Last month, former US President George W. Bush accidentally stated that the Iraq war was “unjustified and brutal” when he intended to refer to the conflict in Ukraine.
The gaffe was a far cry from his choreographed spectacle as acting president on May 1, 2003 when he, as a former naval aviator, landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and triumphantly declared that the Iraq War was over in a televised speech, a “Mission Accomplished” sign hanging above him.
This moment proved so iconic that a George W. Bush “Elite Force Aviation” action figure was created to commemorate it.
In hindsight, the “Mission Accomplished” moment was dreadfully premature as US forces remain in Iraq to this very day. Yet for a brief moment, the war appeared over in the American mindset, and it was time for the US to celebrate its victory in the form of consumerism.
Toys like the Bush action figure were created for children and adults alike. While a US army soldier was driving a Hummer jeep in Baghdad, in Baltimore a parent could drive the same vehicle to pick up kids from school.
The sense of victory was short lived, as there was in fact nothing to celebrate. Another war was looming, an insurgency that would take both Iraqi and American lives. Still, the celebration of the US’s involvement in Iraq, despite the disastrous consequences, continues in the commercialisation and pop culture glorification of the war.
The American invasion of Iraq is testament to the fact that war is not only fought on the battlefield; it often leads to a militarisation of civilian societies, and in 2003 war infiltrated both American and Iraqi cultures.
The ‘Most Wanted’ deck
While the war served as a convenient advertisement for US weaponry, it was also marketed in subtler ways. During the course of the war, the US Defense Intelligence Agency produced its first “Iraqi Most Wanted” cards, printing and cutting out 200 decks by hand. They were initially created for American soldiers in Iraq to identify and capture high-ranking Baathists, to be collected as if they were baseball cards.
Soon, various companies such as Great USA Flags started to market these cards over the internet, selling over a million Most Wanted decks to the American population at $5.95 apiece.
The capture of the former Iraqi Baathists added an element of entertainment to the media’s coverage of Iraq. When former general-turned-pundit David Grange described a US special forces unit, Task Force 20, hunting down members of Saddam’s ousted regime, he said: “[Its] primary missions are to go after the card deck of 55, the top people, to kill or grab these enemy leaders, hostage rescue, and also sensitive or highly sensitive possible WMD sites.”
While the weapon of mass destruction (WMD) sites were non-existent, the hunt for members of one of the most pervasive police or mukhabarat states in the history of the Middle East represented a consumerist “de-Baathification” of Iraq.
The capture of the leading Baathists in this deck of cards, the top 55 leaders, would foreshadow the problems Iraq would face in the shadow of American regime change. Many of the lower-level Baathists running the bureaucracies, essentially technocrats forced to profess the ideology, were dismissed, leading to the failure of governance and the delivery of essential services.
Driving the Iraq war
Another beneficiary from the war was the Hummer jeep. Demand for a civilian version of the popular military vehicle first emerged in the US after the first 1991 Gulf war. The sequel to the Hummer, the H2, would receive free publicity from the 2003 war.
On the Microsoft News website, a section entitled “Cars That Increase the Fun Factor” in June 2003 read as follows: “In this year of the Iraq war and America’s show of military might, the 2003 Hummer H2 has to be on the list. What other new vehicle can combine an in-your-face military image with country club flair like this one can.”
Meanwhile in Iraq, for most drivers on the crowded and congested roads of Baghdad, nothing caused more fear and grief than the sight of a convoy of Hummers passing by, forcing most drivers to stay behind the vehicle or move to the side of the road.
The civilian Hummer in the US featured luxury options such as air conditioning and leather seats. The Hummer in Iraq carried camouflaged soldiers with a mounted machine gun on the roof to intimidate civilians, and was loathed by everyday Iraqis.
Iraq war toys
Commercial celebrations of the Iraq war extended to America’s youngest consumers. Toys marketed for children included “The World Peace Keepers Battle Station,” which the now bankrupt department store J.C. Penney sold for $25, described in one Amazon.com review as, “This bombed-out version of Barbie's Dream House is sure to excite bloodthirsty passions in even the most passive of preschoolers.”
Another website, www.herobuilders.com, featured Osama bin Laden dolls as well as one of the Uday, the son of Saddam Hussein, in two versions: one where he is alive and smiling and the other of his face a mutilated corpse, to resemble his state after U.S. forces killed him in Mosul in July 2003.
The toy makers knew how to recreate the semblance of his disfigured face as the U.S. authorities released the image to the public to convince a sceptical Iraqi public that he was indeed dead.
Uday and the soldiers he commanded, known as the Fedayeen, proved to be perfect antagonists for the Iraq war. They dressed in all black, with Darth Vader style helmets, as Saddam’s son was a fan of the Star Wars franchise, thus also making for perfect action figures.
The men’s lifestyle magazine Maxim featured an article on Uday entitled, “Spawn of Saddam: Hussein’s psychotic son. Born to rule, bred to kill.” A film was loosely based on his life, The Devil’s Double, with the movie poster promising “Money. Sex. Power. It’s Not Enough.” The sadistic son of a dictator appealed to an audience that sought out a testosterone-induced epic in 2003.
The film about Uday is just one in a series of post-2003 genre of Iraq war films. While films like In The Valley of Elah or The Hurt Locker, for example, were critiques of dehumanising effects of the Iraq war on U.S. soldiers and their ensuing PTSD, American Sniper served as a vicarious, first-person shooter video game style movie with a simple narrative arc for the silver screen: Iraqis are villains while American soldiers are heroes.
The playing cards to the films constitute the ephemera of war, but American Sniper, which celebrates the soldier with the highest known single kill count in US military history, led to real-life consequences, including a rise in anti-Arab and Muslim statements and threats in 2015.
From the historical perspective, Margari Aziza Hill, executive director of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collective, cites similarities between wars waged against Native Americans on the frontier and the War on Terror.
“Kids watched western movies and used toy guns as they played cowboys and Indians. People talk about how insensitive those John Wayne movies were, but now we have immersive and video games set in Muslim majority counties where children and adults can simulate atrocities,” she told The New Arab.
“These toys demonstrate how closely militarisation and popular culture are intertwined in the United States and inform our worldview from childhood. When we accept these toys as ‘normal,’ it doesn’t leave much room for critically assessing the relationships between war and society,” said Gregory A. Daddis, director of the Centre for War and Society, and the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University, to The New Arab.
Sanar Hasan, an Iraqi journalist based in Baghdad who focuses on gender issues, explained to The New Arab that a parallel militarization of Iraqi youth happened after 2003.
“The American invasion of Iraq changed the general pattern of thinking even among children in Iraq,” she said. “Instead of crayons and toys, children became more violent, playing games with toy weapons.”
She recalls during her youth that the pervasive presence of armed U.S. soldiers affected Iraqi children. Stores began selling toy weapons and clothes for children with camouflage or military-inspired patterns. The toy guns, without safety standards, featured plastic projectiles that led to a slew of children losing an eye to the point that the Iraqi government sought to ban them.
This history of the merchandising of the 2003 invasion serves as a testament that while the conflict led to real death and destruction in Iraq, for the spectators far away in the US, it was analogous to a circus or sporting match, with paraphernalia, trophies and souvenirs to serve as memorabilia.
If Russia produced merchandise celebrating its war in Ukraine, it would be considered in poor taste. The same standard should be applied to the American invasion of Iraq that continues to be glorified in American consciousness 19 years later.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi is an associate professor of history at California State University San Marcos. He is co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History and The Modern History of Iraq.
Follow him on Twitter: @ialmarashi