Some Thoughts on the History of Invasions

And when you’re trying to lead the world in a war that I view as really between the forces of good and the forces of evil, you got to speak clearly.

President George W. Bush, in an interview with Christianity Today

Invasions Happen

The study of history gives you, if nothing else, a sense of perspective on human events. Events like invasions. Invasions are of course a staple in history. Some, like the Norman invasion of Britain, for some reason have a noble ring to them; others, like the Japanese invasion of Korea, an evil connotation. But countries invade one another, regularly. It’s historically normal. The fact that they do so says nothing at all about the virtues of the people in the invading or invaded country. In my lifetime the U.S., a country of people good bad and in between, has invaded the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Iraq. None of which is my American fault, and probably not your fault either, but that of the Johnson, Reagan, and Bush administrations.

Invasions can be good, or at least sympathetically depicted. The Normandy Invasion hastened the downfall of fascism in Europe, as did the Soviet invasion of Germany following the Battle of Stalingrad. In the Bible, Joshua’s Israelites invade Canaan. This is usually seen in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a fine thing. Why? Because God tells Joshua that the Israelites will possess the whole land between Lebanon and the Euphrates (Joshua 1:1-9). God Himself brings down the walls of Jericho as His grand project begins. The “Lord of the whole earth” personally promises Joshua that he will expel the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girashites, Amorites and Jebusites beyond the Jordan River (3:7-11), and Joshua proceeds to slaughter these people. Here is a key western literary narrative, contributing to the content, for example, of Negro spirituals, which depict the crossing of the Jordan River as a liberation (3:14-4:18). In the narrative, the good Israelites destroy the above mentioned peoples because they are evil and God wants them gone. So definitely a good invasion.

It’s not surprising that the U.S., which many Americans see as the Promised Land, and which was settled by deeply religious people through incremental conquest, invades other countries. Still, the invasion of Iraq was unusual. Iraq is much larger and much farther away than the above-mentioned Caribbean countries. Most of the world accepts the fact that the U.S. will generally control its own hemisphere, but is shocked when the U.S. invades the heart of the Arab world, apparently intending to maintain a large military force there, forever. It is shocked when the U.S. thus says to the world, “The bottom line is: if you want dealings with this region and access to its resources, in the New American Century, the Full Spectrum Dominance Century, you’ll have to cooperate with us. Even if the insurgency is long, even if we have to resume the draft, even if we wind up in a general war with Syria and Iran, we’ll be here. Because if we withdraw now there’ll be chaos. The bad guys will win.” The world is both frightened and angered when the U.S. insinuates that it itself is good (good virtually by definition), and to be good all others must do what America wants.

Two Invasions

Let us recall what (in a way) started all this. On August 2,1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with two armored divisions, meeting with little military resistance. The invaders committed atrocities; in detention centers in Kuwait city, prisoners were raped and tortured. Troops, it has been reported, had orders to burn down houses refusing to open their doors. But as invasions go, it seemed a professional operation. Amnesty International in a news release on October 2, 1990 reported “scores” of civilians had been killed. The U.S. government later maintained that Iraqi forces killed 1,000 civilians during the full six months of occupation.

The round figure suggests the figure is likely lower. The U.S. military does not keep civilian death counts in its own invasions, as a matter of policy, always announcing, as a matter of policy, that all measures possible have been taken to minimize collateral damage. But private scholarly reports put the Panamanian civilian death toll from the invasion of December 1989 at about 300.

The Afghan civilian death toll from the U.S. attack October 7, 2001 to March 2002 is estimated at between 3,000 and 3,400.

The Iraq Body Count Project reports that to date a minimum of 11,336 civilians have died as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That’s four or five 9-11s.

By the end of February 1991 Saddam’s troops were fleeing Kuwait in disorder, in commandeered milk trucks and school buses, under heavy bombardment by a U.S.-led coalition. Tens of thousands of conscript Iraqi boys were incinerated on the Highway of Death leading to Basra.

Thus while the invasion was relatively bloodless, the expulsion was in contrast was very bloody. Some in the Bush administration then, and many in the current administration, believe the U.S. should have moved on to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 1991, in which case there would have been far more bloodshed and a new American colony. But Bush (41), in a decision he continues to defend, insisted that Saddam’s overthrow would destabilize Iraq and the region. So he did not attempt it. He was content that the invasion of Kuwait had been rolled back and the status quo restored to the autocratic Emir.

As an historian, I see the Kuwait invasion as a pretty typical one. Not much special about it. If Iraqi troops had behaved with special savagery, and, say, torn 312 premature babies from their incubators left them to die on the cold floors of Kuwaiti hospitals, such would surely make this invasion memorable. (Actually, this transparently bogus story was widely aired in 1990 in the U.S. press. Convincingly discredited, it has been repeated again and again.

It’s called disinformation, and often accompanies invasions and wars.)

In fact, I say, a pretty pedestrian invasion. It could, like all such normal invasions, be justified. Iraq could say, first of all, that Kuwait was part of Basra Province, one of the three Ottoman provinces (the others being Mosul and Baghdad) that the British had during the Arab Revolt (1916-18) promised to establish as a single Arab state. They could argue that through most of the last 5000 years Kuwait and all or parts of what is now Iraq were under common rule. Iraq could say that a random decision by a British general after World War I should not determine the political map of the Middle East. They could point out that Britain established Kuwait as a protectorate in order to control the oil and make use of the harbor; and that when Kuwait was granted independence in 1961, Iraq had asserted its claim to sovereignty and almost seized its neighbor. (This was long before Saddam Hussein was at the helm, and anti-Baathist ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim was president.)

Iraq could condemn the chattel-slavery prevailing in the harems of the Kuwaiti elite. Iraq could point out that it had gone deeply into debt with Kuwait (since the Kuwaiti emir had enthusiastically supplied funds for Iraq’s war on Shiite, Persian Iran) and that Kuwait’s refusal to cancel part of that debt damaged Iraq’s credit rating with international lenders. It could and did point to illegal Kuwaiti exploitation of Iraqi oilfields. Iraq could argue that its system of social services, its mainly secular law code (based on the Napoleonic) including its marriage law would mean improvement for those living in Kuwait. But none of these mundane reasons for this (again) fairly routine invasion would have been discussed on CNN. No commentator in the U.S. free press could possibly have played devil’s advocate and justified the invasion.

Instead, this second-rate invasion, by a country of about 22 million of a country numbering (including foreigners, half the total) one-tenth that figure, was treated by the first President Bush as a threat to world peace rivaling that presented by Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. He actually called Saddam “a new Hitler,” declared that the annexation “will not stand,” and may have provided bogus intelligence to the Saudi rulers about a 250,000 strong Iraqi troop deployment on the Saudi border in order to win Riyadh’s terrified consent for the establishment of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia. Bush proclaimed a “New World Order” (eerily reminiscent, actually, of Hitler’s own “New Order in Europe” proclaimed in 1940, or the “New Order in East Asia” proclaimed by Japan’s Tojo Hideki around the same time) as he prepared in 1990 to attack the Iraqis in Kuwait. Once committed to the attack, he and his cabinet rejected any Iraqi withdrawal offer, the fulfillment of which, to them, would constitute the “nightmare scenario.”
Simply put, that would have meant a neat end to the crisis with Saddam’s troops going home but remaining the most powerful military in the Middle East (except for Israel). That’s the thing Bush couldn’t allow to stand.

It was important to vilify Saddam to the American people, and easy to do. But the dictator who had done so many nasty things had, early in his career, made contacts with the CIA, whose anti-communism he shared. There was a time when the CIA promoted the (now vilified) Baath party as an alternative to Iraq’s Communist Party (the largest in the Arab world in the 1950s, and for a time tolerated by Qasim, who withdrew from the Baghdad anti-Soviet pact and courted the USSR). There was a time when the Reagan administration, which had condemned Iraq’s support for Palestinian “terrorist organizations” removed Iraq from the “terror-supporting” list, and sent Donald Rumsfeld to negotiate an improvement in ties.

This was because Saddam was engaged in a terrible war with Iran (1980-88)-, a country Washington wished to weaken. That explains the numerous Commerce Department-approved sales to Iraq of war material, including materials that could produce weapons of mass destruction.

Important to demonize this man whose brutality you had in the past ignored or supported. As the bombs fell on Baghdad in January 1991, many Americans knew that Iraq had used chemical weapons against Kurds in 1988. Fewer knew that the U.S. had publicly continued to side with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war after that. Fewer still knew that just a month before the Kuwait invasion, Saddam had had a cordial, formal meeting with U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie in which she told him the Bush administration sought closer ties with his government and officially had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border dispute with Kuwait.

But back to the invasion itself. This rapid annexation could have produced a far wealthier Iraq, with a very different distribution of wealth generally in the region, and the spread of Baathist institutions to Kuwait. The resident foreigners in Kuwait might have been given greater rights. The dress code might have lightened up a lot; the clerics restrained; liquor sales legalized, etc. Women probably would have enjoyed greater freedom. On the other hand, if in the various “human rights” categories the Iraqis performed worse that the emirate’s forces, any good done might be neutralized. Good or bad? You decide. But without asking the American people to think and then decide, the Bush administration decreed that Iraq must withdraw from Kuwait, and that the emirate must be restored. The U.S. was the boss.

And indeed, its will was done. Thirteen years after Saddam stumbled in and out of Kuwait in this historically unremarkable invasion, the U.S. invaded and occupied Iraq. It did so having failed to procure United Nations authorization, its case for war weak and not widely accepted, rejected, indeed, by France, Germany, Russia, China, India, Canada, Belgium, Mexico, Brazil, and so many others, including the papacy. Now let us, just as an intellectual diversion, compare these two events. In 1990 Iraq had invaded a neighboring country whose sovereignty it hadn’t acknowledged until the 1960s. A country towards which it held public grievances. Hussein seems to have thought his annexation of the neighbor state would not upset his U.S. allies. Instead they labeled him “a new Hitler” and executed a plan to greatly weaken him.

The Hitler analogy was really a stretch. If you really wanted an apt analogy to the Hussein regime, I’d suggest that of Suharto in Indonesia. It slaughtered 700,000 people in its anti-communist crackdown in the 1960s. Later Suharto’s troops invaded East Timor, in 1975, the day after a meeting between Suharto and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. East Timor had been a Portuguese colonial territory since the sixteenth century but had been granted independence by Lisbon after the recent leftwing military coup. Suharto preemptively grabbed it—more brutally, surely, than Saddam later grabbed Kuwait—but the U.S. did not protest, and the U.S. press was silent. Again, invasions are just not that unusual.

Suharto’s invasion of East Timor resulted in the deaths of around 200,000 of its 700,000 inhabitants, an ethnic group very different from the invaders. If you wanted to demonize this man, whom most Americans don’t know much about, and specifically demonize him as an invader, perpetrator of genocide, fascist, how easily you could have done so! If only you owned the press, back in 1975. Those who did own the press were aware that the U.S. was continuing arms shipments to Indonesia and that they were being deployed in East Timor. They surely knew, in the 1980s, that the Reagan administration maintained cordial military ties with Indonesia, and that Reagan advisor Paul Wolfowitz, for a time U.S. ambassador to the country, was particularly supportive of the hard line on the former Portuguese colony. But they didn’t find this particular invasion, this ongoing East Timor atrocity, newsworthy.

Suharto stepped down in May 1998 in the face of a mass uprising and U.S. pressure, reminiscent of the combination that brought down Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and East Timor has received a sort of U.N.-guaranteed independence (in the amicable presence of U.N. peacekeepers disproportionately Australian, that is, from the only country that had once—to allow for some oil exploration contracts—officially accepted Indonesia’s sovereignty over East Timor). Madeleine Albright praised his decision, saying it was an “historical act of statesmanship” that would “preserve his legacy as a man who not only led his country but also provided for its democratic transition.” Suharto lives well in declining health, spared criminal prosecution while Saddam Hussein is subjected to treatment many Arabs who hate him find demeaning to themselves and reflective of American barbarism.

The Iraqi occupation of Kuwait lasted from August 1990 to February 1991 and took, at most, a thousands lives at the hands of Iraqis. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 took tens of thousands of lives. It doesn’t really matter whether they were military or civilian. Since any Iraqi soldiers were doing what soldiers minimally and most legitimately do—fight against foreign invaders—they were no more guilty of crimes than the civilians slaughtered with them. The invasion resulted in the overthrow of an internationally recognized government, the infliction of chaos and humiliation on a proud Muslim people, and a large and variegated resistance movement fed daily by American military tactics in the heart of the Arab world. It has produced international outrage at U.S. policy on an unprecedented scale, and polarized American society. In world history, of the two invasions, this was the greater one, surely.

Justifying the Greater Invasion

How does the die-hard supporter of the invasion justify it today? “Well, at least,” he will say, “we got rid of a dictator.” Indeed Saddam has fallen from power, and now a long-time CIA operative named Iyad Allawi, accused of murder, is in there as the U.S.-backed boss.

While threatening to impose martial law, he defends himself from the charge of dictatorship by allowing a “free press,” even permitting a newspaper linked to Muqtada al-Sadr to reappear. So the invasion remains, for some, morally justified by its liberating results. By this logic, an invasion of Myanmar (Burma) producing a marginally more democratic system (conducted, let’s say, not by the U.S. but by Japan or India) would be justified. Indeed any toppling, by anybody, of a dictator whom “the world is better off without,” would be reasonable, unless of course the dictator were toppled by a bigger dictator, and dictatorship were to generally increase in the world as a result. We may have differences of opinion about who is, in fact, a dictator (and even differ on the question of whether dictatorship can sometimes be good). But international law, now fashionably dismissed, was supposed to discourage the prospect that countries claiming to be good would unilaterally invade countries they considered bad. It rather encouraged them to observe basic rules and respect sovereignty, however unsavory the regimes they must deal with.

The great irony here is that one of the more routine and relatively defensible invasions of modern times led so seamlessly into this most unusually preposterous invasion. It’s one thing to have Iraqi troops on Kuwaiti streets, understanding the culture and giving orders in Arabic, endeavoring to solidify an expanded Iraqi nation. It’s another to have American troops on Iraqi streets, clueless about the culture and giving orders in English, endeavoring to stave off constant attacks by the locals and establish a pro-U.S. regime—one that might someday help reduce the level of hatred directed at the street level towards your foreign, invading, occupying self. In fact, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, this “Arab-Arab” matter, was less of an invasion than the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Less invasive culturally, less intrusive, offensive and humiliating.

Back to the main point: invasions happen. They should generally be condemned, but they aren’t the worse things in the world, and when the leading imperialist power uses some invasion somewhere to greatly augment its own military posture in that region of the world, and then itself invades the vilified invader on transparently concocted pretexts (including, so damned righteously, “Iraq has attacked its neighbors”), one should really revisit the real-world history. One cannot repeat too often that the first Bush, as vice president under Reagan, welcomed the Iraqi war on Iran, another routine invasion spurred less by Evil than by a very mundane, understandable conflict over water resources.

Good and Evil Invasions

Think about the Norman invasion of England, 1066. A force from Normandy led by aristocrats of mixed Viking-French noble genealogy toppled the English king Harold. The king’s credentials were contested by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy, both of whom claimed to be the rightful heir to the English throne. They used logical legal argument, as would be done today, stressing blood line and promises uttered by the former monarch. (Some people at the time might have applied some advanced logic, and wondered why these factors should have anything to do with human governance. These would have been revolutionaries.) Harald’s invasion was doomed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but the exhausted if victorious English forces soon fell to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. En conséquence, a French-speaking ruling class arrived in England, and half the words in our fine English language are from Romance languages. There were all kinds of good and evil repercussions for the Anglo-Saxons.

Should the world have said, of this Norman Conquest: This will not stand? Should it have demonized William, comparing him to, say, Attila the Hun?

(Digression on Attila the Hun. There’s a real evil aura around the name, don’t you think? But years ago I met a Hungarian scholar in Japan. He was married to a Japanese and his son went to the same kindergarten as my daughter. The five year old son’s name was, you guessed it: Attila. As someone who would probably not name my son Attila, I was interested in his explanation. “Attila,” the father told me, “was one of our greatest kings.” This king invaded the Eastern Roman Empire in 441, then Germany and Gaul and Italy. He could have sacked Rome in 452 but was bought off by Pope Leo I. Many Hungarians think this invader was a hero, just as many Greeks think Alexander was a hero, or French (among others) think Napoleon was a hero.)

Questions for discussion. Was William good or evil to invade England? Attila good or evil to invade Gaul? Saddam good or evil to invade Kuwait? Hitler good or evil to invade Poland? Bush good or evil to invade Iraq? Are “good” and “evil” really adequate categories to evaluate contemporary and historical events? If so, what are the more evil invasions? Logically and morally, justify your answer.

Remember you got to speak clearly.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: