The Holly Jolly Christmas Conversation We Need To Have About War

December 25, 2013

When will this war end?  That’s up to us or, in the words of John Lennon: “war is over, if you want it.”  This is the conversation we Americans need to have.  However, I’m afraid that we are too afraid to have that conversation yet.  We need to get over it.

For many years, the rap on Americans was that their casualty aversion caused them to cut and run from wars.  This alleged “syndrome” seems to have arisen out of the Vietnam War experience; its greatest manifestation was the policy reaction to the Black Hawk Down incident, in which the deaths of 18 American soldiers led to the withdrawal of American forces from Somalia.  Another manifestation of this alleged casualty aversion was America’s tendency in the 1990s to conduct wars from 30,000 feet or by means of cruise missiles – hence the Kosovo bombing campaign of 1999 and President Clinton’s missile strikes on Afghanistan and the Sudan.  Osama Bin Laden may have counted on America’s casualty aversion when he planned the September 11 attacks, viewing America as a “paper tiger”

There is another way of looking at Americans’ relationship with war, however, one that better explains the United States’ behavior over the last twelve years.  As Walter Russell Mead has explained, those who adhere to the robust American political tradition of Jacksonianism tend toward the isolationist, but when America is attacked, the attacker should beware – Jacksonians like to win decisively.  The end of World War II was illustrative: American soldiers stood in Berlin and Tokyo, Germany and Japan lost their sovereignty, Japan was twice nuked, and most key German and Japanese leaders were sent to the gallows.

The 9/11 attacks brought out America’s inner Jacksonian.  The attacks resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime.  With time, Osama Bin Laden became fish food.  Saddam’s Iraq was collateral damage along the way.  Operation Iraqi Freedom ended with American troops in Baghdad, Iraq having lost its sovereignty, and Saddam and much of his inner circle sent to the gallows (in Saddam’s case, literally).  Obviously, Bin Laden had never read about Jacksonianism.

Unfortunately, Jacksonian policies can be hard to reverse and this is our problem now.  Mead observed that once Jacksonians have made “a commitment to pursue an end vigorously and for the long term,” it is hard to “build Jacksonian sentiment for a change….It is, for example, much harder to shift a settled hawkish consensus in a dovish direction than vice versa.”

Indeed, one thing that Jacksonians traditionally are not is cowards, so it is ironic that America’s reluctance to end the present state of war results not from Jacksonian determination or simple bellicosity, but from fear.  We have managed the neat trick of combining a preference for Punic War outcomes with casualty aversion.  It turns out that Americans are willing to stick out a war for as long as it takes to ensure that no American civilian will die at the hands of terrorists.  I suspect that this fear results from a vicious circle of reinforcing expectations between voters and politicians.  American citizens (reasonably enough) don’t want to be killed by terrorists, so politicians launch major initiatives aimed at preventing terrorist attacks, and even more major rhetoric promising protection.  In turn, we come to expect the fantasy of perfect security – and vote accordingly.  What do you think would happen if a President announced that America’s war against al Qaeda was over, took real policy steps along those lines, and then there was a terrorist attack on the scale of the Boston Marathon or Fort Hood.  He or she would be pilloried and would have to dig out of a big hole in order to be re-elected.  Call this the “Mission Accomplished Syndrome.”

Yet, absolute safety from terrorists is not achievable short of applying 1984-style solutions, and probably not even then.  Audrey Kurth Cronin was right on the mark when she wrote in a recent issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies that “the search for a perfect peace [has] replace[d] reality.”  She points to the extravagant definition proposed in 2011 by Matthew Olson, the head of the Counterterrorism Center, that would define the strategic defeat of Al Qaeda as “ending the threat that Al Qaeda and all of its affiliates pose to the United States and its interests around the world.”  In other words, we will have won when we are 100% safe from Al Qaeda and everybody who thinks as Al Qaeda does.  This is truly a Jacksonian goal.  Don’t hold your breath.

We continue to feel threatened and yet according to Cronin, the period from September 11th to the end of the decade was safer than any decade since the United States started keeping records: 14 dead in 129 incidents.  Compare this to 160 dead in 1328 incidents during the 1970s, 44 dead in 389 incidents during the 1980s and 202 dead in 328 incidents during the 1990s.

Many Americans want NSA’s domestic surveillance activities stopped.  Many Americans want to reduce our defense spending.  Many Americans don’t want to take their shoes off at airport security checkpoints.  We want these changes, the kind of changes that come at the end of a war, but we also want 100% security at the same time.  This is not a serious political position.  If we the public phrase these demands in the context of the end of the war, if we let our politicians know that we would be happy with the level of terrorism that existed in the 1980s or 1990s and would not hold them accountable every time some Islamist  shoots somebody, we might get what we are after.

This is the conversation we must have.  If we want to stop NSA’s domestic surveillance, will we punish our political leaders if the programs stop and a domestic attack follows?  If we want to reduce defense spending, how many American lives is it worth to us?  If you don’t want to take your shoes off, are you willing to assume a bit more risk that your plane will be blown up?

I’ll offer two starting points for this discussion:

Season’s greetings.  Enjoy your eggnog.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.