The Chilcot report into the Iraq War is a vast work, 2.6 million words long, spread over 12 volumes. This has invited some literary comparisons – it's almost twice as long as the entirety of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, three times longer than the complete works of William Shakespeare, four and a half times longer than War and Peace. But we're dealing with a scale beyond the literary. Put it another way: by some estimates, the Chilcot report contains just two brief words for every Iraqi who has died since 2003 as a result of the conflict. Each of the millions of Iraqis who were forced to flee their homes and their country by the war don't even get a full word; there's just a letter, or a scrap of punctuation, for a human being whose life has been utterly destroyed. The Iraq War was the colossal, mechanised obliteration of human life. This war and the aftermath in the region is something unparalleled in our short century, and it's still going on; every week churns out new bodies. In response, Britain built itself a Chilcot report. Our involvement in the war created a rolling catastrophe that laid waste to an entire country, and now we're throwing endless reams of fluttering paper into the wreckage – the longest book ever written, but it's still not enough to cover up the corpses.
This isn't to accuse the Chilcot report of being a whitewash, or to say that it's failed and could have done better; its problem isn't what it says, but what it is. The one thing the inquiry could conceivably have done that might have been useful would be to say, clearly and unambiguously, that going to war in Iraq was illegal, that the Blair government broke national and international law, and that those responsible should stand trial for their crimes. This isn't what happened, this isn't what was ever going to happen, because it wasn't allowed to happen. The remit of the inquiry was broad, but it was not empowered to make that judgement or to comment on the legality or illegality of the war; of its five committee members two were historians, two were diplomats, one was a baroness, and none were judges or lawyers. The most that the inquiry could ever conclude was that the legal basis presented for the war was not sound. It was hobbled from the start. It was forbidden from ever providing anything like justice for all those countless people who died.
Instead, those 2.6 million words are mostly spent saying what we already knew: that Blair exaggerated the case for war, that the decision to go to war was taken privately long before the invasion began while Parliament and the Cabinet and the public were still being told it was one option among others, that the intelligence was faulty, that the plans for the war and its aftermath were inadequate, that the whole brutal affair was not necessary and not properly justified. The report can't even say the one obvious fact that really should be repeated by a government inquiry: that they lied, that we were lied to. Instead, the point of the inquiry was set out very strictly: to examine the events that led up to the war in 2003, to see what mistakes were made, to see what poor practice was carried out, and to suggest lessons that could be learned from them.
And there were plenty of mistakes. It's unlikely that everyone who pushed for the assault on Iraq in 2003 did so fully intending to sink that country into the bloodied chaos that's now smothered it for over a decade; some consequences were unintended. (That said, some Americans had been suggesting that Iraq be partitioned into three states, Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish, for decades, a plan that's not too different from what actually happened.) But they don't seem to mind that much, either – they're not the ones being blown up in markets or beheaded on roundabouts. And there was plenty of poor practice too: as Chilcot points out, Blair acted as if he were governing under a presidential rather than a parliamentary system, taking unilateral decisions and leaving his government in the dark; meanwhile British forces were let down by inadequate planning from the Ministry of Defence, and the Iraqis suffered from haphazard government by the international occupation. None of this is untrue. But it's all utterly wrong.
Mistakes were made, colossal mistakes, but the mistakes weren't the real problem. Even if everything in the Iraq War had gone entirely to plan, even if Blair had acted entirely properly and according to good parliamentary procedure, the war in Iraq would still have been an act of monstrous evil. By most accounts the plan was to quickly build a stable and peaceful Iraq under the tutelage of the coalition states, the state assets of which could be flogged off to western companies and whose workers would start efficiently producing surpluses for western capital. If this had happened, if there had been no insurgency, no civil war, no Isis, it would still have been an unimaginable atrocity. The war was a war of aggression, the thing declared at the Nuremberg Trials to be the "supreme international crime" – even if it had UN approval, even if its legality was agreed upon by every lawyer in the world, even if everyone involved from Bush and Blair down to the most miserable accountant in the civil service were utterly and sincerely convinced that it was the good and just thing to do, the war in Iraq would still have been a revolting waste of life that would demand justice. And that justice is something that the Chilcot report, however true its conclusions, just wasn't able to deliver.
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