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March 28, 2023       Len’s Letter #61  America’s Wars


M1 Abrams Tank              F16 Fighter Jet

US will send these            US may send these to

to Ukraine.                        Ukraine after all

We have had an anomaly. More than a few Republicans, members of a party which has supported past American wars enthusiastically, now suggest that the United States is spending too much helping Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion.  Andrew Bacevich’s recent article in Foreign Affairs expresses a similar concern. An avowed conservative, a West Point graduate, a scathing critic of Donald Trump and other Republicans as well, he questions the value of our use of force.  Nevertheless, he begins by remembering the inspiration of the television series Victory at Sea and then follows with his disappointment about the effectiveness of post-World War II American military adventures.

Bacevich cites the 1950 “highly classified” classified Paul Nitze State Department document.  (I am a retired school superintendent who never had to deal with classified documents. I don’t get how it is possible to quote and refer to a secret document unless this 70 year old document is no longer secret.)  Bacevich refers to the document and says “the aim of U.S. hegemony has been to establish global order and justice through the prudent use of hard power [and] the results have been mixed at best.”

Bacevich argues that the West imposing order has been beneficial to the West, but has done little or nothing for the poor of the world.    “Since 1950, people in the English-speaking world and those living in some proximity to Paris and Tokyo have fared relatively well. By comparison, the benefits accruing to the billions living in the global South have been spotty; only occasionally has the opportunity to live longer and healthier lives translated into personal freedom and security. Government respect for individual rights and adherence to the rule of law remains more hope than reality.”

It is not only the Global South that has been shortchanged by the wars since WW II.  Americans, too, have been shortchanged. Bacevich says, with dismay: “within the country, the distribution of … wealth has shifted dramatically. In 1950, the richest 0.1 percent of Americans controlled around 10 percent of the country’s wealth; today, they control close to 20 percent of it. Meanwhile, the country’s fiscal health has declined: the total U.S. national debt now exceeds $31 trillion, with the federal budget deficit having averaged more than a trillion dollars per year since 2010.

Bacevich adds comments about how wasteful the United States has been: “To reflect on the conduct and the consequences of American wars (and sundry covert interventions) since 1950 is to confront an appalling record of recklessness, malfeasance, and waste.”  He argues that supporting Ukraine is an extension of that waste.  “…the foreign policy establishment insists there is no conceivable alternative to militarized American leadership—pointing above all to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to make its case.”  He attributes Ukraine’s relative success to date to the weakness of the Russian army.

Look at a brief summary of essential elements of the wars since World War II.  Consider resources that were used and the human lives lost.  This list considers only American resources and American lives.  A better, broader examination would consider the greater losses of all those involved in these wars.  When considering the spent American resources and the spent American lives, consider the outcomes of these wars.  Consider whether Ukraine looks like an extension of the policies of the last 75 years or a departure, whether it is a wise expenditure of resources in personnel and money or a waste – and how that compares with our previous experiences.  (All the dollar expenditures are expressed in 2023 US dollars. The list is in order of dollar cost.)

  • Afghanistan War: 2001-2021
    • $1.14 Trillion
    • 2,325 US deaths; 20,003 US injured.
    • Objective: Punish Afghanistan for sheltering al-Qaeda, the organization which attacked and destroyed the Twin World Trade Towers in New York City
    • Outcome: Country taken over by extreme Islamists who continue to support organizations that descend from or resemble al-Qaeda after an American exit which was as embarrassing as the American exit from Vietnam.
  • Iraq War: 2003-2011
    • $1.04 Trillion
    • 4,492 US deaths; 32,222 US injured.
    • Objective: Prevent Iraq from developing imagined weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism
    • Outcome: A country freed from a cruel dictator, now led by a corrupt and not particularly democratic parliamentary government which has Iran, a nation on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon and a supporter of terrorism, as its closest ally.
  • Vietnam War: 1955-1975:
    • $982 Billion
    • 58,220 US deaths; 153,303 US injured.
    • Objective: Prevent a Communist takeover of the country
    • Outcome: A Communist dictatorship which is surprisingly friendly to the US and wary of China
  • Korean War: 1950-1953:
    • $454 Billion
    • 36,416 US deaths; 92,134 US injured,
    • Objective: Prevent North Korea from invading South Korea and imposing a Communist dictatorship
    • Outcome: Communist dictatorship remained in the North, a dictatorship of generals continued in the South for 30 years and then transformed into a stable and vibrant democracy and thriving economy
  • Gulf War: 1990-1991:
    • $180 Billion
    • 294 US deaths; 849 US injured.:
    • Objective: Reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Some wished for a regime change in Iraq.
    • Outcome: Iraq retreat from Kuwait, no Iraq regime change
  • Russia/Ukraine war: 2022-2023.
    • $76.8 Billion so far
    • 0 US deaths; 0 US injured.
    • Objective: Reverse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Restore Ukraine to its previous borders
    • Outcome: Relying on and financing a vigorous Ukrainian military opposition leading to…. we do not yet know what.
  • The War against ISIS 2014-2017
    • $14.3 Billion
    • 0 US deaths; 0 US injured
    • Objective: Reverse the ISIS State that had expanded throughout much of Iraq and Syria, relying on Iraq’s Shiia Militias, Kurdish forces antagonistic to Turkey, Assad’s Russia backed forces, US backed Syria insurgent forces, Turkey, and air power
    • Outcome: ISIS driven out of Iraq and almost entirely out of Syria. Assad regaining power. Lots of loose ends. Refugees still in Syria and Syrian refugees elsewhere.  ISIS still causing trouble elsewhere in the world

In 2002, Barack Obama said, at a rally in opposition to the Iraq War:

“Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don’t oppose all wars.

My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s army. He saw the dead and dying across the fields of Europe; he heard the stories of fellow troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain. I don’t oppose all wars.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.”

Barack Obama was responsible for the least expensive of the post-World War II wars. The war against ISIS cost no American lives and, relatively speaking, little money.  Barack Obama’s former Vice President, Joe Biden has been responsible for the second least expensive of the post-World War II wars.  The Ukraine-Russia has cost no American lives and, expensive as it has been, it is less expensive than all of the other post World War II wars except the war against ISIS (or ISIL as the Obama administration insisted on calling it).

These two wars have been different from their predecessors (though, maybe, not so different from the Gulf War).  In the two least expensive wars, the United States has not been fighting on the ground.  Instead, it supported the people who had a stake in their opposition to those they saw as existential threats.  American support has been substantial and welcomed.  Barack Obama would describe these are smart wars, not dumb ones.  Helping Ukraine fight Russia, which is a major power, has been more expensive than helping Iraqis and Syrians fight ISIS, which was not even a minor power.

Was there a smart way to fight in Korea? In Afghanistan? In Iraq? In Vietnam?  There are a few things we know.  The pretext for fighting in Iraq (their developing weapons of mass destruction) was a lie.  The pretext for fighting in Vietnam (the Tonkin event) was exaggerated.  The response to the attack on the World Towers could have ended with the initial bombing on Afghanistan.

The dumb wars?  They were the ones that wasted American lives and American resources.