Part 1 was my attempt to very briefly outline an American history drenched in blood and religion. I think that it is important to have an understanding of that history to contextualize the post WW2 era of American interventionism.
Below is a list of recent conflicts that the United States has been involved in, with a summary and a short commentary. I have endeavored to include everything that involved combat, but I can’t guarantee that it is comprehensive. The US military is engaged in these kinds of operations year-round in every part of the globe, and many operations involve a handful of personnel and are secret. I leave it to the reader to decide the success or failure of each.
As you read through this list, consider that more U.S. troops have died in war zones this year than in 2016 — the first time in six years that the number of service members killed overseas has increased over the previous year. (13)
Korean War 1950-1953 – Ostensibly we were there to help South Korea repel an invasion by North Korea, what we were really doing was trying to stop the so called “Domino Effect” and prevent the spread of Communism. With the most positive interpretation of the results of this war, we fought to a stalemate. In a more realistic reading, what we did was set up North Korea to be the rogue regime that exists currently, isolated and threatening to launch nuclear missiles at the US.
Laotian Civil War 1953-1975 – Fought between the Communists and the Royal Lao Government, overshadowed by the Vietnam War, it is often forgotten that the CIA, US Special Forces, and regular military forces fought here for years. If the goal of this war was to stop the spread of Communism, well, Laos is a Marxist-Leninist one party Socialist Republic currently.
Iran Operation Ajax – 1953 where the US supported the successful overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh, giving a monarchy power over an elected government to establishing a pro-America regime. Out actions there created decades of discontent among Iranians and led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Remember that next time you hear this administration say something about how Iran is the enemy. Not only were our efforts ultimately unsuccessful, in that we ended up with an anti-American regime in power, but we also gave terrorist recruiters a bounty of ammunition to use in their recruitment campaigns.
Lebanon 1958, and again from 1982-1984 – The first intervention in ’58 was the first application of the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine the stated purpose of which was to protect regimes threatened by Communism. The US sent about 14,000 troops to Lebanon to prop up a pro-Western government. The result was a moderate government and a peaceful transition. But it also set a precedent for US involvement in internal Arab disputes. Later, in ’82 we found ourselves back for the Lebanese Civil War. Some scholars suggest that our involvement may have hastened the demise of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War. It also led to the death of 241 US servicemembers in a barracks suicide bombing. It caused additional problems with Syria as shooting exchanged happened between Syrian batteries and patrolling American warships. All told the US lost 265 servicemembers during the conflict.
Bay of Pigs 1961 – This was just a straight-up failed CIA sponsored invasion of Cuba. Not sure how you could swing this any other way.
Vietnam 1965-1973 – Long, costly war to stop the spread of Communism, interestingly known as the “Resistance War Against America” inside Vietnam. Total estimated cost of the war in 2015 dollars over 1 Trillion. (14) If the purpose of the war was to stop the spread of Communism, well, today Vietnam is a Marxist-Leninist one party Socialist Republic.
Dominican Civil War 1965 – Allegations of foreign support to the civil war led to US involvement, ostensibly to protect 3500 US citizens and US interests in the country. 5 US Killed in Action, another 31 wounded. End result? A bunch of US citizens were evacuated safely, but its not clear what the further ramifications were.
Bolivian Insurgency 1966-67 All through the 1960’s the CIA gave Bolivian dictators money, and the US actively supported these dictators against local rebels. This resulted in thousands of deaths and promoted political instability across Central and South America that is still being felt today. The US famously helped track down the guerilla leader Che Guevara, turning him over to be murdered by the Bolivian government.
Cambodian Civil War 1967-75 – This is a complicated event; a civil war between the Khmer Rouge supported by the North Vietnamese against the Khmer Republic supported by the South Vietnamese and the United States. The US was there primarily to help the war effort in Vietnam, although it fit into the rubric of stopping Communist aggression as well. A couple of hundred thousand people died in the war, the Khmer Rouge won, and it led to the Killing Fields genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot.
War in South Zaire/Angola 1978 – I don’t even know if I can unpack this one. Starting in 1975 Angola underwent a civil war, that really didn’t end until 2002. It was a power struggle between two former liberation movements – the MPLA and UNITA. It also was a surrogate battle ground for the US and Russia during the Cold War. In spite of opposition from the State Department and the CIA, President Ford pushed for US involvement. We ended up giving millions of dollars to factional groups the results of which were millions dead and displaced, an intensification of the Cold War, and the trashing of US reputation as we once again foolishly intervene in a foreign conflict that ultimately did not benefit anyone.
Operation Eagle Claw 1980 – Another straight up disaster. This was a rescue operation aimed at freeing US Embassy workers taken hostage in Iran, ordered by President Carter. This was actually one of Delta Forces first missions. Essentially, due to lack of communication, poor planning, and bad luck, the operation failed, it was discovered by Iran, and led to the US being humiliated. (A helicopter landed on an airplane at the rendezvous point in Iran.) No hostages were rescued as a result and I can’t image there is any way to spin this except failure. (15)
Granada 1983 – In the early 80’s there were about a thousand US students studying medicine in Grenada. There had been a coup, and a curfew put into place. There were rumors of unrest and President Reagan used this opportunity to send in US troops. (There was no actual indications that any US civilians were in danger (16)). The US had 19 servicemembers killed and 116 wounded in the conflict, ultimately rescuing the students and restoring the previous government. Conventional wisdom says that more than any other factor. Reagan was looking for an opportunity to fight the Cold War on another front. We did however, accomplish our stated mission. But consider this, a group of teenagers with World War I era rifles took on the most highly trained army in the world and gave it a bloody nose. This event is very interestingly described in David Hackworth’s book “About Face”.
Invasion of Panama 1989-1990 – This is another conflict that will be hard to summarize in a short paragraph. President Bush stated that we were protecting US citizens and US interested in the Canal Zone, as well as combatting drug trafficking. We were successful, albeit with about 1000 casualties to include 23 dead US servicemembers and 325 wounded. The operation also left about 300 dead civilians and 20,000 civilians displaced by the fighting. One of the things that came out during this conflict was that the enemy leader, Manuel Noriega, had been working for the CIA since 1967. This fact further bolstered the degradation of US influence and an increase in mistrust of the US across Central and South America.
Invasion of Haiti 1915-1934, and again 1994-1995 – Another country where the US has a long history of intervention and violence. The US first invaded Haiti in 1915 ostensibly to quell a nationwide strike and an ongoing local rebellion. (17). But really, US Marines were sent there because President Wilson “…feared that European interests might reduce American commercial and political influence in Haiti and the region surrounding the Panama Canal.” (18). One of the first actions carried out by the US after the invasion was to seize Haiti’s financial reserves and rewrite its Constitution so that US citizens could own land there. For the next 19 years we occupied Haiti and told the world we were engaged in nation building, during which time 15,000 Haitians were killed and forced labor gangs were used to build roads and schools. The most recent invasion was done to remove a dictator, which was done with minimal casualties. We eventually turned control of this operation over to the UN and it became a humanitarian mission.
Bosnian War 1994-1995 – Part of the break up of Yugoslavia. A horrific civil war took place that saw genocide and murder on a wide scale. The United Nations went in to try and stabilize the region and the US supported that effort. After 3 and a half years of fighting, the Dayton peace accords were signed. The US has been involved for many years – both in the conduct of stability operations and with the tracking down of suspected war criminals.
Kosovo War 1998-1999 – Another casualty of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The US was once again involved under the auspices of the UN and NATO.
Operation Infinite Reach 1998 – This is the name given to the mission that launched cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan, ordered by President Clinton to attack al-Qaida. Of interest as it marks the first time the US engaged in a pre-emptive strike against a non-state actor. Although it appears that we did successfully strike one or more al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan, the results from the missiles launched into Sudan are not as clear. This stated objective of these strikes was to punish al-Qaida for attacks at US Embassy’s in Tanzania and Kenya. It is not clear that our response punished the people involved, or degraded al-Qaida’s abilities in any way.
The following conflicts are currently being perpetrated by the United States. There could be others, but the White House has stopped publishing troop deployment information (19). I leave them without commentary because I have no idea what we are doing there nor do I know what objectives we are pursuing.
Iraq Gulf War 1990-91, No Fly Zone Enforcement 1991-2003, Iraq War 2003-
Libya 1981, 1986, 1989, 2011, 2016-present –
Afghanistan 2001- present –
War in North-West Pakistan 2004- present –
Somali Civil War 1992-1995, 2009- present –
Syrian Civil War 2014- present –
Yemen Civil War 2015-present –
Additionally, the US currently has troops stationed in Japan, Germany, South Korea, Italy, UK, Kuwait, Bahrain, Spain, Qatar, Turkey, Djibouti, Jordan, UAE, Austria, Belgium, Cuba, Romania, and El Salvador. (19)
Contrary to what I believe is a commonly held belief by Americans, the US has no moral high ground in how it conducts itself on the world stage. Moreover, if we judge the results of our military actions based on the accomplishment of the stated objective we are failures. Even worse, I would argue that the world sees us act irresponsibly and with greed. These acts further tarnish our reputation and limits our effectiveness.
We get away with failure because 1. We have the resources to throw at it, and 2. We rarely have to live with the consequences of our actions, at least not directly.
Our poorly thought out policies and inept mission execution make the world a more violent and less stable place.
My motivation in writing this in large part comes from my belief that basic facts about our history and a false narrative woven around American exceptionalism lead to a more dangerous future.
Daniel Cashman, EAMP, MS (AOM)