Nothing shows how stupid and wasteful warfare is than history’s dumbest invasions. Unfortunately, history is full of stupid invasions.
However, a few invasions are so stupid they stand out. I’ll list a few of them here, beginning with one of history’s stupidest invasions, the 1962 Chinese invasion of India.
The stupidity of these invasions is unbelievable, yet these imbecilic incursions occurred. We need to study these dumb invasions in order to avoid repeating them.
The Chinese Invasion of India
The story of the 1962 Chinese Invasion of India sounds too incredible to be true, yet it is.
An incursion into a remote, almost uninhibited area, by a few thousand men almost triggered a war between the world’s two most populous nations, came close to turning the Cold War hot, ended thousands of years of peace, and permanently poisoned relations between India and China. Worse, the conflict that began in 1962 still threatens to explode into war almost 60 years later.
Incredibly, China and India, two of the world’s oldest countries, had been neighbors for centuries without war. That changed in 1962.
The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India entered a collision course in 1949. In 1949, dictator Mao Zedong, fresh from victory in the Chinese Civil War, ordered his People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to occupy Tibet. Tibet was a semi-independent state that was historically part of the Chinese Empire.
However, in the 20th Century, Tibet was slowly falling under British influence as the Chinese Empire collapsed. When the British left India in 1947, Tibet was up for grabs. In 1949, Mao filled the vacuum left by the British exit from the subcontinent.
In the 1940s and 50s, India was militarily weak and incapable of challenging Chinese rule in Tibet. Furthermore, India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a policy of neutrality and peaceful economic development. Sensibly, Nehru wanted India to follow a policy of nonalignment and stay out of the growing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
During the 1950s, India made astounding economic, technological, and political progress. However, that progress did not extend to the military.
The British had deliberately neglected the Indian military by refusing to equip it with modern weaponry. Nehru, who had strong prejudices against soldiers, made no effort to reverse the British military neglect.
In the 1950s, India had some of the best soldiers in the world, but they equipped those soldiers with World War I rifles. Nehru ignored pleas by Indian generals for modern weapons and a modern arms industry.
Ironically, a British border known as the McMahon Line put China and India on a path to war. The McMahon Line was the border between India and Tibet, negotiated by a British official named Sir Henry McMahon at the Simla Conference in 1914.
The McMahon Line set the border between India and Tibet at the crest of the Himalayas. However, the Chinese government refused to acknowledge the McMahon Line and insisted the border was in the foothills. In 1914, China was in no position to challenge McMahon’s determination.
By the late 1950s, however, the situation had changed. Elements of a powerful People’s Liberation Army began crossing the McMahon Line and even built near Indian territory. In 1962, thousands of Chinese troops were on or next to what New Delhi recognized as Indian soil.
During the summer of 1962, clashes between Indian and Chinese troops occurred in the Galwan Valley. After sporadic fighting, PLA forces invaded India by crossing the McMahon Line in Ladkh on 20 October 1962.
After overwhelming Indian defenders, Chinese forces advanced to the foothills. A frightened Nehru asked the United States and the United Kingdom for help. American and British planes began ferrying large amounts of arms and landmines to India.
On 7 November 1962, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, fearing all out war, negotiated a ceasefire. Chinese forces pulled back to the McMahon line after inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Indian Army.
Clashes between India and China continue in the same region, the BBC reports. Around 20 Indian soldiers died in a June 2020 clash with the PLA. That fighting occurred in the Galwan Valley, the scene of the 1962 war. Today’s fighting is over the Line of Actual Control -a border neither side likes.
Clashes continue because they have ever reached no settlement to the 1962 dispute. Instead, the two sides agreed to leave unarmed troops in the Galwan Valley. Hence, Chinese and Indian troops have fought with fists, clubs, and rocks in the valley.
The 1962 invasion of India was stupid because nobody in China had any desire to invade India or seize Indian territory. Nor was there any genuine conflict between the two nations. Nehru had appeased China and recognize Mao’s occupation of Tibet.
Yet for reasons that are unclear today, Chinese troops invaded India. There was no plan to seize or occupy Indian territory, only to drive Indian soldiers out of a remote region. However, the attack escalated and threatened to develop into a full scale war as both sides poured in more troops.
It was only after somebody, probably Zhou, realized how a stupid an attack on India was that the war ended. By then, the situation was dangerous, with potential American and British involvement.
For such a potentially disastrous conflict, casualties were light. Author Ramachandra Guha estimates only 1,383 Indian soldiers died in the “Border War.” Humiliatingly, the Chinese took 3,968 Indians prisoner.*
The casualties were light, but the damage was great. Nehru’s dreams of a bloc of nonaligned nations led by India and Asian unity were dead. Also dead was Nehru’s dream of a lightly armed India with a token military.
The Indian government launched a program of military modernization and began massive purchases of weapons from the Soviet Union and other countries. The modernization paid off in 1971 when the Indian military inflicted a decisive defeat on China’s ally Pakistan in the war that created Bangladesh. Tellingly, the Chinese confined their role in that conflict to propaganda statements condemning India.
In 1971, the Indian military displayed levels of professionalism and battlefield capabilities rivaling those of the United States, Soviet, and European forces. India emerged as a major military power capable of ignoring both superpowers and China.
Moreover, agitation for the development of nuclear weapons began in the Indian parliament. That agitation grew as fear of the Chinese threat mounted. Eventually, those fears convinced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, to build a bomb.
The Indian Army exploded its first atomic bomb on 18 May 1974 in the disgustingly named Operation Smiling Buddha. India had between 130 and 140 nuclear weapons in 2019 and a stockpile of highly enriched uranium (a basic ingredient for nuclear weapons), the Nuclear Threat Initiative estimates. Hence, India is a nuclear power today, partially because of the 1962 Chinese invasion.
The India-China conflict continues and is growing. Notably, the Indian Navy is deploying ships to the South China Sea, India Today reports. Four Indian vessels will hold joint exercises in the area with US, Philippine, Australian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian forces to send a message to China.
Although it was small and pointless, the Chinese invasion of India was one of the 20th Century’s most far-ranging military incursions. The Chinese Invasion was stupid because it was irrational yet caused enormous repercussions that continue to this day.
The pointless Chinese invasion of India was stupid because it turned a friendly power into a deadly rival. By blundering onto Indian soil, the People’s Liberation Army destroyed what was potentially China’s most important alliance and changed the course of history.
The Indian Invasion of Goa
In December 1961, Nehru tried to distract Indian public opinion from the McMahon Line with another invasion.
The invasion was of Goa, a tiny Portuguese colony on the Southern Coast of India. Goa became the first Indian territory captured by European forces in 1510 and was the capitol of the Portuguese Empire in Asia by 1575.
By the 1950s, Goa was a sleepy backwater few people outside India and Portugal were aware of. However, Goa was a thorn in the side of Indian nationalists. Many Indians viewed the existence of a European colony on Indian soil; particularly a colony owned by a fourth-rate power such as Portugal, as a national humiliation.
In 1955, Indian nationalists tried to seize Goa on their own with a nonviolent invasion. The invasion led to deaths and the end of diplomatic relations between Portugal and India.
By 1961, Nehru was looking for something to divert Indian public opinion from the growing conflict with China. In December 1961, Portuguese authorities fired on Indian fishing boats and killed a fisherman.
Nehru used the death as a pretext to invade Goa and other Portuguese colonies. On 17 December 1961, Indian Navy and Army forces attacked Goa. After 36 hours of fighting, Portuguese General Manuel Antonio Vassalo e Silva, the governor general of Goa, surrendered.
Goa became an Indian state in 1987. Today, Goa is a popular tourist destination, undergoing rapid economic development.
The battle over Goa was stupid because the territory of Goa added nothing to Portugal. Instead, only national pride kept the Portuguese there.
Moreover, it could have been possible for India to reclaim Goa through negotiation. However, Indian public opinion demanded action, so Nehru, the pacifist, invaded Goa.
Thus, even pacifists can conduct stupid invasions for political reasons.
*See India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha page 334 for details.