As a concept, war is something that has existed in one form or another for millennia. It’s so innate that our most closely related species, chimpanzees, fight wars over territorial disputes, just as we have. However, it’s us humans who have proven that such an archaic and primitive endeavor no longer has a place in our modern society. While waging war never had positive implications for human life, the sheer advancement of technology and interconnectedness of society over the past 77 years since the atomic bomb was first put to use has massively amplified the risk to human life in war, while narrowing down its possible gains. Simply put, the cost of waging war is far greater than its value to any nation, aggressor or otherwise.
A pertinent recent example remains the U.S. war in Afghanistan. This conflict began in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks and ended in 2021 with the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which occurred immediately after the Taliban reconquered the country as U.S. security forces were withdrawing. America’s longest war caused the country to take on $2 trillion in debt as of 2020, as well as cost the lives of 2,448 U.S. soldiers, 51,191 Taliban and other opposition fighters and 47,245 civilians. In addition, the U.S. will commit another $2 trillion to Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans.
These numbers don’t even come close to accounting for the suffering imposed on the region in general. A key example is that 92% of Afghans are at risk of food insecurity, and 3 million children are at risk of starvation. Since 2017, relaxed U.S. standards on airstrikes have contributed to greatly-increased civilian casualties, which by no means have improved living conditions in the region. In fact, two-thirds of Afghani civilians are suffering from some kind of mental illness, no doubt due to them knowing nothing but war for the last 20 years. 42% suffer from PTSD and 68% show signs of depression. This is not exclusive to Afghans — a Department of Veterans Affairs study found that 15.7% of deployed veterans suffer from PTSD, compared to about 11% of non-deployed veterans.
Why all this suffering? The initial goal of the war was to decimate al-Qaeda and prevent any terrorist organizations in the region from replacing it as a threat to the United States. The killing of Osama Bin Laden and the subsequent weakening of al-Qaeda in May 2011 left a power vacuum in the region which was rapidly filled by more terrorist organizations. Its most prominent fragment was ISIS, which established a foothold in Iraq and Syria and carried out multiple high-profile attacks in major European cities before it was cracked down upon. While the U.S. finally achieved its initial goal after a decade of fighting, the war only amplified anti-American sentiment in the region, which also contributed to the Taliban retaking control of Afghanistan. As a result, the continued actions of terrorist groups such as ISIS against American and European domestic targets can be attributed to America and its allies’ aggression toward Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Later, the U.S. focused on strengthening Afghan security forces and haphazardly building a nation which would be friendly to U.S. interests and able to maintain those interests following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The troops withdrew completely on Aug. 30, 2021, even though the Taliban had already toppled the U.S.-assembled government and reinstated its rule over the country earlier that month. 20 years of effort and suffering in a country 7,429 miles away on the U.S. and Afghan side all became null and void in less than a month by the Taliban’s renewed takeover of the country. What remains today is a regime unable to provide for its people, the resurgence of radical Islamism and a region totally destabilized. While the United States is likely to remain an international powerhouse, the nation of Afghanistan, and practically the whole surrounding region, is in all aspects almost completely decimated.
A similar disaster is this year’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia. While Russia’s goals for the invasion are notably different from those of the U.S. in Afghanistan, focusing on permanent annexation of Ukraine rather than the expulsion of terrorism, the current humanitarian and economic conditions are not. Worse yet, the constant volatility of Vladimir Putin gives rise to fears of nuclear escalation. And unlike the war in Afghanistan, the proximity and importance of the two nations has ensured that both sides, not just those in Ukraine, as well as the world as a whole, have suffered greatly.
In Russia, Putin’s war has backfired significantly. In an address to the Russian people, Putin’s initial goal was to “demilitarise and denazify Ukraine.” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is Jewish, which makes this objective sound rather ridiculous to people outside of the Russian state media propaganda machine. Putin’s real goal was to annex the entirety of Ukraine, as is evident by his recent signing of numerous documents to annex seized Ukrainian territory. The war has only caused struggle for ordinary Russians. Severe sanctions and seizures of property from Russia’s wealthiest individuals have led to major economic woes, and Putin’s attempted draft of Russians in September has led to hundreds of thousands fleeing the country.
In Ukraine, the civilian population has suffered the brunt of Russian aggression. For those not among the staggering 13 million displaced Ukrainians, half of whom have fled the country, the living conditions are unbearable. Since the start of the war, Russia has indiscriminately carried out airstrikes against practically every major Ukrainian city. Evidence of war crimes by Russian armed forces is widespread. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, civilians have been subject to summary executions, torture, unlawful imprisonment and sexual abuse of adults and even children. These atrocities have contributed to approximately 15,000 civilian casualties.
And broader still, the war has sent ripples throughout the world. The interconnectedness of our nations today guarantees this effect, as both Ukraine and especially Russia are major commodity exporters that contribute greatly to the world’s economy, far more than Afghanistan. Russia is Europe’s biggest natural gas and oil exporter, and its shutting off of natural gas supplies to Europe in response to widespread sanctions has sent Europe into an energy crisis. Heating costs for homes and buildings are soaring, and this could prove very dangerous come wintertime, with households unable to afford heating for their homes.
European nations are scrambling to build up their own alternative energy sources to keep up with the shortage of natural gas, and the European commission plans for the continent to be independent of Russian fossil fuels well before 2030. The war has severely depressed economic activity in Europe. Russia and Ukraine are both major grain exporters, and the war has critically disrupted these supply lines and others, disproportionately affecting developing countries that are more dependent on commodities for its people. The war has also sent oil prices soaring, as companies are concentrated solely on profit maximization.
While America’s longest war is now over, the war in Ukraine shows no signs of ending. Were it not for the billions invested by the European Union and the U.S. to support the Ukrainian war effort, the war would likely be over already. This would have entailed the total annexation of Ukraine, the likely exile of the Ukrainian government and an end to freedom and democracy for its people, much like has been the case in Russia.
Even still, Putin’s misguided attempts at empire building have sent the entire world into a state of upheaval that shows no signs of stopping. All of these factors make war extremely detrimental, as the prospects of such a war ending quickly are slim and thus make waging war far more costly than it ever has been. Putin failed to recognize that our modern world is allergic to such large-scale military conflict, and that its repercussions vastly outweigh any potential benefits, whether that be through global economic backlash, humanitarian crises or the political interconnectedness of nations.
Maximilian Schenke is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.