Permanent Warfare as Normality

U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (Flickr)

by Paul R. Pillar

The newest issue of Foreign Affairs features the theme of “America’s Forgotten Wars,” with a cover illustration that juxtaposes a carefree scene of Americans enjoying a picnic with that of American soldiers fighting and incurring casualties in some sandy and desolate battle space. The picture depicts truthfully the detachment between, on one hand, the daily interests and attitudes of most Americans and, on the other hand, the disturbing reality of the United States engaged continuously in a variety of lethal military operations in multiple lands overseas. Andrew Bacevich has elsewhere provided several reasons why, as he puts it, “the vast majority of the American people could not care less” that their country has become mired in what amounts to permanent warfare abroad. These reasons include, for example, that the true costs of these military expeditions have not been completely tabulated and that “blather crowds out substance” in American public discourse about foreign policy.

The pattern of permanent U.S. involvement in warfare, which has prevailed for the past 16 years, departs markedly from what had been the traditional American approach toward war and peace. Therein lies an additional set of reasons why Americans at home are not now up in arms over how fellow citizens have had to take up arms and fight endlessly overseas. That tradition grew up throughout the nineteenth century and was cemented by America’s greatest overseas military effort ever: World War II. The tradition was one of war being a relatively infrequent necessity that involved the United States sallying forth to slay a clearly defined monster of the moment and then, after a clear and victorious ending, returning to peacetime pursuits.

As I have discussed at greater length elsewhere, the application of this template of what war is expected to look like—and especially the expectation that any war will have a definite, identifiable end—has entailed numerous problems when applied to more continuous American activities abroad. The problems have included the quandary of what to do about some of the detainees at Guantanamo. The past experience of holding prisoners of war until the end of hostilities does not apply, not only because of any distinction between legal and illegal combatants but also because events that led to the current detentions will never get to a point that can be identified as the end of hostilities. Another problem has been the difficulty Congress has had in exercising its constitutional responsibility to define clearly the objective and scope of U.S. involvement in any foreign war.

Faith That a War Will End

The mental template of finite war also underlies the carefree American public attitude toward the unending American involvement in warfare abroad. At some level of the American psyche is the belief that today’s combat, like most of yesteryear’s, will have a clear (and victorious) end. Thus, most Americans feel no need to contemplate and discuss what ought to be the very disturbing prospect that Americans will be fighting abroad forever.

That the current unending warfare was launched as a “war on terror” has added significantly to these problems. (Bacevich lists as another of his reasons for the acceptance of permanent war that “terrorism gets hyped and hyped and hyped some more.”) The “war on terror” label, and the associated concept, never were logical. As the late Zbigniew Brzezinski once commented, calling this a war on terror makes as much sense as calling World War II the “war on blitzkrieg.” Terrorism is a tactic that has been used for millennia, and in that regard the countering of it is endless. The “war” terminology also has encouraged the excessive militarization of counterterrorism.

On top of this was George W. Bush’s encouragement to Americans to respond to terrorism by going shopping and to “get down to Disney World in Florida…take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” These words were in one sense prudent advice not to do terrorists’ work for them by overreacting with fear. But they also encouraged the very sort of detachment and lack of concern about endless warfare that is depicted on the Foreign Affairs cover.

Then there are the additional American tendencies in thinking about America’s involvement with the world—especially the tendency to believe that any problem abroad can be solved with enough determination and effort, and that the United States is the party that should take the lead in solving it. There is great reluctance to leave any situation that still looks like a mess, because the leaving looks like failure, regardless of what specific U.S. objectives may have been accomplished. These American habits of thought are added to the more general human tendency to treat sunk costs as investments. The result is recurrent mission creep, in which expeditions that began in the name of countering terrorism morph into a nation-building enterprise or an effort to counter the influence of some other state.

That the current streak of warfare already has gone on for so long has further encouraged acceptance of it as the new normal. Much of a generation has come of age knowing the United States as always engaged in warfare abroad. Permanent warfare, and refusal to accept anything that could be depicted as defeat, has become a frame of reference not just for the general public but also for foreign policy cognoscenti.

Endless War in Iraq and Afghanistan

That framework is readily evident in the articles on Iraq and Afghanistan in that issue of Foreign Affairs. (A refreshing contrast is the piece by former ambassador Robert Ford on Syria, titled “Keeping Out of Syria: The Least Bad Option,” which concludes that the one useful thing the United States can do is to help neighboring countries provide for Syrian refugees.) The article on Iraq, by Emma Sky (who was political adviser to one of the U.S. military commanders in Iraq), is titled “Mission Still Not Accomplished in Iraq.” It repeats most of the now-familiar arguments for the United States to keep plodding on militarily in Iraq. This includes the idea that, even with the reduction of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate, the outcome of a civil war in a Middle Eastern country is supposedly a key determinant of international terrorism in the West. It includes Sky’s assertion that “U.S. support is still needed to discourage other countries in the region from filling the power vacuum”—disregarding how misleading is the metaphor of a vacuum when applied to international politics.

Sky’s ultimate rationale for staying militarily in Iraq seems to be, as is true of many such rationales these days, to counter Iranian influence—never mind that Iran has been on the same side as the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. Sky writes that if Iranian influence is left unchecked, “this could lead not just to an Iranian-Saudi confrontation but to an Iranian-Israeli one as well.” This sounds like as much of a problem with Saudi Arabia and Israel as with Iran. It is, moreover, a reflection of how the mission creep has moved beyond expansive notions of counterterrorism and even beyond nation-building to immersion in someone else’s regional rivalries. This rationale also forgets how the whole Iraqi mess, including increased Iranian influence, that Sky does not want to leave while it is still a mess began with a U.S. military invasion.

The article on Afghanistan, by former military commander Stan McChrystal (co-written by his former aide-de-camp Kosh Sadat) sounds more self-aware than Sky’s about how the military effort in question is akin to endless plodding on a treadmill. McChrystal acknowledges that the course he recommends is open to the charge that it “would meet the definition of insanity—which, as that old adage has it, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Although McChrystal has some suggestions for tweaking the policy, his basic conclusion is that the United States is “stuck” with doing more of the same.

In neither of these treatments of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is there a basis for identifying or expecting a conclusion to the expeditions. Sky and McChyrstal offer barely any light at the end to the tunnel, let alone a view of the tunnel’s end itself. With knowledgeable observers succumbing to the idea that permanent warfare is normal, it is no surprise that the American public does not seem to be bothered more than it is by the current wars.

Photo: U.S. troops in Afghanistan (Wikimedia Commons).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. Especially with the current president doing the bidding of general officers and their love of war, we will have ongoing wars, in other countries of course so we don’t really experience them.

    Wars are quite profitable for many, as Smedley Butler wrote (War Is A Racket), and wars serve to promote the welfare of the government as Randolph Bourne wrote more than a hundred years ago in his long essay War Is The Health Of The State, excerpt: “War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties. The minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them.”

  2. I suspect that the U.S. will not be able to afford a state of permanent war for very long. With the petrodollar fading as the world’s reserve currency, the days of the U.S. taxing the world to finance its wars will come to an end as the dollar is recognized as pure fiat currency with no intrinsic value. The gold-backed petro-yuan will likely take its place. As the dollar’s purchasing power evaporates, the U.S. will be forced to adopt a far less-aggressive, more defensive posture on the world stage.

  3. “The American people could not care less that their country mired in permanent wars”!!!
    The top 1 percent screwing the American people and people of the other nations in more than one way:
    1. The top 1 percent has enslaved (modern day slavery) the average Americans by keeping them occupied with their 7/24 work hours so they can only make their creditors, which is the 1 percent, happy!
    2. While the average Americans are preoccupied with their daily lives the weapon factories, with top 1 percent as the major investor, are producing more and more sophisticated weapons and putting them to test by using and killing the enslaved sons and daughters! Have you noticed that their own kids can and do evade the arm forces?
    3. Ultimately the same weapons are used to bully and invade smaller countries, to kill the innocent people and to continue plundering their resources!

    Isn’t it how the wealthy gets wealthier?

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