Kicking Butt While Not at War

January 23, 2014

Between two great battles in Belgium—Waterloo and Mons—Britain enjoyed what Karl Polanyi called, “a phenomenon unheard of in the annals of Western civilization, namely a hundred years’ peace – 1815-1914.”

Except that there was the Crimean War in which Britain took part from 1854 until 1856.  And the Boer War (1899-1902).  Oh, and of course the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).  Come to think of it, there were also the Second Goomsore Campaign (1837-1838), the First Maori War (1843-1848), the Kaffir War (1846-1847), the Battle of Muddy Flat (1854), the expedition against the Mehsud Waziris (1860), the punitive expedition against the Zaumukts (1879), the Third Burma War (1885-1887), the Punitive Expedition to Waziristan (1894-1895), the Second Matabele War (1895-1896), the bombardment of Zanzibar (1896), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900).

I could go on.  Please don’t make me.  Instead, read Byron Farwell’s delightful Queen Victoria’s Little Wars.  In short, the “hundred years peace” is largely a myth, if by peace Polanyi means the absence of military operations.

In the years leading up to 1815 and then again starting in 1914, the British nation was unambiguously at war.  The British population was very interested in the Napoleonic Wars.  The people most decidedly felt “at war”—even at the risk of invasion—and they felt so viscerally about Napoleon Bonaparte that “Boney” filled the niche in British English then as “boogeyman” does today in American English.  Similarly, during World War I, the British public saw “the Hun” as the enemy of civilization,  and again worried about invasion, suffered genuine bombing raids by Zeppelins and participated in a near total industrial and military mobilization.

However, in between these two cataclysmic events, the British public felt itself at peace, even while the Royal Navy and the British Army (and its brother, the British Indian Army) were fighting nearly constantly all over the world building an empire on which the sun never set.  In short, Queen Victoria’s Britain could visit death and destruction on its enemies without being on a war footing.  I believe that the United States can do the same today.

Fortunately, America’s war that has no name shows every sign of coming to an end.  This is a Good Thing.  To begin with, core Al Qaeda hasn’t just been “decimated” as so much media coverage has claimed.  Decimation means killing one in ten.  In fact, almost every core Al Qaeda figure of note who was alive on September 11, 2001 is dead or in custody.  In addition, the United States has recently decided to send weapons, but no American troops, to help the Iraqi government recapture Fallujah from Al Qaeda forces.  The U.S. military is on its way out of Afghanistan.  President Obama has announced at least a modest reigning in of the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities.  The population of Guantanamo is steadily shrinking and defense spending is on the way down.

The fact that the war is ending (with my hearty approval) does not at all mean, however, that the United States should or will give a free pass to Al Qaeda, its allies, affiliates, and hangers-on.  The terrorists still exist and can still harm us and our allies.  I merely assert that there is no need to pretend that we are “at war” with the all-consuming connotations that phrase has to many Americans, particularly Americans of what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Jacksonian Tradition.”

As I mentioned before, the British had peace at home while still forcibly enlarging and maintaining their empire.  The United States can do something similar.  Think about America’s wars from the Victorian period until 2001: the Civil War (1861-1865), the Spanish-American War (1898), the Philippine War (1899-1902), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam War (early 1959-1973), and the Gulf War (1991).  During all these times, the country really felt itself to be at war.  Most of these wars involved major mobilizations, intense media interest, and increases both in public displays of patriotism and of fear.  Not a few saw substantial protest and substantial rolling back of civil liberties.

However, in between those Wars with a capital W, the United States still managed to make life miserable for its enemies.  The Army and the U.S. Secret Service fought renegade Confederates and the Ku Klux Klan.  The Army conducted genocide against the Native Americans.  The Philippine War sputtered on for nearly a decade after its formal end.  The U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.  General John Pershing led the Punitive Expedition into Mexico in 1916-1917 after Pancho Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico.  The Army intervened in Bolshevik Russia.  Marines landed in Shanghai, China, to protect Americans there during an outbreak of violence…twice.  The Marines landed in Lebanon…twice.  The Secret Service won a firefight outside Blair House with would-be assassins of President Truman.  The FBI gutted the Communist Party of the USA.   The CIA conducted proxy wars against Communists in places like Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and most lethally, Afghanistan.  The U.S. Air Force and Navy bombed Libya in what may have been an attempt to assassinate Muammar Qaddafi.  The CIA worked with the French to capture Carlos the Jackal.  The U.S. and NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs.  The U.S. and NATO bombed Kosovo.  The U.S. bombed Sudan and Afghanistan.  The FBI caught the Unabomber.

I could go on.  Please don’t make me.

My point is that the United States is very effective at forcefully protecting its interests even during “peacetime.”  We don’t always succeed, but mostly we do.  That’s how we got to be the world’s only superpower.  We can keep Al Qaeda down without being at war.  And we should.

Declaring this war without a name to be over is not a sign of weakness.  It’s a sign of strength.


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, D.C.


Photo credit: Expert Infantry