Imagine a war that went on for eight years, caused more than a million casualties, and went through five distinct phases, with every kind of combat you could ask for from huge tank battles, human-wave offensives, artillery duels and amphibious assaults to exotic stuff like naval battles and dogfights with squadrons of MIGs and Sukhois up against American F-14s and F-4s.
Sounds pretty great, right? Well, if you're old enough to remember 1980, it happened right in front of your eyes and if you were like most Americans, you probably weren't interested. It's the Iran-Iraq War I'm talking about here, and most people barely noticed it. It was like that old hippie line, "What if they held a war and nobody came?" The armies showed up all right, but the network news crews didn't bother, even though they were always showing footage from lame little fake wars like Nicaragua and Ulster.
The reason we ignored this war was simple: nobody in America could stand even thinking about Iran. We'd just got through listening to our wimp excuse for a President, Jimmy Carter, try to get the hostages back from the Islamic crazies in Tehran by asking real nice. Then he finally authorized a teeny-tiny rescue mission with a lousy eight CH-54s, and that ended up with some filthy mullah holding up a dead GI's burnt-up arm and laughing. I remember that picture on the news made me so sick I had to go to my room and just lie there thinking about nuking every city in Iran, one a day. I spent a lot of time in the periodical room of the library looking up standoff nukes in Jane's, going, "Yeah...start with Khomeini's favorite town, Qum: whoosh! Suddenly there's no Qum. Next day pick someplace bigger, use a bigger nuke...."
We were supposedly the biggest and baddest country in the world and we couldn't get our people back from a few dozen hairy amateurs. It was sickening. I swear to God, when I heard how this asshole Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize a couple years ago, I felt like puking. He's one of these thin jerks who lives to be a hundred, so you keep hearing about him going around building shacks for third-worlders, getting filmed looking all holy, showing off when he could just write a check with his latest speech fee and fund a thousand shacks for these poor bastards.
We voted him out in '80, but we still couldn't stand to hear about Iran. So when they announced that Iraq was invading Iran, most people just said Great, I hope they kill a lot of Iranians, and left it at that. Nobody wanted details.
I remember thinking -- I was only a kid -- "Hey, it's like a bowl game to decide which country that has a four-letter name beginning with I-R-A gets to be top dog. The "Ira Bowl" or something."
Now that we've got a little experience of our own in Iraq, it's easier to understand how the Iran-Iraq War started. Start with a map and you can see Iraq looks like a funnel narrowing down to the Persian Gulf. That's the most valuable real estate in the country because it's Iraq's only sea access and it's also down there that a lot of the best oilfields are. And it's Shia territory. Iran is Shiite, and Khomeini was like a living God to all the Shiites. He already hated Saddam for booting him out of Iraq after the Shah exiled him.
Saddam saw his chance. As we found out in 1991, Saddam's a gambler. And the odds looked good for him to take Western Iran away from Khomeini back in 1980. The Islamists running Iran were amateurs, a bunch of noisy students and ignorant mullahs. They'd executed most of the Shah's officer corps, and put the rest in prison. So Saddam figured the Iranian Army would be headless and easy to destroy. Same calculation Hitler made about Stalin's army.
The Iranian Air Force used to be feared all over the Middle East. It was the only AF outside the US to have the F-14, the most advanced interceptor in the world. Iran had some of the best pilots east of Israel and a big fleet of F-4s. But after Khomeini's mullahs started butting in, the elite pilots fled or got executed, the US put an embargo on spare parts (the one effective thing we did against Iran) and soon most of the Iranian AF was expensive scrap rusting in the hangars.