The Cataclysmic Iraq War in 6 Charts

The US invaded Iraq 20 years ago this spring. From killing hundreds of thousands of civilians to redistributing wealth to the rich and powerful, it was an unmitigated disaster. These charts show how.

Members of the US Army on duty near a burning oil well in the Rumaylah Oil Fields in Southern Iraq, April 2, 2003. (Arlo K. Abrahamson / US Navy / Getty Images)

Speaking recently about Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, Joe Biden said: “The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country . . . since World War II, nothing like that has happened.” He must have a short-term memory.

US-led coalition forces in Iraq easily eclipsed one hundred thousand every year from 2003 to 2009, during which time Biden was either vice president of the United States or the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As the following charts demonstrate, twenty years on, Biden is as connected to the Iraq War and its legacy as any active politician.

Imperial Violence

Iraq should be an upper-middle-income country by now. Instead, it’s a fragile, poor state missing a sizable portion of its population thanks to the 2003 invasion that Biden ardently supported.

The US-led coalition kicked off the war by killing at least seven thousand civilians in the first month. Over the next 239 months, two hundred thousand more civilians in Iraq would die from war-related violence. This is a conservative estimate: civilian casualties are almost always underreported and only battle-related deaths are included in the figure. It excludes the lives lost due to the indirect harms of war — think displacement and damage to civil and public health infrastructure. These indirect deaths are notoriously difficult to estimate, but the real figure is probably several times higher than the direct war fatalities depicted below.

Imperial Humiliation

Biden only came to regret his support for the war after it became an obvious debacle. By that point, the United States had lost over two hundred troops, Iraq had lost over nine thousand civilians, and insurgency had exploded in the country.

Public support began to falter, too, as it grew apparent the war wasn’t going to be as advertised. Iraq would not be a cakewalk; US military forces would not be greeted as liberators; disaster was inbound.

And indeed, as the insurgency in Iraq intensified, the US public’s opposition to the war did as well. A recurring Gallup poll reported that 25 percent opposed the war in March 2003, but 43 percent did so in October 2003. It continued upward from there: 47 percent said they didn’t favor the war in March 2005 and 61 percent said so in January 2007.

How do you gauge an insurgency’s intensity? For the chart below, I took monthly US military fatalities from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as a proxy. IEDs were a prominent weapon deployed by the insurgency, so changes in IED incident rates (and therefore fatalities) can be chalked up to changes in the insurgency’s potency. IED prevalence, then, is a grade of the US counterinsurgency performance and the war effort overall. By that measure, the US military didn’t just fail — it was utterly humiliated.

Militarizing the Homeland

When US conventional forces finally withdrew from Iraq, they left behind boatloads of weapons and equipment. But a significant amount of combat gear ended up back in the United States and designated as excess military property.

One way the Pentagon sheds excess gear is through the 1033 authority, a grant program through which state and local police have acquired billions of dollars worth of matériel (nominally) for free. As the charts below show, the biggest surge in these Pentagon-to-police transfers occurred in the wake of the US drawdown from Iraq.

There are many reasons why the 1033 program should be eliminated, but the primary one is that it makes police more violent: there is a dose-response relationship between the amount of military gear transferred to police and the level of police violence.

The program was first established as a pilot program through the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — which then-senator Joe Biden supported — before it was enshrined in permanent law through the 1997 NDAA. Joe Biden voted for this bill, too. As president, Biden can easily recall the military equipment police received from the Pentagon, but has opted not to.

The Iraq War’s Only Winners

War almost always involves a transfer of public funds to the private sector, but Iraq was far more commercialized than previous major US interventions. The ratio of US troops to US-funded contractors during the Vietnam War was 5 to 1; Korean war, 2.5 to 1; World War II, 7 to 1; and World War I, 24 to 1.

The troop-to-contractor ratio in Iraq was about 1 to 1 for the first few years after the invasion and became even more contractor-dominant as the war progressed. All told, the United States spent more than $155 billion on contractors in Iraq from fiscal years 2003 to 2022.

Military spending as a whole became more commercialized during the Iraq War. The share of the Pentagon budget that went to contractors increased by 10 percent (44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2022). For the arms industry, this commercialization couldn’t have come at a better time: annual military spending levels had soared to record levels.

In the twenty years since the US invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon spent $15.8 trillion. More than half of that total went to contractors. The largest recipient of campaign cash from these contractors during the 2020 election cycle was Joe Biden.

The Iraq War was many things: a cavalcade of lies, a historic crime, an unforgivable act of bloodletting. It was also a massive redistribution of wealth to the rich and powerful.