Observed since 1945, the political-military record of the United States in prolonged wars is mediocre. The Korean War from 1950-1953, which saw active participation from the United States, ended with a cease-fire that established the border between North and South Korea on the 38th parallel, which is to say that it ended in a situation identical to that at the start of hostilities. That war, in which the United States lacked any strong public support, had no winning side.
The Vietnam War came a bit later, from 1960 to 1975. With the deaths of almost 3 million Vietnamese, between 200,000 and 300,000 Cambodians, 20,000 to 200,000 Laotians and 58,220 Americans, Washington withdrew from the Asian country, worn out on the battle field and pressured by vast internal movements. The political-military disaster in Vietnam was definite.
Three brief military actions in Latin America had distinct outcomes. The invasion of Giron Beach, Cuba, in 1960, was a failure; the invasion of Granada (a 344 square kilometer island, whose most important national product is nutmeg) in 1983 culminated in a success for Washington and the invasion of Panama in 1989 with 26,000 men, which was motivated by the capture and indictment of General Manuel Antonio Noriega, also ended successfully.
The first Iraq War in 1991, into which the United States led a healthy coalition of 540,000 soldiers financed largely by Saudi Arabia and Japan, saw a devastating aerial bombardment followed by a land attack, and had mixed results. In military terms, it was categorized as a victory, but in political terms, it was an ambiguous victory, as Saddam Hussein preserved his government.
The second Iraq War (2003-2011), in which the United States headed another coalition of the willing and spent approximately $797 billion, was a failure. According to the Iraq Body Count Organization, the total number of Iraqi deaths in the more than eight years of occupation was 16,623 soldiers and between 104,122 and 113,770 civilians. According to an investigation from the English medical magazine, The Lancet, the death total between 2003 and 2006 had risen to 654,965, and according to a 2007 survey of the British Opinion Research Business, violent deaths in Iraq were at 1,033,000, at a time when the United Nations calculates a total of 4.7 million displaced patriots and refugees in the midst of multiple violent fights within the country.
The failure of the United States in Iraq was eloquent and shows, once again, that enormous military power doesn’t always translate into the success of political and military objectives. While Washington repeats that it left Iraq of its own will, in reality, it was the defeat inside Iraq caused by the invasion and the deep economic crisis in the United States that pulled Washington out of Baghdad. It’s worth emphasizing that it’s very disturbing to observe the relatively low level of public debate in the United States over the development and outcome of the second Iraq War, in contrast to the Vietnam War.
There is another failure in the making: Afghanistan. It hasn’t stopped the United States from launching a new type of warfare which carries out selective missile strikes from drone aircrafts (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs). Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen are already familiar with this mode of combat’s doubted international legality. Iran has also been the target of the UAVs; in this case, in a covert war of less intensity.
Despite the above, the lessons that the armed forces and political leadership of the United States have extracted are few. In Washington, the voices of the soldiers, within and outside of the Obama administration, continue to resonate with insistence. The Republican primaries show a competition in which the majority of candidates demand the use of force overseas. The Pentagon only seems interested in extracting more experiences, distinct from the reiterated failures, of counterinsurgency for the next eventual possibility, and in perfecting types of warfare like the so called “drone wars,” that is, the very precise actions carried out from UAVs, more and more sophisticated, without the necessity of troops on the ground but with limited attention to public opinion and low accountability before legislation.
The formerly mentioned evaluation of how to improve the duties of the counterinsurgency may only nurture the idea of wars being perpetual; and as for the previously failed military actions, you can surely count on the resentment of those affected by the attacks and the search for methods of response in the framework of such greatly uneven conflicts.
It’s quite possible that the United States will continue to believe that its record of six decades of military confrontation after World War II is impressive, when actually what it shows is its impotence.
Edited by Katya Abazajian