The Sins of Our Fathers: A Review of "Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War: The Legal Cynicism of Criminal Militarism"

Elizabeth Trobaugh
May 26, 2016

John Hagan, Joshua Kaiser, and Anna Hansen, in Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War, paint the picture of exactly how a preventive war in Iraq could happen. From the disbanding of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century to Saddam’s reign of terror, the authors examine the full spectrum of history leading up to the invasion of 2003. The book takes a refreshing look at the situation in Iraq without reducing it to a millennia-old religious problem, devoid of solutions—an easy cop-out for the West, at times. Instead, the authors rely on the theory of Legal Cynicism, which holds that society in Iraq lost its faith in the law and its arbiters to keep the public safe. Living under the brutal rule of the Sunni Ba’athist Saddam Hussein, as described in the book, certainly lends itself to this theory.

More importantly, the authors look at how the United States government used national subterfuge to their benefit when weighing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and seek to explain why the Bush administration did not focus on the humanitarian aspect of intervention. This argument would have forced the administration to pay attention to other countries’ state-sanctioned violence programs—for example, Darfur. The authors correctly point out that one premise for invading Iraq was the self-defense argument, in which the administration outlined the imminent danger of a weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq and the apparent aid Hussein provided to the attackers of 9/11. The authors further state that not only were there no WMD, but Saddam Hussein had been unwelcoming to Osama bin Laden, while Sudan sheltered him and other al-Qaeda leadership.1

Hagan and his co-authors write that the greatest sins of the Iraq War, besides the invasion itself, were Paul Bremer’s decisions to remove top tier Ba’athists from their bureaucratic government posts, and to disband the Iraqi military. Comparing himself to General MacArthur in post-WWII Japan, Bremer, so-called “emperor” of post-war Iraq, effectively cut out the most well-trained and well-educated individuals of the Iraqi State when he began to “reconstruct” post-Saddam Iraq. The authors note that Bremer created an “interim governing council” which he essentially declared to have no governing power, enabling him to retain control over many governing actions. This led to disenfranchisement of the remaining organic powers in Iraq who had not already been dismissed by Bremer. At the time, these decisions were partially supported by NATO, but the organization did not support the decision to disband the military, nor did all members of the administration, most notably Colin Powell. In hindsight these were the worst possible solutions for the area of operation. The authors make it evident that these decisions are what led to the insurgency within Iraq during the war, and were the foundation for the growth of ISIS.2 Society is still paying for the decisions made over a decade ago.

The authors do not claim that the insurgency came to life from the U.S. government’s lack of post-Saddam planning alone, which in turn led Bremer to make his several very bad decisions. Rather, the authors cast the U.S. military as particularly brutal occupiers—the images they paint conjure pictures of Nazis in Russia, practicing indiscriminate killing and violence. The authors also point out, in the first chapter, how brutal the Hussein regime had been, noting that an emerging insurgency composed of his followers would likely carry out what they know: more brutality. The lack of a U.S. post-Saddam strategy amalgamated with a growing insurgency left a lot of citizens in the crossfire.

I, like many millennials, was in high school when the United States invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003. My peers and I believed Saddam Hussein was legitimately behind 9/11, as did most Americans. We believed this because the government said it was true. We also thought Iraq had WMDs, because the U.S. president said so. Many Americans believed we were in imminent danger. The book brings up many good points that illustrate how these mistaken beliefs were perpetrated; points that will resonate with those who feel disillusioned over the Iraq War enlightenment the country has experienced over the last 15 years. However, the book fails to fully acknowledge certain truths of the political and military context at the time, including the difficult position the U.S. military was put in following Hussein’s demise.

Today, years after the “post-Saddam” period began, most agree that there is still a problem in Iraq. Yet in new wars, we are learning from the past. The United States won’t invade Iraq to fight ISIS (at least not in the current administration) because, among other reasons, it does not have a post-ISIS plan for Iraqi unification. And even if the U.S. and its allies invade, their countries’ citizens are skeptical: Is it possible to kill an idea? Rebels in Iraq, largely composed of Sunnis and Ba’athists, have created a brand that transcends an invasion and decapitation of their leadership. With so many unknowns and so little tolerance for the violence of war, the U.S. government is not coming to the rescue. It never was—not in 2003, not in the ill-fated Shia uprisings, not now. This was never for the people of Iraq. Furthermore, we live in a cynical state ourselves, with a young generation who, for the most part, does not vote, and who would perhaps like the United States to fight ISIS in a ground offensive but is unwilling to serve in the military.3 The pervasive domestic attitude seems to be, “nothing will change, so why try.”

This book highlights so much of what people of my generation did not know when we were too young to truly understand. We lived in a time of fear after 9/11, and that fear was exploited, purposefully or not, by our own government. As millennials grew older, it became clear that this was the grandest mistake of our times. Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War at times reads like a conspiracy theorists’ manifesto. Though the authors gain credibility by supporting their arguments with statistics from reliable sources, Hagan et al. show one side of the mess of the Iraq War without fully examining other well-known causes of the war’s failure, including underpinnings of excessive violence among U.S. troops and lack of military strategy; the military did what it was trained to do. This is well-researched and important book, but readers should take note that like many other hindsight-driven books of the post-war era, it portrays a necessarily limited view of the United States’ broad, complex, and highly political interventionist agenda.


1 John Hagan, Joshua Kaiser, and Anna Hanson, Iraq and the Crimes of Aggressive War: The Legal Cynicism of Criminal Militarism (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

2 Ibid., chapters 4-6.

3 Asma Khalid, “Millennials Want To Send Troops To Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want To Serve,” NPR News, December 11, 2015.