Shock and Awe 20 Years Later: The Iraq War in the History of U.S. Empire

August 1, 2023

Though the Bush administration declared an early “mission accomplished” victory in May 2003, just over a month after the March 2003 invasion of Baghdad, the Iraq War was really just beginning. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class Juan E. Diaz, via Wikimedia Commons.

The twentieth anniversary of the Iraq War provides an important opportunity to pierce the fog of “shock and awe,” in favor of sober, measured reflection. Especially as historians of the United States—as thinkers and teachers—it remains intellectually, politically, and ethically critical to develop histories of the war that push back against the current intensifying climate of polarization and misinformation. After all, as Moustafa Bayoumi argued in The Guardian for the recent anniversary of the invasion of Baghdad, one of the innumerable victims of the Iraq War was the very “notion of truth” in American political discourse.[1]

Even before the initial invasion of Baghdad, historians were already at the forefront of this conversation—especially in utilizing the language of U.S. empire to both analyze and oppose the Iraq War. Historians against the War (HAW), now Historians for Peace and Democracy, was formed at the January 2003 American Historical Association convention, where they circulated petitions against the invasion, and then against the occupation. “We oppose the expansion of United States empire,” HAW wrote in September 2003. “We deplore the secrecy, deception, and distortion of history involved in the administration’s conduct of a war that… reaches towards domination of the Middle East and its resources.”[2] Amy Kaplan, in her capacity as president of the American Studies Association, gave a speech in October 2003 noting that “across the political spectrum, policy makers, journalists, and academics are embracing the term and talking endlessly about empire.” Yet, with certain voices arguing loudly for a revitalization of U.S. global power, Kaplan called on scholars to “draw on our knowledge of the past to bring a sense of contingency to this idea of empire.”[3]

Two decades and countless tragedies later, this short essay seeks to articulate the Iraq War not as a tragic mistake or even a war in the traditional sense, but as a twenty-first century exercise in American imperial governance. Recent scholarship rightly demonstrates that American empire is and has been a territorial project grounded in particular sites and spaces across the globe.[4] Yet, the Iraq War slots into a history of the ways in which American imperial power has been expressed along a spectrum of disruptions—disruptions inflicted upon the lives and politics of (overwhelmingly racialized) others, through political interventions, economic and infrastructural programs, and military operations both overt and covert.

As Mary Dudziak and Marilyn B. Young have argued, the history of American foreign policy does not fit comfortably into binary narratives of wartime and peacetime.[5] Whether the state is formally at war or at peace, U.S. foreign relations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been marked by chronic violence and disruption. Repeated economic and political meddling in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the licit and illicit overthrow of governments in Hawai‘i, Iran, and Chile (to name only a few examples) are not easily categorized as actions of formally declared war or stable peace.[6] But empire as an analytic—what Paul Kramer has referred to as “a dimension of power in which asymmetries… enable and produce relations of hierarchy, discipline, dispossession, extraction, and exploitation”—provides crucial structure.[7] In Iraq, American policy and conduct echoed older violations of sovereignty that were neither straightforwardly wars nor outright settler-colonial conquests. Nevertheless, they existed in legal shades of gray, and indelibly shaped the political, economic, and environmental structures of daily life for ordinary people the world over.

The spectacles of torture in Abu Ghraib that were splashed on U.S. newspaper and magazine covers and on cable television evoked the 1902 reports of water torture in Life magazine during the U.S. colonial capture of the Philippines.[8] The importance of state-building, especially the re/construction of infrastructure and bases in Iraq, evoked the decades of infrastructure- and state-building that the U.S. government undertook before and during the active phases of the Vietnam War.[9] And, of course, the George W. Bush administration’s justifying liberal rhetoric of liberating and democratizing a backward Iraq has well-established precedents in U.S. history, from the settlement of North America to the Cold War mission of modernization in the decolonizing world.[10]

But what makes Iraq distinct in the long arc of U.S. imperialism, I argue, is that the U.S. government and military pioneered updated modes of indirect governance in Iraq through the auspices of traditional “boots on the ground” warfare. Counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in particular were expansive frameworks that intentionally blurred the operational and categorical spheres of “civil” and “military,” so that the prerogatives of U.S. national security went far beyond gunning or bombing the enemy. Furthermore, the U.S. campaign in Iraq was sustained by, and helped to enable, a government-sponsored economy of war with implications for the United States, Iraq, and beyond.

Both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency doctrines preceded the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Counterinsurgency was a form of colonial warfare pioneered by the British and French empires, loosely defined as the use of regular and irregular military forces to fight a rebel “insurgent” force seeking to overthrow existing structures of government. The United States first made use of it in the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, resulting in a nearly fifty-year colonization of the country, and later utilized it again during the Vietnam War.[11] Counterterrorism, meanwhile, has been a part of U.S. foreign policy lexicon since the 1970s. Especially for the purposes of responding to radical and revolutionary movements operating both within and beyond U.S. borders, federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies have carried out overt and covert operations to neutralize and destroy organizations utilizing violence to achieve their political aims.[12] However, the rupture of 9/11 created an environment in which officials from across the federal government and military bureaucracy updated and wielded these doctrines to give the United States an ever more expansive reach into ostensibly independent Iraqi politics and government in the name of American national security. The 9/11 Commission’s 2005 final report makes plain this conflation of militarism and politics: “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’ In this same sense, the American homeland is the planet.” Further, “long-term success” in the war on terrorism, the Commission argued, “demands the use of… diplomacy, intelligence, covert actions, law enforcement, economic policy, foreign aid, public diplomacy, and homeland defense.”[13]

Similarly, the revamped 2006 field manual for counterinsurgency identified “political power” as the “central issue in insurgencies and counterinsurgencies,” and called for the use of “all instruments of national power to sustain the established or emerging government” that the United States designated as solely legitimate. Though the manual was written with seemingly neutral, universalizing language emphasizing “partnership” with and “support” of the “host nation,” the fact remains that Iraq never consented to U.S. partnership or support.[14] The dubiously legal invasion, and the fabricated intelligence put forward by Bush administration officials to justify it, were neither popular nor internationally sanctioned.[15]

Sustaining—indeed, underwriting—the mammoth amount of labor and resources required for such ambitious agendas were corporate interests in a quickly entrenched and wildly profitable market for surveillance, logistical support, and outsourced military functions. The massive influx of public money into the defense sector of the federal government has been widely noted; what is less often appreciated is that this money was frequently disbursed to private military contractors (PMCs), who worked alongside civilian and military counterparts to enable the logistics of war.

PMCs came under scrutiny after armed Blackwater guards opened fire on unarmed civilians at Nisour Square in 2007.[16] Yet, unarmed PMCs were intimately involved with every aspect of both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars— from tasks as mundane as laundry and food service, to tasks as sensitive as collecting intelligence, consulting and advising allies, and conducting the very oversight of their fellow contractors. In 2011, as the Iraq War formally wound down, the Congressional Research Service estimated that the number of contractors in Iraq actually outnumbered uniformed personnel by a ratio of 1.4 to 1.[17] Right up to and through the August 2021 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Department of Defense issued nearly one billion dollars in contracts.[18]

War has become not just a way of life, but a political economy that is materially invested in surveillance, repression, and state-sponsored violence. Recent scholarship from the Costs of War project shows that the outsized domestic military economy has weakened the capacities of the U.S. government and the civilian economy, while enriching corporations that collectively capture large percentages of U.S. military expenditures.[19]

Histories of the Iraq War, in our scholarship and in our classrooms, must be attentive to the vectors briefly sketched out in this essay: sovereignty, governance, corporate power, histories of American imperialism. By invading, occupying, and forcibly remaking the country for almost a decade, the United States didn’t just go to war against Iraq, it set the terms for Iraqi state sovereignty after 2003—because it had the power to do so. Today, as the war drums become ever louder in the American political establishment, with China and Russia now designated the primary threats to U.S. national security, it is essential to be clear-eyed about the recent past, and appropriately critical of the global American imperial project.

Zaynab Quadri is a postdoctoral fellow at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at The Ohio State University. She received her Ph.D. in American Studies from The George Washington University. Her book manuscript analyzes private military contracting in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and in the history of the post-1945 U.S. security state. Her work has been published in American Quarterly and the Journal of Transnational American Studies. Her research has been supported by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars and Mellon Foundation.


[1] Moustafa Bayoumi, “The Iraq War Started the Post-Truth Era. And America Is to Blame,” The Guardian, March 14, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/mar/14/iraq-war-9-11-george-bush-post-truth.

[2] Jim O’Brien, “Our History: Historical Notes on Historians against the War,” Historians for Peace and Democracy, July 2019, https://www.historiansforpeace.org/our-history/.

[3] Amy Kaplan, “Violent Belongings and the Question of Empire Today: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, October 17, 2003,” American Quarterly, 56 (March 2004), 2, 7.

[4] Notable works include Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (2019) and David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (2015).

[5] See Mary L. Dudziak, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences (2012); and Marilyn B. Young, “‘I Was Thinking, As I Often Do These Days, of War’: The United States in the Twenty-First Century,” Diplomatic History, 36 (Jan. 2012), 1–15.

[6] See Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006); and Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (2007).

[7] Paul A. Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States in the World,” The American Historical Review, 116 (Dec. 2011), 1348.

[8] Laura Briggs, “Making Race, Making Sex: Perspectives on Torture,” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 17 (2015), 20–39; Laleh Khalili, “Review: On Torture,” Middle East Report, 249 (2008), 32–37.

[9] James M. Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (2008); Andrew J. Gawthorpe, To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation Building in South Vietnam (2018).

[10] See, for example, Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present (2011); and Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015).

[11] See Laleh Khalili, Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (2013).

[12] For overviews of U.S. counterterrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, see Timothy Naftali, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism (2006); and William Rosenau, The ‘First War on Terrorism?’: U.S. Domestic Counterterrorism During the 1970s and Early 1980s (Oct. 2014), https://www.cna.org/archive/CNA_Files/pdf/crm-2014-u-008836.pdf.

[13] “The 9/11 Commission Report,” National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, 2004, https://9-11commission.gov/report/911Report.pdf, 362, 363–64.

[14] Department of the Army and Marine Corps, Counterinsurgency Field Manual, No. 3-24/No. 3-33.5 (2008), 2, 37.

[15] Proponents of the Iraq War tend to reject the notion that the administration lied its way into Iraq; they maintain that they were working with the best information they had at the time. However, some of the intelligence that suggested war would or should be imminent was found to have been outright fabricated. For one recent example evaluating these dynamics, see David Corn, “The Iraq Invasion 20 Years Later: It Was Indeed a Big Lie That Launched the Catastrophic War,” Mother Jones, March 20, 2023, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2023/03/the-iraq-invasion-20-years-later-it-was-indeed-a-big-lie-that-launched-the-catastrophic-war/.

[16] Peter W. Singer, “The Dark Truth about Blackwater,” Brookings Institute, Oct. 2, 2007, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-dark-truth-about-blackwater/.

[17] Moshe Schwartz and Joyprada Swain, Department of Defense Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background and Analysis, U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, R40764 (2011), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R40764.pdf.

[18] Anna Massoglia and Julia Forrest, “Defense Contractors Spent Big in Afghanistan before the U.S. Left and the Taliban Took Control,” Open Secrets, Aug. 20, 2021, https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2021/08/defense-contractors-spent-big-in-afghanistan-before-the-us-left-taliban-took-control/.

[19] Heidi Peltier, “We Get What We Pay For: The Cycle of Military Spending, Industry Power, and Economic Dependence,” Costs of War, June 8, 2023, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/2023/WhatWePayFor; William D. Hartung, “Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Pentagon Spending Surge,” Costs of War, Sept. 13, 2021, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/papers/2021/ProfitsOfWar.