Columnist Richard Fein: Dumb wars — unjustified and self-defeating


Published: 08-28-2023 11:24 AM

This column is about three “Dumb Wars,” a term borrowed from Barack Obama. I will use that term to mean wars that lacked justification to begin with and resulted in the aggressor nation being worse after the war. My purpose is to remind governments and citizens to consider these realities before launching a war: The only justification for starting a war is compelling necessity and a lack of viable options; military might can be defeated by a local population that has some armed capability and is highly motivated to resist; civilian casualties among the attacked population are likely to be massive and not soon forgiven or forgotten.

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1979

The Soviet Union intervened in support of the Afghan communist government in its conflict with anti-communist Muslim guerrillas who referred to themselves as mujahideen.

The Soviets attempted to eliminate civilian support for the mujahideen by bombing and depopulating the rural areas. The mujahideen were eventually able to neutralize Soviet air power through the use of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles supplied by the Soviet Union’s Cold War adversary, the United States. The Soviets withdrew in 1989, defeated by a pre-industrial, largely illiterate country. Two years later the Soviet Union as such ceased to exist.

According to the Review of International Studies the Afghanistan War was a key factor in the demise of the Soviet Union in at least four ways: 1)The war changed the perceptions of leaders about the efficacy of using the military to hold the Soviet empire together and to intervene in foreign countries; (2) It demonstrated that the Red Army was not invincible, which emboldened the non- Russian republics to push for independence; (3) It provided non-Russians ethnic groups with a common cause to demand independence since they viewed this war as a Russian war fought by non-Russians; (4) It created new forms of political participation, including a significant mass of war veterans who formed new civil organizations. This weakened the political dominance of the Communist Party.

About 500,000 Afghan civilians were killed and four million made refugees.

Israel’s Invasion of Lebanon, 1982

The Israeli invasion was preceded by a Lebanese civil war that started in 1975 and many border clashes with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

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Israel had two purposes: To expel the PLO and its army from Lebanon and to install a friendly, Christian-led government in Beirut. Prime Minster Menachem Begin used the attempted assassination of an Israeli diplomat as his main justification. The PLO army of 7,500 did leave Lebanon and reestablished itself in Tunisia. However the invasion led to the emergence of a Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, which is a far stronger military force than the PLO had ever been. It is armed, trained and largely controlled by a hostile state, namely Iran. Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets, enough to wreak havoc on northern Israel.

Ironically, Israel had hardly considered the Shiites in its war planning.

About 14,000 civilians died and 20,000 were injured in the first two weeks of the war. A siege of Beirut followed. Between 4,000 -6,700 civilians were killed. While Israel occupied Beirut the Israeli-backed Christian Phalange militia killed between 2,000 and 3,500 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

US-led invasion of Iraq (2003-11)

President George W. Bush launched the war to remove Saddam Hussein, a vicious dictator , from power. The war was justified by claiming that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction (especially nuclear weapons) and the Saddam was somehow connected to Al Qaeda. These claims were based on flimsy evidence that was later proven to be untrue.

The invasion did overthrow the government of Saddam, and was followed by a military occupation until 2011.

The war cost 4,576 American combat deaths. Additional deaths occurred afterwards from “burn pits,” PTSD suicides and drug overdoses. The invasion was a strategic disaster. Iraq, which had contained Iranian power, became a land bridge for Iran to spread its military power to Syria and Lebanon. Iran does this through direct armed intervention and proxy armies.

How many Iraqi civilians were killed as a consequence of the U.S.-led invasion and subsequent Iraqi civil war? The low end estimate is at least 280,000.

What do these three dumb wars have in common? 1) Aggressor tried to impose its preferred government by military power; 2) Poor planning that disregarded the resistance of the invaded population; 3) Massive civilian casualties ; 4) The attacking country was worse off strategically than they had been before launching the war; 5) The political leaders who launched the wars were not ousted. Soviet leader Brezhnev continued as dictator until he died. Begin retired. George W. Bush was reelected.

Some wars, like World War II ,need to be fought despite the civilian and military deaths they cause. Dumb wars shouldn’t be fought at all.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at