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Iraq War Viewed Through Social Conflict Theory
Tyler Stoering

Sociological Reflection Paper

In the first year of the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying, “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will last five days, five weeks or five months, but it won’t last any longer than that.” As it has been more than five years since the war began, it is reasonable to examine the nature of the war, and the various factors that led up to it and were involved in it. The war in Iraq can be examined through the principals social conflict theory by considering what role ideology played in the media during the conflict, what the social stratification of the military says about the war, and what dependency theory reveals about the shared history of the United States and Iraq prior to the current conflict.

Social conflict is a sociological theoretical approach fathered by Karl Marx. The theory is a framework for building a theory that sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and change. The goal of the theory is to both uncover disparity and inequality in the world and to eliminate it. The theory examines how different classes vie for resources, and Marx defined that struggle in terms of a ruling capitalist class who seek to maximize profit, and the working class that struggle underneath them for equality. In the theory, society is viewed a system of inequalities based on class, gender and race, and the view that society operates to the benefit of some and to the harm of others.

The Iraq War is an ongoing conflict between the United States of America and Iraq. The U.S. and coalition forces invaded Iraq in 2003. Among the justifications for the invasion were that the country’s leader Saddam Hussein and his regime were plotting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and that the regime was supporting terrorists. After the invasion phase of the operations was complete, the coalition forces aided the country in forming a democratic transitional government, training an Iraqi military, and creating a constitution. In the aftermath of the invasion Iraqi resistance forces, angered by the U.S. occupation, began an insurgency using guerilla warfare tactics. This insurgency is ongoing. In 2007, the U.S. sent a surge of 21,500 troops as reinforcements, along with addition money for reconstruction and aid to the country. Current president Barack Obama declared in February 2009 that combat operations in Iraq would end within 18 months.

One way to examine the Iraq war through the lens of social conflict theory is to examine the role that ideology played in and around the conflict. Ideology is defined by the theory as false consciousness. Beliefs that support the ruling classes and are believed by the working class are said to be ideology.  In the view of social conflict theory, mass media such television promote ideology. A review of the role of the media during the time of the Iraq war validates this claim. John J. Macionis reports in Society: The Basics that “The Iraq war was the first war in which television crews traveled with U.S. troops reporting the campaign as it unfolded…” Media outlets supportive of the war- including most news organizations in the United States- tended to report the rapid pace of the war and the casualties to Iraqi forces and to downplay harm to Iraqi civilians as minimal and unintended.” A 2003 article in World Public Opinion reviewed a series of seven different public opinion polls and found that, “…a majority of Americans had misconceptions (about the war) and these are highly related to support for the war in Iraq.” The polls show that, “…the frequency of these misperceptions varies significantly according to an individual’s primary source of news. Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions…” Considering that Fox News is the most popular news network in the United States, it could be inferred that the most popular news network in the nation is helping spread incorrect ideology about the war, that viewers are believing this ideology, and that their support for the war is correlated with their belief in these misconceptions. Through the lens of social conflict theory, this would be an example of a belief that supports the ruling class, the bush administration, and is believed by the lower classes, the viewers of the nation’s most popular news network.

Examining the stratification of those who serve in the military and have fought in the military is another way to view the war through the eyes of social conflict theory. In 2006 Senator John Kerry was speaking to an assembly of college students, and was quoted as saying, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.” Senator Kerry was quickly lambasted for the quote, and the current president George W. Bush claimed Kerry owed those serving in the military an apology. However, John Kerry’s quote does prompt important questions about who makes up the military. Social stratification is defined as the system by which society ranks people in a hierarchy. Social conflict theory views society’s stratification as benefiting some individuals at the expense of others. The theory purports that uppers classes are born with more opportunities, and are therefore more likely to succeed. A 2007 article in the online magazine Alternet entitled, “The Making of an American Soldier: Why Young People Join the Military” cited a 2007 Associate Press report that found, “nearly three-fourths of (U.S. troops) killed in Iraq came from towns where the per capita income was below the national average. More than half came from town where the percentage of people living in poverty topped the national average.” Simply put, as of 2007, at least half of those military members who died in the Iraq War are from the poorest areas of the United States. Of those in the military fighting the war in Iraq, those from poor communities are disproportionately killed the Iraq War. In the view of social conflict theory, this could be inferred to be a confirmation of the theory’s assumptions about social stratification in the sense that this statistic is an example of how the stratification of the military benefits the goals of the ruling class, president Bush and the members of his leadership, at the expense of those who come from the poorest areas of the country.

Social conflict theory’s appraisal of social stratification has other features. The theory’s appraisal of society’s hierarchy further defines itself through the dependency theory. Dependency theory states that global inequality can be explained in terms of the historical exploitation of poor nations by rich ones. When viewed through the dependency theory, the historical relationship between Iraq and the United States reveals how the economic inequality in Iraq in present times can be explained in part by the U.S. exploitation of conflict in Iraq during the 1980’s for its own gains. According to the independent research unit The National Security archive, the United States supported Saddam Hussein and his regime during the country’s war with Iran in the 1980’s.  It states, “By mid-1982, the U.S., having decided that an Iranian victory would not serve its interests, began supporting Iraq: measures already underway to upgrade U.S.-Iraq relations were accelerated, high-level officials exchanged visits, and in February 1982 the State Department removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism.” Furthermore, by 1983, “The U.S., which followed developments in the Iran-Iraq war with extraordinary intensity, had intelligence confirming Iran's accusations, and describing Iraq's "almost daily" use of chemical weapons.” By 1984, the U.S. had publically denounced Iraq’s use of chemical weapons but, in that same year, the U.S. “reconsidered policy for the sale of dual-use equipment to Iraqi nuclear entities… Several months later, a Defense Intelligence Agency analysis said that even after the war ended, Iraq was likely to ‘continue to develop its formidable conventional and chemical capability, and probably pursue nuclear weapons’.” In light of this information, it’s clear that the U.S. government played a role in supporting Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s when it served U.S. interests. By supporting the Iran/Iraq war, the U.S. shares some of the blame for the disastrous economic results that followed after it ended. According to independent policy watchdog Global Policy Forum, the Iran/Iraq war was the, “longest conventional war in the 20th century…” and it “… bankrupted the country and set it on the path of self-destruction on which it finds itself at the present time.” In the aftermath of the massive expenditures of the war, Saddam Hussein’s government was forced to, “curtail imports and social services, abandon development plans, resort to suppliers' credit, receive grants (or loans) from Arab oil countries, and resort to foreign debt.” Furthermore, “The unfulfilled economic promises and the continued degradation of the economy, combined with weaknesses in the oil sector, seem to have propelled the Iraqi government in August 1990 to invade and occupy Kuwait in the hope that the latter's wealth and oil reserves might provide an easy solution to the country's economic crisis.” Through the lens of the social conflict theory and dependency theory, by the U.S. supporting the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980’s, the U.S contributed to the factors that led up to the economic ruin of the country. The economic inequality in Iraq immediately prior to the current war can be partially attributed to the U.S. supporting the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980, and exploiting that war for the United State’s own political interests. Furthermore, it seems disingenuous that the U.S. didn’t acknowledge the shared relationship it had with Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war in the lead up the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Considering that it’s estimated that the world’s nations spend $1.2 trillion dollars on war annually, examining the features of contemporary wars can be instructive. Social conflict theory works not only to diagnose the inequalities in contemporary society, but to give CPR to those elements as well. Examining ideology and social stratification in the military in the Iraq War, along with exploring the modern history of Iraq and U.S. through the viewpoint of dependency theory displays the many insights social conflict theory can provide. The 20th Century was the bloodiest century in history, with an eye towards social conflict theory, perhaps we can make sure the 21st century that much less bloody.
Very insightful post.  While reading it, the song "Hands Held High" by Linkin Park kept popping into my head....
"The 20th Century was the bloodiest century in history, with an eye towards social conflict theory, perhaps we can make sure the 21st century that much less bloody."

I think you are a dreamer. This century, thanks to US is already on its way to being the bloodiest in history.

I appreciate (in other words thank you for) the considerable effort the amalgamation of all these details required. I appreciate (as in share with you) your point of view also, in that Marx laid the foundations for the clearest versions of the truth that we can figure out these days. Clearly, the "ideologies" are inventions - scripts for Faux News (and all the others). It seems to me that the skeleton of this framework was built by Antonio Gramsci while he rotted (literally) in fascist prisons in Mussolini's Italy. He wrote in the Prison Notebooks (Quaderni da prigione) about the use of cultural memes (it's our word not his) collectively labelled "hegemony" to suppress the masses, instead of the armed suppression used previously in Europe (with some success). Today some of us call these hegemonic memes -  WMDs in Iraq - terrorists in Afghanistan - the need to suspend the Bill of Rights domestically in the US - lies. Some of us call them truth. But I do not believe for a second that the figureheads in charge of lying to us believe the lies they tell us. The worst lie they have convinced US of is that acting up and acting out would do no good. Or is it that we are all too concerned about the real disasters that loom all around us, economic, cultural, political, social, educational and climatic? The very rich will survive all of these with servants around them, like plantation owners of ante bellum South.

It is hard to watch our children die in foreign "wars" for petroleum. These are the resource wars that will continue until there are no soldiers. The next one is Iran. Before or "after" (that's new-speak for whenever) they develop nucyular bombs. Then "we" will have "control" of all the major oil fields in the near East, the Gulf (whoops), and the North Pole. Resource wars, for whose benefit?
Dear Renzo,
Thank you for your comment and for mentioning Antonio Gramsci. I've never heard his name before, and I hope to research him further. Do you have a book suggestion for my further learning about Antonio Gramsci?
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