  This is an excellent read and quite a military education.  Ms. Laila Sabara, the co-translator working on this volume really captures the emotional sense of the Arabic spoken through her English translations.  It is not simply a straight or literal translation that is stale, but an analytic translation that provides depth and context.  You can download this work free of charge at, the website of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) of which the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC).  It goes without saying that both Iraqis and Iranians today have downloaded this work and set about translating and analyzing it. 

Ms. Kaitlin Dellicker, CDR Aboul-Enein's TA and intern at the Eisenhower School, helped edit and enhance the review.

About the Author(s)

CDR Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the National Intelligence University and National Defense University.  He is the author of “Militant Islamist Ideology,” and “Iraq in Turmoil,” both published by Naval Institute Press. His first book goes paperback this September and was named among the top 150 most influential titles on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the journal, Perspectives on Terrorism.