EARLIER THIS year, West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies Program invited me to participate in a panel discussion on the future of warfare. For historians, and particularly for Vietnam War students like me, such requests seem fraught with peril. Given the contentious debate that continues to surround America’s involvement in Vietnam, now fifty years after Lyndon Johnson’s fateful decision to send ground combat troops to Southeast Asia, commenting on the future of warfare obliges conjecture without much evidence. Yet for uniformed officers considering strategic issues and the use of military force, these questions surely are as sensible as they are unavoidable. How can soldiers prepare for future war without thinking about its latest incarnations?
The guidance for the panelists underlined two questions: “What will be the dominant trend in warfare from 2015–2035?” and “How should the U.S. military and government prepare for this trend?” Perhaps shying away from such an imposing query, I found myself dissecting the question itself. The prompt contained a host of assumptions and deeper questions. Would there be, for instance, only one dominant trend over the next twenty years? Could one find in the United States’ last thirteen and a half years of war a certain trajectory of technological or political developments hinting at the future of warfare?
Most importantly, the question seemed to assume, almost reflexively, that the United States would be at war over the next twenty years. (Peace, apparently, was not likely to be a dominant trend.) Such assumptions should give us pause. Yet preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.
This willing acceptance of perpetual war offers a congenial (and lucrative) market for national-security visionaries who glance into the future and offer advice on defense-related topics ranging from cyberwarfare to the use of drones. Pundits offer advice on the “militarization of cyberspace” and the likely arms race that will ensue given the United States’ reliance on drone technology in counterterrorism operations. Other oracles, such as David Kilcullen, have placed their forecasts within an operational environment they see as increasingly crowded, urban and connected, much different from the remote and rural Afghanistan in which Americans have been bogged down for over a decade. Still others, like former British Army officer Robert Johnson, have highlighted Western military officers’ concerns over the legal aspects of wars in which they “will be too constrained to maneuver at all in the future.”
Of course, we should not conflate war and defense. Arguably all nations require a defense strategy, even in times of peace. Yet too few of the predictions on war’s future offer meaningful explanations of the necessity of perpetual war. Rather, they content themselves with statements about national vulnerabilities, the need to meet impending threats (real or hypothetical), or military requirements to keep the country safe. The 2015 National Security Strategy, published in February, offers a case in point. While acknowledging America’s growing economic strength and the benefits of moving beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the document stresses the “risks of an insecure world.” Despite its global power and reach, the United States, we are told, faces a “persistent risk of attacks.” The escalating challenges are manifold—threats to the nation’s cybersecurity, aggression by Russia, rising violent extremism and an evolving danger posed by the catchall menace of “terrorism.” We live in a dangerous world, the document’s authors say, one in which only vigilant nations—led, naturally, by the United States—preemptively rooting out evil can survive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, explanations of the necessity of war have tended to downplay the economic aspects of global engagement. Americans traditionally have been uncomfortable with the word “empire,” even if its current form suggests securing economic access abroad rather than promoting traditional colonialism. Andrew J. Bacevich’s diagnosis that the purpose of American grand strategy, since at least the early 1990s, has been to create “an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms” can seem jarring. Rather more appealing to most are President George W. Bush’s remarks on the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks. In three paragraphs alone, the president employed the word “freedom” ten times. Terrorists feared freedom. Evil enemies, we were told, hated freedom, rejected tolerance and despised dissent. Americans, however, were “advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism.” War meant liberty triumphing over evil rather than promoting the nation’s economic interests abroad. And so on.
IF OUR compulsion for war cannot be explained fully using the lofty terms of liberty and freedom, some scholars highlight the potential consequences of a growing divide between civilian policy makers and a professional military caste. The volunteer armed forces of the United States, increasingly professional and isolated from civilian Americans, have become, in the words of Peter D. Feaver, Richard H. Kohn and Lindsay P. Cohn, “more alienated from, disgusted with, and even hostile to civilian society.” Sentiments such as these preceded more than a decade of war in which U.S. soldiers increasingly have defined themselves as a special, if not exceptional, community apart from, or even superior to, the larger population they have been entrusted to defend. The implications of this civil-military gap on the propagation of war are not inconsequential.
The Atlantic’s James Fallows, for example, argues, “America’s distance from the military makes the country too willing to go to war, and too callous about the damage warfare inflicts.” Wastefully spending money on weapons unrelated to “battlefield realities,” our military-industrial complex instead purchases hardware based on an “unending faith that advanced technology will ensure victory.” In collaboration, an uninformed public, estranged from the soldiers who ostensibly protect it, instinctively throws its support behind policy makers harping for increased military spending and an interventionist foreign policy. To do otherwise puts one at risk of being branded weak, cowardly or even un-American.
As the distance between soldiers and civilians has grown, Americans have become less troubled with the idea of permanent war. As early as 1995, the historian Michael Sherry documented the militarization of American life, a decades-long trajectory originating before World War II in which “war defined much of the American imagination” and “the fear of war penetrated” American society. Though Sherry ended on a guardedly hopeful note—that Americans might “drift away from their militarized past”—more recent critics, like Bacevich, have denounced our society’s increasingly comfortable relationship with war. Extending Sherry’s analysis beyond the events of September 11, Bacevich persuasively maintains that the seduction of war overpowers rational thinking on the possibilities and, more importantly, limitations of military power abroad. Instead, we instinctively equate American superiority with military superiority.
Arguments asserting America’s political and cultural superiority based on its military might surely make for gripping reading. Yet within this line of reasoning rests a good deal of hubris. How many U.S. soldiers recently returned from war convinced they were exceptional, not just from the American public sending them to war, but from the Iraqis and Afghans among whom they fought? Lost in the political debates surrounding Clint Eastwood’s retelling of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper is the similitude of soldiers’ attitudes toward “the other.” Was Kyle representative of his peers when he deemed his adversaries in Iraq a “savage, despicable evil”? Did most veterans return home believing the world was a “better place without savages out there taking American lives”? It is likely that even soldiers traumatized by their experience in war arrived back in the United States with a renewed sense of superiority for American culture and values.
In this sense, our national infatuation with war can be partly explained by how it appears to ennoble us, even—perhaps especially—on a personal level. This conviction is hardly novel. As Kristin Hoganson has recounted of the Spanish-American War, martial endeavors overseas were seen as a way to “vitalize” American manhood. The nation would profit as tested veterans evolved into model citizens and leaders. Little room was afforded to countervailing views on war’s capacity to build robust men for a strong, globally minded republic. Thus, according to Hoganson, “Imperialists benefited from the widespread tendency to construe opposition to war as a sign of cowardice, weakness, or other supposedly unmanly attributes.”
This seemingly anachronistic rendering of gender norms perseveres within American society. We still believe, based more on conviction than evidence, that war fosters masculine values while promoting freedom at home and abroad. Sebastian Junger, who spent over a year chronicling an American infantry platoon serving at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, found that war remains a rite of passage for some teens searching for the surest path to manhood. “An extremely compelling endeavor for a lot of young men,” war supposedly gives their lives meaning. Thus, the powerful narrative of war draws us in, captivates our imagination and offers opportunities to prove our worth. “We all want peace,” Junger asserts, “but we’re all fascinated by the drama of war.”
HERE IS where Junger, and many other pundits and scholars, are mistaken. In reality, we don’t want peace. We’re not just entranced by war. We have come to a point where we fear we can’t live without it. War has become a means to deal with our fears, while our fears have become a justification for more war. War no longer punctuates our history. It has become a deep-seated part of who we are and how we define ourselves. Even if only a fraction of Americans participate in war, too many segments of our society now see war as essential for the good of all. Thus, former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel can speak of “nonstop war” with few Americans flinching at such a prospect or even considering more peaceful alternatives. In short, we have become more afraid of peace than we are of war.
Since at least the end of World War II, this vicious cycle of fear feeding war has become a mainstay of American life. Throughout the Cold War, military professionals and civilian policy makers alike spoke in apocalyptic terms, with one Eisenhower administration official even contending that “acceptable norms of human conduct” no longer applied. National-security strategists, embracing the containment of Communism as a matter of blind faith, deemed it perilous to move off a permanent war footing. Peace was no longer possible.
In the process, the very purpose of war became distorted. American policy makers, while parroting Clausewitzean principles about war’s relation to political ends, increasingly tended to see war as an end unto itself. One 1950 propaganda poster, published by the Defense Department’s Office of Public Information, tellingly depicted a resolute Uncle Sam holstering an ivory-handled pistol. “Why We Fight,” the placard declared. “For all the things we have.” War was now indispensable, not just for defending against the evils of Communism but also, and just as crucially, for preserving the American way of life, a way of life dependent on maintaining a material advantage over the rest of the world.
Though scholars like Sherry may have perceived a glimmer of hope as the Cold War ended that the United States might renounce the militarization to which it had become accustomed, Americans found it too unnerving to kick their addiction to war. Even throughout the 1990s, as American soldiers engaged in “peacemaking” and “peacekeeping” operations across the globe, U.S. foreign policy was becoming ever more militarized. The September 11, 2001, attacks simply confirmed for many Americans what they already knew. Talk of peace was naive at best, mortally threatening at worst.
THUS, PERHAPS we should not be startled that peace never comes. (Is it possible we don’t want it to come?) The gravest threat looms continuously on the horizon, which recedes as you advance toward it. Even before the last American convoy left Iraq in December 2011, senior officials in the Obama administration already were speaking of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region for fears that American absence there might feed regional instability. China, anxious over what looked to be a new American policy of containment, stoked further fears simply by contesting U.S. notions of unimpeded access around the globe. Easily dismissed were critiques that this new policy might actually compound Beijing’s insecurities, feed China’s aggressiveness and, ultimately, undermine regional stability. A fresh danger to national security demanded a recommitment to military preparedness.
Our national infatuation with war has exceeded what might be considered pragmatic preparedness. Though economic and security considerations should rightfully inform any nation’s foreign policy, larger anxieties seem to govern the United States’ relationship with the outside world. In a deep sense, we are afraid of no longer being the indispensable nation. The result is what the philosopher Kelly Oliver calls “paranoid patriotism.” Even as President Barack Obama was telling the West Point graduating class of 2014 that not every problem has a military solution, he felt compelled to trumpet America’s unique responsibility to lead. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the president declared.
To maintain this exceptional status at all costs, however, has made us suspicious of any state, any entity that might challenge our self-affirmed global position. Consequently, our paranoid patriotism feeds our addiction to war. We are afraid the symptoms of withdrawal might do irreparable damage to the body politic.
So afraid have we become that when our allies seek to curtail their defense spending, we cry foul. In March, U.S. Army chief of staff Raymond Odierno said he was “very concerned” about the falling proportion of Britain’s national wealth devoted to the military. “As we look at threats around the world,” Odierno maintained, “these are global issues and we need to have multinational solutions.” Our sense of vulnerability now extends to our allies’ shores. Not only must we be perpetually at war, but we also demand that our allies follow suit and embrace our fears. Maintaining America’s special place in the world is a multinational effort.
Sustaining American exceptionalism also requires support from our own armed forces, and here institutional anxieties feed our larger national fears. Notwithstanding media attention on the stress and psychological strain that a decade of war has placed on U.S. soldiers, the military has surely profited greatly from being at war. Media outlets after 9/11 proclaimed that veterans were the “real 1 percenters” whose acts of selfless courage have afforded them a special place in our society. Promotion rates soared among the military ranks, yet when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, numerous officers clamored over being forcibly separated from a downsizing army that no longer required their services. War might be traumatic, but it provides job security.
HAS THIS persistent fighting made us any more secure? Certainly we don’t feel that way. After more than a decade at war, we seem more afraid than ever. Perhaps, then, the time has come for us to challenge our fear-based assumptions about war, conjectures that have trumped thoughtful discussion about global responsibilities, national resources and the utility of force in the modern era. Given the experience of American wars since 1945, perhaps we should reconsider how well U.S. military efforts solve overseas problems. More serious consideration of what’s attainable from our wielding of power might compel us to challenge our notions of the advantages war supposedly offers.
Part of this reflection should include a reexamination of how we evaluate threats to our national security. The rise of the Islamic State, for instance, has engendered alarmist calls for action, with U.S. senators and congressmen citing the group’s supposed goal of the “destruction of the United States of America” as a rationale for increased military force abroad. Yet does the Islamic State truly pose an existential threat? Its claims of being “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate” do not equate to capabilities. And, as Graeme Wood recently suggested in the Atlantic, our ignorance of the Islamic State should not propel us into yet another Middle East incursion. “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself,” Wood claimed, as a new overseas occupation would confirm suspicions of U.S. interventionism and bolster recruitment for the group’s ranks.
Fear borne of ignorance, however, has been a staple of American life for decades. In truth, Hagel erred when he suggested that “thirteen years of nonstop war” was “unprecedented in the history of this country.” In reality, we have been at war for a long time, in large part because we have been afraid for a long time. That fear, more often than not, has been disproportionate to the threats posed by our real and imagined adversaries. Was domestic Communism, for example, truly a menace to the consumer-based American way of life in the 1950s? It seems we can gain perspective here from a society fetishizing its fears to the point of national hysteria.
Of course, mobilizing fear and paranoia is politically useful. Senator Joseph McCarthy burnished his anti-Communist credentials and made a career by attacking “high men in this government [who] are concerting to deliver us to disaster.” Domino theories and Munich analogies provide a sense of paternalistic authority and political conviction for those who peddle them. Conscious of the dangers to the Republic, they alone protect the nation from those less prudent and more naive. Only the weak, we are told, do not act in places like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and, of course, Iran.
PEHRAPS IT is time for us to reconsider this notion. Perhaps it is fear and cowardice, not courage, which promote conflict. While care is needed when connecting individual tales to national psyches, two memoirs from the Vietnam War era are instructive here. In his fictionalized autobiography The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien recounts standing on the Rainy River, beyond which loomed Canada, with his conscription notice in hand. Hating the war (“Certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons”), O’Brien contemplated crossing the northern border and dodging the draft. In the end, fearing ridicule, fearing the law, fearing losing his parents’ respect, O’Brien returned home. “I was a coward. I went to the war.” Compare this attitude to that of Jack Todd, whose searing chronicle Desertion tells the tale of a star track athlete at the University of Nebraska who could not accept his nation’s call to serve in Vietnam. “If you wanted to believe in the war, the one thing you could not do was think.” Todd thought hard, deserted and ultimately renounced his citizenship. His memoir is one of the most courageously honest accounts of the turbulent Vietnam era.
Though these two vastly different accounts of Vietnam should not dictate foreign-policy prescriptions, they can offer insights into why we feel pressure to be constantly at war. Those who assert that we must use military force to protect supposed national-security interests in the name of fear might, in reality, be too frightened to reject war. Nonmilitary solutions to international problems take courage. So does peace.
All this will require a more thoughtful reconsideration of the alternatives to war. What does peace mean for us in the twenty-first century? How would peace, depending on how we define such a term, be better than a state of persistent conflict? By what standards do we engage in military action abroad? Does peace require us to challenge our sense of American exceptionalism, to reexamine our assumptions as we attempt to export American ideals abroad? Such questions will no doubt require us all to critically engage with strategies other than those of war. And while we might never eliminate our fears, we would be well served by contemplating the implications of peace, rather than war, becoming a larger part of our national identity.
After more than a decade of war, the time has come for us to move beyond our state of national insecurity. Paranoia does not equal preparedness. The current National Security Strategy contends that we must “resist the over-reach that comes when we make decisions based upon fear.” For our reality to match our rhetoric, however, we need to stop seeing ourselves as so fragile. We need to stop conforming to the relentless militarization afflicting our national mental health. And, above all, we need to stop being so afraid.
Gregory A. Daddis is a U.S. Army colonel and a professor of history at the United States Military Academy.
Image: Flickr/United States Marine Corps Official Page