Washington. This is the American era of endless war.
To grasp its sweep, it helps to visit Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the US Army will soon open a $31 million complex for wounded troops and those whose bodies are breaking down after a decade of deployments. The Warrior Transition Battalion complex, the only four-story structure on the base, towers over architecture from earlier wars.
“This unit will be around as long as the army is around,” said Lt. Col. Bill Howard, the battalion commander.
As the new complex rises, bulldozers are taking down the last of Fort Campbell’s World War II-era buildings. The white clapboard structures were hastily thrown up in the early 1940s as the country girded to battle Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Each was labeled with a large letter “T.” The buildings, like the war the country was entering, were supposed to be temporary.
The two sets of buildings tell the story of America’s embrace of endless war in the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001. In previous decades, the military and the American public viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm.
Today, radical religious ideologies, new technologies and cheap, powerful weapons have catapulted the world into “a period of persistent conflict,” according to the Pentagon’s last major assessment of global security. “No one should harbor the illusion that the developed world can win this conflict in the near future,” the document concludes.
By this logic, America’s wars are unending and any talk of peace is quixotic or naive. The new view of war and peace has brought about far-reaching changes in agencies such as the CIA, which is increasingly shifting its focus from gathering intelligence to targeting and killing terrorists. Within the military the shift has reshaped army bases, spurred the creation of new commands and changed what it means to be a warrior.
On the home front, the new thinking has altered long-held views about the effectiveness of military power and the likelihood that peace will ever prevail.
In the decades after Vietnam, the US military was almost entirely focused on training for a big, unthinkable war with the Soviet Union. There were small conflicts, such as Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf War, but the United States was largely at peace.
After the Soviet collapse and America’s swift Gulf War victory, the military bet that it would be able to use big weapons and vastly better technology to bludgeon enemies into a speedy surrender. It envisioned a future of quick, decisive and overwhelming victories.
A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has crushed the “smug certainties” of that earlier era, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian who served in the George W. Bush administration. Most soldiers and Marines in today’s military have seen their entire careers consumed by the war on terror.
The long stretch of war has also isolated the US military from society. Senior army officials worry that career soldiers have forgotten how to take care of their troops outside the war zones. A 2010 army study partially blamed the service’s unusually high suicide rate on the “lost art of leadership in garrison.”
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not had the broad cultural impact of previous conflicts such as World War II or Vietnam. The new wars have not produced war bonds, internment camps, victory gardens or large-scale counterculture protests. Movies about these fights have largely flopped.
The endless conflict, however, has triggered major changes in the way Americans view war and peace. Call of Duty, a series of video games, offers up a fun-house-mirror reflection of this new understanding of conflict. Each year more than 30 million people play the game, according to its manufacturer, Activision Blizzard.
Early versions of the game were set in World War II and largely paralleled real-world events. As American troops hurtled toward Baghdad in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein,
The popularity of the series truly soared in 2009 with the launch of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which portrayed a very different kind of war in Afghanistan. In the World War II games, the players are unquestionably good and the war’s ends are noble. The games end in victory and peace. In the Modern Warfare battles, the conflicts are unending.
Peace has faded from any debate in Washington surrounding the wars. New Pentagon organizations set up for Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to persist indefinitely to deal with the era’s enduring threats. In 2006, the Defense Department created the Joint IED Defeat Organization to help in the battle with improvised explosive devices, which remain the top killer of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Peace,” meanwhile, has become something of a dirty word in Washington foreign-policy circles. Earlier this year, the House voted to cut all funding for the congressionally funded US Institute of Peace. Although the money was eventually restored, the institute’s leadership remains convinced that the word “peace” in its name was partially to blame for its woes. The word is too abstract and academic, said Richard Solomon, the institute’s president.
Solomon suggested one alternative: the US Institute for Conflict Management. The institute has staffers working in war zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. “Peace doesn’t reflect the world we are dealing with,” he said.
In June, when President Barack Obama laid out his plans to begin reducing the number of US troops in Afghanistan, he sought to assure a weary American public that the country’s longest war was drawing to an end.
Obama was not promising an end to America’s wars. He was suggesting that the United States needed to find new, more cost-effective ways of fighting them that do not involve tens of thousands of US soldiers and Marines patrolling in Iraqi and Afghan villages.
Even as the Obama administration has started to cut troop numbers in Afghanistan, it has ramped up drone strikes and the use of special operations forces in places such as Yemen and Somalia. Going forward, the administration will rely heavily on the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, which has grown tenfold in the past decade.
One lesson of today’s endless warfare seems to be that Americans will have to learn to live with a certain amount of insecurity and fear.
“In this world we will not ‘win wars,’” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama administration official, wrote in the British foreign-policy journal RUSI. “We will have an assortment of civilian and military tools to increase our chances of turning looming bad outcomes into good — or at least better — outcomes.”
The Washington Post