In many ways, the critical political experience of the post-revolutionary period is not the revolution itself, but the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad—viewed by many as a “hardliner”—is himself a war veteran. Veterans drove his campaign, and his presidency itself represents a return to the values of the war generation.
No doubt the experience of the war generation is important. But which war generation? There are, in fact, several. There are those who were born during the war and remember it the way 40-something Americans remember the Vietnam War. At the Khorramshahr War Museum, I asked some of these fellows, now doing their compulsory military service, how much time they had left. The sincere country Turk said, “six months; but as long as it takes, we will serve the martyrs.” The streetsmart Tehrani was less starry-eyed, saying he didn’t mind serving—after all, the museum was air conditioned.
One generation back from today’s 20-somethings, is the Iran-Iraq War veteran who fought in Khorramshahr and led our tour. Like most soldiers (including the tens of thousands of children who served as human mine-clearers), he was a volunteer. For men like him, the end of the war meant a shift in national priorities away from purity and self-sacrifice. These men watched as their heroic contributions were abruptly relegated to the history books and their accomplishments discounted in new efforts at national reconstruction. This man keeps the memories alive, as if his “buddies,” as he calls them, had died yesterday.
In fact, it could be said that today’s political conflict between reformers and hardliners—symbolized by the contrasting governing styles of former President Khatemi and current President Ahmadinezhad—took shape not in cosmopolitan Tehran in recent years, but at the front more than a decade ago.
The first wave of war volunteers—who are most likely to be among today’s reformers—went out of their belief in Islam, to liberate the holy cities and live the ideal spiritual life on the battlefield. Their passionately held values were brotherhood, equality, simplicity, purity, joy, and the spiritual cleansing they received at the front; the simple pleasures and duties of everyday life as a soldier became holy.
The group who went later, on the other hand, were professional volunteers, often serving repeatedly. They included opportunists who recognized the value of volunteer veteran credentials. To these men, the war was about martyrdom. They were austere, joyless, doctrinaire; they brooked no compromise. And because the war was sacred in their eyes, they didn’t question the country’s leadership or believe others should.
This second group regards today’s discussion of reform as so much loose and corrupt liberalism. And I suspect they harbor a deep sense of betrayal at Ayatollah Khomayni’s abrupt closure of the war, and the way technocrats such as former President HojjatolIslam Rafsanjani—who opposed President Ahmadinezhad in the recent election (and lost) — turned away from them after the war. They emphasize instead the folk religious values of the war that so animate President Ahmadinezhad, in contrast to the clerical leadership.
The reformers, in turn, don’t talk much about their wartime experiences. When they do, they are usually refuting criticisms that they lack revolutionary fervor, and observing that only opportunists would cite what they did during the war for purposes of political advancement.
The principal political fracture in Iran today is not between the liberal youth and the conservative clerics, as American analysis—often over-simplified—would have it. Rather, it is a fracture within the war generation, between those whose memory of the war is animated by ideals of equality, brotherhood, and national sacrifice, and those who fought for a more domineering vision of national unity and religious control. The battle is between two competing visions of the war experience. The debate is over what it meant, what it achieved, and how it will be remembered.