Death toll estimates from 20th-century wars can be found in the Historical Atlas
of the 20th Century by alphabetized places index, map series, and major
A BRIEFING ON THE HISTORY
OF U.S. MILITARY INTERVENTIONS
by Zoltán Grossman
Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, most people in the world
agree that the perpetrators need to be brought to justice, without killing many
thousands of civilians in the process. But unfortunately, the U.S. military has
always accepted massive civilian deaths as part of the cost of war. The military
is now poised to kill thousands of foreign civilians, in order to prove that
killing U.S. civilians is wrong.
The media has told us repeatedly that some Middle Easterners hate the U.S.
only because of our "freedom" and "prosperity." Missing from this explanation is
the historical context of the U.S. role in the Middle East, and for that matter
in the rest of the world. This basic primer is an attempt to brief readers who
have not closely followed the history of U.S. foreign or military affairs, and
are perhaps unaware of the background of U.S. military interventions abroad, but
are concerned about the direction of our country toward a new war in the name of
"freedom" and "protecting civilians."
The United States military has been intervening in other countries for a long
time. In 1898, it seized the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico from Spain, and
in 1917-18 became embroiled in World War I in Europe. In the first half of the
20th century it repeatedly sent Marines to "protectorates" such as Nicaragua,
Honduras, Panama, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. All these interventions
directly served corporate interests, and many resulted in massive losses of
civilians, rebels, and soldiers. Many of the uses of U.S. combat forces are
documented in A History of U.S. Military Interventions since 1890:
U.S. involvement in World War II (1941-45) was sparked by the surprise attack
on Pearl Harbor, and fear of an Axis invasion of North America. Allied bombers
attacked fascist military targets, but also fire-bombed German and Japanese
cities such as Dresden and Tokyo, partly under the assumption that destroying
civilian neighborhoods would weaken the resolve of the survivors and turn them
against their regimes. Many historians agree that fire-bombing's effect was
precisely the opposite—increasing Axis civilian support for homeland defense,
and discouraging potential coup attempts. The atomic bombing of Japan at the end
of the war was carried out without any kind of advance demonstration or warning
that may have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent
The war in Korea (1950-53) was marked by widespread atrocities, both by North
Korean/Chinese forces, and South Korean/U.S. forces. U.S. troops fired on
civilian refugees headed into South Korea, apparently fearing they were northern
infiltrators. Bombers attacked North Korean cities, and the U.S. twice
threatened to use nuclear weapons. North Korea is under the same Communist
government today as when the war began.
During the Middle East crisis of 1958, Marines were deployed to quell a
rebellion in Lebanon, and Iraq was threatened with nuclear attack if it invaded
Kuwait. This little-known crisis helped set U.S. foreign policy on a collision
course with Arab nationalists, often in support of the region's monarchies.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. returned to its pre-World War II interventionary
role in the Caribbean, directing the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs exile invasion of
Cuba, and the 1965 bombing and Marine invasion of the Dominican Republic during
an election campaign. The CIA trained and harbored Cuban exile groups in Miami,
which launched terrorist attacks on Cuba, including the 1976 downing of a Cuban
civilian jetliner near Barbados. During the Cold War, the CIA would also help to
support or install pro-U.S. dictatorships in Iran, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia,
and many other countries around the world.
The U.S. war in Indochina (1960-75) pit U.S. forces against North Vietnam,
and Communist rebels fighting to overthrow pro-U.S. dictatorships in South
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. U.S. war planners made little or no distinction
between attacking civilians and guerrillas in rebel-held zones, and U.S.
"carpet-bombing" of the countryside and cities swelled the ranks of the
ultimately victorious revolutionaries. Over two million people were killed in
the war, including 55,000 U.S. troops. Less than a dozen U.S. citizens were
killed on U.S. soil, in National Guard shootings or antiwar bombings. In
Cambodia, the bombings drove the Khmer Rouge rebels toward fanatical leaders,
who launched a murderous rampage when they took power in 1975.
Echoes of Vietnam reverberated in Central America during the 1980s, when the
Reagan administration strongly backed the pro-U.S. regime in El Salvador, and
right-wing exile forces fighting the new leftist Sandinista government in
Nicaragua. Rightist death squads slaughtered Salvadoran civilians who questioned
the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands. CIA-trained Nicaraguan
Contra rebels launched terrorist attacks against civilian clinics and schools
run by the Sandinista government, and mined Nicaraguan harbors. U.S. troops also
invaded the island nation of Grenada in 1983, to oust a new military regime,
attacking Cuban civilian workers (even though Cuba had backed the leftist
government deposed in the coup), and accidentally bombing a hospital.
The U.S. returned in force to the Middle East in 1980, after the Shi'ite
Muslim revolution in Iran against Shah Pahlevi's pro-U.S. dictatorship. A troop
and bombing raid to free U.S. Embassy hostages held in downtown Tehran had to be
aborted in the Iranian desert. After the 1982 Israeli occupation of Lebanon,
U.S. Marines were deployed in a neutral "peacekeeping" operation. They instead
took the side of Lebanon's pro-Israel Christian government against Muslim
rebels, and U.S. Navy ships rained enormous shells on Muslim civilian villages.
Embittered Shi'ite Muslim rebels responded with a suicide bomb attack on Marine
barracks, and for years seized U.S. hostages in the country. In retaliation, the
CIA set off car bombs to assassinate Shi'ite Muslim leaders. Syria and the
Muslim rebels emerged victorious in Lebanon.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. launched a 1986 bombing raid on Libya,
which it accused of sponsoring a terrorist bombing later tied to Syria. The
bombing raid killed civilians, and may have led to the later revenge bombing of
a U.S. jet over Scotland. Libya's Arab nationalist leader Muammar Qaddafi
remained in power. The U.S. Navy also intervened against Iran during its war
against Iraq in 1987-88, sinking Iranian ships and "accidentally" shooting down
an Iranian civilian jetliner.
U.S. forces invaded Panama in 1989 to oust the nationalist regime of Manuel
Noriega. The U.S. accused its former ally of allowing drug-running in the
country, though the drug trade actually increased after his capture. U.S.
bombing raids on Panama City ignited a conflagration in a civilian neighborhood,
fed by stove gas tanks. Over 2,000 Panamanians were killed in the invasion to
capture one leader.
The following year, the U.S. deployed forces in the Persian Gulf after the
Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which turned Washington against its former Iraqi ally
Saddam Hussein. U.S. supported the Kuwaiti monarchy and the Muslim
fundamentalist monarchy in neighboring Saudi Arabia against the secular
nationalist Iraq regime. In January 1991, the U.S..and its allies unleashed a
massive bombing assault against Iraqi government and military targets, in an
intensity beyond the raids of World War II and Vietnam. Up to 200,000 Iraqis
were killed in the war and its immediate aftermath of rebellion and disease,
including many civilians who died in their villages, neighborhoods, and bomb
shelters. The U.S. continued economic sanctions that denied health and energy to
Iraqi civilians, who died by the hundreds of thousands, according to United
Nations agencies. The U.S. also instituted "no-fly zones" and virtually
continuous bombing raids, yet Saddam was politically bolstered as he was
In the 1990s, the U.S. military led a series of what it termed "humanitarian
interventions" it claimed would safeguard civilians. Foremost among them was the
1992 deployment in the African nation of Somalia, torn by famine and a civil war
between clan warlords. Instead of remaining neutral, U.S. forces took the side
of one faction against another faction, and bombed a Mogadishu neighborhood.
Enraged crowds, backed by foreign Arab mercenaries, killed 18 U.S. soldiers,
forcing a withdrawal from the country.
Other so-called "humanitarian interventions" were centered in the Balkan
region of Europe, after the 1992 breakup of the multiethnic federation of
Yugoslavia. The U.S. watched for three years as Serb forces killed Muslim
civilians in Bosnia, before its launched decisive bombing raids in 1995. Even
then, it never intervened to stop atrocities by Croatian forces against Muslim
and Serb civilians, because those forces were aided by the U.S. In 1999, the
U.S. bombed Serbia to force President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw forces from
the ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo, which was torn [apart by] a brutal ethnic war. The
bombing intensified Serbian expulsions and killings of Albanian civilians from
Kosovo, and caused the deaths of thousands of Serbian civilians, even in cities
that had voted strongly against Milosevic. When a NATO occupation force enabled
Albanians to move back, U.S. forces did little or nothing to prevent similar
atrocities against Serb and other non-Albanian civilians. The U.S. was viewed as
a biased player, even by the Serbian democratic opposition that overthrew
Milosevic the following year.
Even when the U.S. military had apparently defensive motives, it ended up
attacking the wrong targets. After the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in
East Africa, the U.S. "retaliated" not only against Osama Bin Laden's training
camps in Afghanistan, but a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that was mistakenly
said to be a chemical warfare installation. Bin Laden retaliated by attacking a
U.S. Navy ship docked in Yemen in 2000. After the 2001 terror attacks on the
United States, the U.S. military is poised to again bomb Afghanistan, and
possibly move against other states it accuses of promoting anti-U.S.
"terrorism," such as Iraq and Sudan. Such a campaign will certainly ratchet up
the cycle of violence, in an escalating series of retaliations that is the
hallmark of Middle East conflicts. Afghanistan, like Yugoslavia, is a
multiethnic state that could easily break apart in a new catastrophic regional
war. Almost certainly more civilians would lose their lives in this tit-for-tat
war on "terrorism" than the 3,000 civilians who died on September 11.
Some common themes can be seen in many of these U.S. military interventions.
First, they were explained to the U.S. public as defending the lives and
rights of civilian populations. Yet the military tactics employed often left
behind massive civilian "collateral damage." War planners made little
distinction between rebels and the civilians who lived in rebel zones of
control, or between military assets and civilian infrastructure, such as train
lines, water plants, agricultural factories, medicine supplies, etc. The U.S.
public always believe that in the next war, new military technologies will avoid
civilian casualties on the other side. Yet when the inevitable civilian deaths
occur, they are always explained away as "accidental" or "unavoidable."
Second, although nearly all the post-World War II interventions were carried
out in the name of "freedom" and "democracy," nearly all of them in fact
defended dictatorships controlled by pro-U.S. elites. Whether in Vietnam,
Central America, or the Persian Gulf, the U.S. was not defending "freedom" but
an ideological agenda (such as defending capitalism) or an economic agenda (such
as protecting oil company investments). In the few cases when U.S. military
forces toppled a dictatorship—such as in Grenada or Panama—they did so in a way
that prevented the country's people from overthrowing their own dictator first,
and installing a new democratic government more to their liking.
Third, the U.S. always attacked violence by its opponents as "terrorism,"
"atrocities against civilians," or "ethnic cleansing," but minimized or defended
the same actions by the U.S. or its allies. If a country has the right to "end"
a state that trains or harbors terrorists, would Cuba or Nicaragua have had the
right to launch defensive bombing raids on U.S. targets to take out exile
terrorists? Washington's double standard maintains that an U.S. ally's action by
definition "defensive," but that an enemy's retaliation is by definition
Fourth, the U.S. often portrays itself as a neutral peacekeeper, with nothing
but the purest humanitarian motives. After deploying forces in a country,
however, it quickly divides the country or region into "friends" and "foes," and
takes one side against another. This strategy tends to enflame rather than
dampen a war or civil conflict, as shown in the cases of Somalia and Bosnia, and
deepens resentment of the U.S. role.
Fifth, U.S. military intervention is often counterproductive even if one
accepts U.S. goals and rationales. Rather than solving the root political or
economic roots of the conflict, it tends to polarize factions and further
destabilize the country. The same countries tend to reappear again and again on
the list of 20th century interventions.
Sixth, U.S. demonization of an enemy leader, or military action against him,
tends to strengthen rather than weaken his hold on power. Take the list of
current regimes most singled out for U.S. attack, and put it alongside of the
list of regimes that have had the longest hold on power, and you will find they
have the same names. Qaddafi, Castro, Saddam, Kim, and others may have faced
greater internal criticism if they could not portray themselves as Davids
standing up to the American Goliath, and (accurately) blaming many of their
countries' internal problems on U.S. economic sanctions.
One of the most dangerous ideas of the 20th century was that "people like us"
could not commit atrocities against civilians.
German and Japanese citizens believed it, but their militaries slaughtered
millions of people.
British and French citizens believed it, but their militaries fought brutal
colonial wars in Africa and Asia.
Russian citizens believed it, but their armies murdered civilians in
Afghanistan, Chechnya, and elsewhere.
Israeli citizens believed it, but their army mowed down Palestinians and
Arabs believed it, but suicide bombers and hijackers targeted U.S. and
U.S. citizens believed it, but their military killed hundreds of thousands in
Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Every country, every ethnicity, every religion, contains within it the
capability for extreme violence. Every group contains a faction that is
intolerant of other groups, and actively seeks to exclude or even kill them. War
fever tends to encourage the intolerant faction, but the faction only succeeds
in its goals if the rest of the group acquiesces or remains silent. The attacks
of September 11 were not only a test for U.S. citizens attitudes' toward
minority ethnic/racial groups in their own country, but a test for our
relationship with the rest of the world. We must begin not by lashing out at
civilians in Muslim countries, but by taking responsibility for our own history
and our own actions, and how they have fed the cycle of violence.