As we end another year of endless war in Washington, it might be the perfect time to reflect on the War That Started All Wars—or at least the war that started all of Washington’s post-Cold War wars: the invasion of Panama.
Twenty-five years ago this month, early on the morning of December 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause, sending tens of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft into Panama to execute a warrant of arrest against its leader, Manuel Noriega, on charges of drug trafficking. Those troops quickly secured all important strategic installations, including the main airport in Panama City, various military bases, and ports. Noriega went into hiding before surrendering on January 3rd and was then officially extradited to the United States to stand trial. Soon after, most of the U.S. invaders withdrew from the country.
In and out. Fast and simple. An entrance plan and an exit strategy all wrapped in one. And it worked, making Operation Just Cause one of the most successful military actions in U.S. history. At least in tactical terms.
There were casualties. More than 20 U.S. soldiers were killed and 300-500 Panamanian combatants died as well. Disagreement exists over how many civilians perished. Washington claimed that few died. In the “low hundreds,” the Pentagon’s Southern Command said. But others charged that U.S. officials didn’t bother to count the dead in El Chorrillo, a poor Panama Citybarrio that U.S. planes indiscriminately bombed because it was thought to be a bastion of support for Noriega. Grassroots human-rights organizations claimed thousands of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced.