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Twenty years on: ignoring the costs of the Iraq war as we embark on new adventurism

Introduction by Croakey: It is a terrible coincidence that the unfathomable $368 billion AUKUS nuclear submarine deal comes within days of the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, by the same countries.

As Dr Sue Wareham, president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (MAPW), writes below, that war brought death and destruction on a horrendous scale.

“It is only by ignoring the costs of war – human, economic, environmental and other – that preparations for the next one can be announced with such triumphalism and pride,” she says of the AUKUS deal.

Wareham warns also, as have others, of the costs to Australia of such a massive military commitment, asking what will be foregone to pay for it.


Sue Wareham writes:

On 20 March 2003, the US, the UK and Australia (with Poland) invaded Iraq, bringing death and destruction on a horrendous scale. Twenty years on, as the invading coalition now set their sights on the next war, an examination of the legacy left to the Iraqi people is instructive.

As with all wars, the tip of the iceberg of the suffering inflicted on Iraq is measured in mortality.  Estimates of the numbers who died, from both direct and indirect causes, vary widely from hundreds of thousands to one million (see, for example, here and here).

The wide variation is attributable to a multitude of factors including the difficulty of collecting data in war-ravaged communities, and the method of data collection.

There is even greater uncertainty around the extent of life-long and debilitating physical and psychological injuries, but it far exceeds the number of those who died.

Health system collapse

Within weeks of the invasion, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that ‘the medical system in Baghdad has virtually collapsed’.

By July 2003, UNICEF reported that more than 1,000 Iraqi children had been killed or wounded by abandoned weapons and munitions. Less than a year after the invasion, The Independent newspaper reported that at Baghdad’s main children’s hospital ‘the wards are filthy, the sanitation shocking, the infections lethal’, and that ‘sewage drips from the roof above cots of premature babies.’

This was a country whose healthcare system had already been devastated by a decade of crippling economic sanctions, imposed largely by the coalition that then invaded.

There were floods of forced displacements, a human tragedy in themselves but almost a given with modern warfare.

As of 2021, an estimated 9.2 million Iraqis were internally displaced or refugees abroad. This exacerbated the appalling healthcare situation, as health care and other professionals formed part of the exodus.

By 2007 it was estimated that 40 per cent of the middle class had fled, prompted in part by a breakdown of law and order, and that at least 2,000 Iraqi doctors were reported killed and 250 kidnapped.

Attacks on healthcare facilities, while absolutely forbidden under the rules of war, have also become a part of the landscape of modern wars.

Human rights abuses were committed by the occupying forces (see for example reported allegations by US military veterans and revelations about Abu Ghraib prison), and yet it is journalist Julian Assange – who published evidence of war crimes committed in Iraq –languishing in prison in the UK.

Not a single political leader has been held accountable for the war or its conduct.

Lessons unlearnt

The situation was so disastrous that one might assume things had gone badly wrong with the invasion plans. However nearly all of the outcomes – for Iraq, the region and the globe – had been predicted before the war.

Health professionals around the world, including in Australia, were among the millions who protested in 2002 and 2003 against the war plans.

From the cover of: Collateral damage: the health and environmental costs of war on Iraq

The report ‘Collateral Damage: the health and environmental costs of war on Iraq’ by the UK group Medact predicted disastrous health and other results if the invasion proceeded – predictions that largely proved correct.

It was launched at Parliament House in Canberra in November 2002 by the Medical Association for Prevention of War, was sent to every federal MP and received widespread media coverage. To no avail; health was clearly not important.

One might also expect that, from such a disaster, multiple lessons about the ease of entering wars and the potential for catastrophic harm would be learnt.

That expectation would be wrong too. Iraq has simply been forgotten, virtually erased from memory.

The war is never referred to by the coalition that invaded, and our Defence Department doesn’t keep data on civilian casualties.

(The only mention of them on the Department’s website is in relation to the battle for West Mosul in 2016-17, where the site refers to ‘potential involvement’ of the ADF in the deaths of between six and eighteen civilians. Associated Press estimated that 9,000 to 11,000 civilians died in that battle, an estimate nearly 10 times higher than that of official reports.)

“Whatever it takes”

And yet, far from learning lessons, the official silence about the costs of the war has become even more sinister.

We’re quite prepared to do it all again, this time on a far grander scale, against China. The same three nations – Australia, the US and the UK – have now rebranded the 2003 ‘coalition of the willing’ as AUKUS.

This week on Tuesday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the expenditure of an almost incomprehensible amount of funding – up to $368 billion – for a single weapons system: nuclear-powered submarines, whose purpose would be to take part in yet another war of choice, this time against China.

The whole AUKUS deal will involve vastly more weaponry than this, and a price tag as yet unknown. The mantra ‘whatever it takes’ is applied to military expenditures, while spending on health and other care for vulnerable Australians is rationed from ‘whatever’s left over’.

Lip service is paid to peace, while Australia’s diplomacy is grossly neglected. It is only by ignoring the costs of war – human, economic, environmental and other – that preparations for the next one can be announced with such triumphalism and pride.

All those who protested in 2002 and 2003 were right. Their voices, and those of the next generation, are very much needed again. The struggle for peace – which is fundamental to health – continues.

The Medical Association for Prevention of War is committed to action that prioritises peace and health. On this 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war, it’s time to stand up for peace again, and keep standing. Please join us!

 Events to mark the anniversary and call for peace are being held this weekend in Melbourne (see below),  Sydney, and Canberra. More reading:


See previous Croakey articles on conflict and war