Is the United States Preparing for a Forever War in Ukraine?

Is the United States Preparing for a Forever War in Ukraine?

Ultimately, new missions are conjured, christened, and then left to take on lives and meanings of their own. By the end, their self-perpetuation becomes the objective.

When you patronize your local fresh fish place, it’s usually wise to heed the almost parabolic but time-honored rule that you should not name any of the lobsters in the tank. Once you name it, you can’t eat it. Once you name it, you just can’t bring yourself to let it go.

The same is true it seems of wars.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States “plans to name its military mission supporting Ukraine and appoint a general to lead the training and assistance effort,” while another $3 billion in military aid has been committed by the United States to the Ukrainian cause.

“The naming of the operation,” the Journal said, “formally recognizes the U.S. effort within the military, akin to how the Pentagon dubbed the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.”

What “Operation” will this be, then? With what incomprehensible moniker will the U.S. effort in Ukraine be dubbed? This war will now have a name. It cannot die; we dare not kill it.

To be sure, U.S. support for Ukraine is widely understood to be a just one unlike previous (and many current) American military commitments. Amid the competing conceptions that the post-Cold War era has engendered, it is taken as gospel in the Western foreign policy acropolis that in a modern, “rules-based” global order, larger countries who act with aggression against smaller and weaker neighbors will be penalized. Exceptions to this consensus vis-à-vis the security policies of states like Israel and America notwithstanding, it is generally a good principle to uphold. The peace of the world has too often been ruptured by the ambitions of revisionist states led by ideologues and imperial aspirants.

But what does it say of our liberally ordered world that its conservation is predicated increasingly on the prosecution of indefinite war? Will this war also involve open-ended commitments? Will funding the Ukrainian war effort be seamlessly baked into the marrow of U.S. foreign policy over time as too many other conflagrations have? Will interrogating its nature and importance invite the invective charge of defeatism which is now an attendant pathology of the U.S. security establishment’s raison d'être?

A recent piece in Responsible Statecraft added to this chorus of questions. “If this is not acknowledging a deeper level of U.S. military involvement, what is it? And if so, why shouldn’t the American people be wary?”

However, it is the longevity as well as the depth of America’s commitment that this latest move signals. To name a thing is to give it meaning, identity, and permanency. 

In the present epoch of American empire, “operations” are ongoing and ubiquitous because they are plainly institutionalized. The same week the Journal reported on the naming of the Ukrainian assistance mission, President Joe Biden ordered a series of strikes against Iranian-backed militant groups in Syria. This was ostensibly part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led coalition effort to dislodge ISIS from Iraq and Syria that began in 2014. Yet, these and many other targets hit by coalition forces in Syria are conspicuously not ISIS affiliates. Indeed, many are ISIS’ enemies.

The circular logic of the U.S. force presence in Syria should be lost on no one. U.S. forces strike Syrian militants in response to attacks against U.S. forces deployed there in the first place to deter attacks by Syrian militants on U.S. forces.

The United States has provincialized its empire by maintaining seven “area of responsibility” or AOR combatant commands. For example, there is U.S. Central Command, which looks after affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia. An additional four combatant commands operate on a functional basis, for example, U.S. Special Operations Command or U.S. Cyber Command. Each operational mission has an institution behind it. Bureaucratic apparatuses being notoriously difficult to reform, let alone abolish, there are few structural disincentives for U.S. policymakers to do either.

Ultimately, new missions are conjured, christened, and then left to take on lives and meanings of their own. By the end, their self-perpetuation becomes the objective. The people at home who seek a dénouement to the whole affair pose a more existential threat to the mission than the enemy ever will. But as the wars grind on “over there,” their spirit comes back here. Society continues along a trajectory of muted militarization. The military-industrial-cultural-nomenclatural complex hums along discretely and politely.

Indeed, it’s the best kind of bureaucracy. It usually stays out of your way when it counts but it does offer services when needed through the GI Bill. If we ever forgot this foundational fact, Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) reminded us when the conservative Hoosier, aghast at Biden’s recent forgiveness of federal student loan debt, tweeted, “Student loan forgiveness undermines one of our military’s greatest recruitment tools at a time of dangerously low enlistments.”

For the Ukrainian people, their struggle for survival needs no name. They know it is violent, brutal, and existential. It needs no sophistry and no taxonomy but it does need to end. Yet it will not end until either one side or both determine it must. Perhaps the Ukrainians are preparing for a long war, as their Russian adversaries seem to be. However, they do not see themselves as guileless pawns in some indefinite frontier war against a neighboring great power. Neither should the United States.

The name this operation will receive will proffer some homage to freedom, liberty, or Ukrainian sovereignty. But its meaning might be less lofty and it might make this “higher” war just like every other America has prosecuted and continues to prosecute, directly or otherwise. As the number of Ukrainian dying for their country continues to mount, the United States will gradually assimilate their cause into its defense architecture and ask fewer questions about it.

Whether this war will eventually point toward a peace is beyond prediction. However, the name shall be remembered for what it was and what it wasn’t, what it did and what it did not do. Like Overlord. Like Desert Storm. Like Iraqi Freedom.

“What’s in a name?” asked Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Scott Strgacich is a graduate student at American University studying grand strategy and the origins of European security. He can be found on Twitter @scottstrga

Image: Reuters.