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Repetition: Invasions, Now and Then

Several years ago, I handed out to my class a recent (then) Library of Congress description of military invasions of other counties undertaken by the United States. Before handing it out, I asked them how many there were or how many they had knowledge of. Their answers all highlighted Vietnam, Korea, and, certainly, Germany, although few were aware of much detail from each. Some mentioned Granada, a 1983 rescue of U.S. medical students that lasted a few days.

Then I gave them the document: 98 pages with descriptions of over 400 occupations/interventions undertaken by American forces – Army, Navy, Marines (later Air Force).

Their reaction was swift and unanimous: either this “can’t” be true or officials “lied” to us. My reply: they understood a political “myth,” generally defined as a false/exaggerated notion based upon institutional ideals derived from cultural/political values. How could a country that fought a war to “make the world safe for democracy” commit so many egregious behaviors reserved only for Kings, dictators, or Adolf Hitler? How could a people known the world over for expelling the British commit so many actions that turned the whole enterprise completely around?

The full answer to that particular question, I had to admit, lay deeply embedded within the realm of biology, sociology, psychology, or a combination of each. As I told the class, I had neither the time nor expertise to explore this and, moreover, “myth” apparently has been, since time began, an integral part of the “human experience.”

I also responded by invoking the American “myth” with this query: why does political liberty or democracy determine how countries conduct foreign policy or how they use their military force? Relatedly, why is it necessary for the military to be used only for “defensive” reasons, eliminating any and all “offensive” qualities that naval and air power, by “definition,” are made to pursue? England, the “home” of liberty, once controlled nearly half the world with a Navy.

Having dispensed with causation, I had to confront the same phenomena years later after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (2/24/2022). Still another class confronted me with the same question: Professor, how do you feel about Russia’s invasion? My answer: for what it’s worth, I oppose unprovoked and unannounced invasions of one country by another. I also explained that small countries owe their geopolitical existence to the behavior and choices of large countries, especially when they live side-by-side.

But, all invasions, repeat “all,” are “surprises” – again, by definition. With similar reasoning, I also opposed Pearl Harbor, Fort Sumter, North vs. South Korea, North vs. South Vietnam, Germany vs. Poland, Germany vs. France, Germany vs. Norway, Germany vs. England, Germany vs. Holland, Germany vs. Denmark, Germany vs. Greece, etc. (as “starters”).

Out of frustration, I asked the class this cynical question: did you expect Premier Tojo (Japan) to tell President Roosevelt in 1941, “we’ll be there on December 7th, 8 AM. Have a nice day”?

I got even more cynical. Inventing “numbers,” I suggested that history had witnessed 10,000 previous invasions, with Putin’s number 10,001. My question to this class: how do you feel about the previous 10,000 invasions?

With no answer, I got “closer to home.”

In the mid-nineteenth century (1847), the American Army invaded its neighbor Mexico and took about 50% of their land (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California), a territory about the size of Western Europe (we still have it). In 1898, the U.S. invaded Cuba and Puerto Rico, the next year The Philippines; all owned by Spain. In 1950, the U.S. invaded Korea, 4,000 miles away, in response to North Korea’s invasion (across the border). In the 1960s, the U.S. sent over 2 million soldiers to Vietnam, about 10,000 miles away. In 1975, the other side took the country. Nobody in the U.S. seemed to notice, and the U.S. became a “superpower,” 58,000 lives and a few years later. In 2001, the U.S. traveled across the ocean, several seas, and about 12,000 miles to occupy Afghanistan. Twenty years later, we left it to the same enemies we invaded against (plus billions of dollars of equipment). Today, Afghanistan is the same since we entered (or for thousands of years).

These episodes represent only a sample of the 400 in the aforementioned study. Many, to be fair, were successful, especially the post-war occupations of Germany and Japan. Others, obviously, were disastrous, a fact rarely brought out in standard histories.

Some lasted days, some weeks, some months, some years, and some decades. Results, overall, were inconclusive with this caveat: the shorter the event, the better; the longer, the worse (my own assessment).

Cynicism, as related to my class behavior, is appropriate, but only in a historic (“intellectual”) sense. I can say anything I want in a classroom, but nothing can take away from the human and geopolitical devastation when war/invasion occurs between countries.

The picture of Kyiv (above) should remind us of pictures of London in 1940, Berlin or Tokyo in 1945 or, for that matter, Antietam in 1862, or Washington in 1814 (burning).

The issue is timeless and seems hopeless (thus far).

I try to avoid TV scenes of Ukraine since Russia invaded. Not that I am frightened by graphics, but I see no utility in watching human suffering, either now or before. Any more than I would sit bedside of (an unknown) cancer patient, just to observe his last moments.

Conclusion: As I finally asked my class before departure, if you’re “sick and tired” of war’s repetition, what do you propose to do about it?  (They were polite. They could have said, “same as you.”)