From the First Gulf War to Islamic State: How America Was Seduced by the “Easy War”


As the premier military power since the Cold War, the United States, like hegemonic powers of the past, is held captive by the dangerous myth of the “easy war.” While terms like “network-centric warfare” wouldn’t formally enter the U.S. defense establishment lexicon until later in the 1990s, the central notion on which such concepts are based — that precision technology could be leveraged to quickly overpower an adversary — were validated by the stunning U.S. success in the First Gulf War. In a matter of 100 hours, with overwhelming and coordinated force and relying heavily on airstrikes, the largely painless dispatching of Saddam Hussein’s forces, the world’s fifth largest army, served as an affirmation to many of the invincibility of American military might. Compared to the bitter losses in Korea and Vietnam, the First Gulf War established an unequivocal military victory, reaffirming the value and dominance of the American methodology of warfare. Or at least that’s how the story is told.

As a result, the First Gulf War entrenched the notion that technology would provide near-omniscience on the battlefield, paving the road to an uncomplicated victory. Almost overnight, in the minds of strategists and policymakers, wars had become brief, casual affairs.

Operation Allied Force, the NATO air war during the Kosovo conflict, only furthered the easy war mythology, particularly the concept of neat, effective victory through airpower alone. The 78-day campaign, at the price tag of $3 billion, expended over 28,000 high-explosive munitions in an enormous display of airpower. Minus a few high-profile cases of collateral damage, like the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy (although the Chinese insisted the United States deliberately targeted the embassy), less than 500 noncombatants died in the course of Operation Allied Force. This marked “a new low in American wartime experience when compared to both Vietnam and Desert Storm.” Following the capitulation of Slobodan Milosevic to NATO demands, Operation Allied Force was hailed as an unprecedented success, elevating airpower to match its land and maritime counterparts. Serge Schmemann of the New York Times claimed Kosovo provided “a refutation of the common wisdom that airpower alone could never make a despot back down.” Airpower had evolved the myth of the easy war to a martial enterprise devoid of the risks and complications of ground forces. Thus, the myth continued, brushing criticisms aside.

After 9/11, the mythology of the easy war unsurprisingly carried over to the nascent months of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, confidently declared in 2002 that the Iraq War would last “five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.” The legacy of the First Gulf War and Kosovo produced rapid marches to respective capitals, highlighting the spectacular use of airpower. The Shock and Awe Doctrine was expected to produce another bloodless victory. However, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq quickly devolved into a quagmire of nation-building and counterinsurgency. Contrary to overly optimistic expectations, a decade of occupation, and roughly $1.5 trillion have failed to produce any semblance of security or governance in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The notion that toppling a regime and implementing massive socio-political transformations would be a simple endeavor seems whimsical at best, and delusional in hindsight.

Yet despite hard lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the myth of the easy war stubbornly persists, permeating American foreign policy toward challenges ranging from Libya to the Islamic State. When the United States intervened in Libya in 2011 with 19 allied states to enforce Security Council Resolution 1973, the campaign was narrowly restricted to aerial strikes and the establishment of no-fly zones. NATO forces, trying to avoid a lengthy engagement analogous to Iraq, actively avoided deploying any ground troops to the frontlines. The intervention aimed to do as little as possible, while retaining the illusion of decisive action. Assuming a distant and hands-off strategy, NATO focused on providing aerial support to advancing local militias on the ground. Subsequently, the strategic and operational distance of NATO forces from local factions translated to an absence of control on the ground. Although NATO support assisted in deposing Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, the intervention unleashed instability. Competing factions and militias vied for power and control in the ensuing power vacuum, a pattern that continues nearly five years later. In “Lessons from Libya: How Not to Intervene,” Alan Kuperman argued, “NATO’s action magnified the conflict’s duration about sixfold and its death toll at least sevenfold, while also exacerbating human rights abuses, humanitarian suffering, Islamic radicalism, and weapons proliferation in Libya and its neighbors.”

By avoiding long-term risks and complications, NATO forces, including the United States, forfeited control in shaping the future of post-Qaddafi Libya. The price of an “easy intervention” in Libya was a failed state, characterized by instability and growing violence.

If Libya was the pursuit of the easy war, then the current strategy against the Islamic State spawned its ugly sibling, the “half-baked war.” Reluctant for a sequel to America’s adventurism in Iraq, the Obama administration has relied on an aerial bombing campaign, hoping, as administration officials are wont to say, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. The hope is that American-led airstrikes, ironically called Operation Inherent Resolve, would target key military assets and logistical sites, enabling Iraqi ground forces to dislodge the Islamic State from its centers of power like Ramadi and Mosul. The strategic vision is frighteningly similar to the one employed in Libya, which ended disastrously. Admittedly, over time, the Obama administration has deployed 3,500 troops to the region, largely limited to training and advisory missions. Therefore, the aerial campaign remains the crux of the American strategy in the recurring and misguided belief airpower will critically weaken the Islamic State. This noncommittal, distant application of force retains the optimistic reliance on airpower and techno-centric solutions of the easy war mythos. Eliot Cohen, in “The Mystique of U.S. Air Power,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1994, wrote, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” Nearly two decades and multiple military interventions later, the United States still desperately clings to airpower as a panacea to armed conflict.

Ideally, the aerial bombing campaign of Operation Inherent Resolve is eliminating key leadership and Islamic State fighters in droves, significantly diminishing the group’s capabilities. According to the Pentagon, the operation has destroyed 16,705 targets, including 129 tanks and 4,942 fighting positions as of November 13, 2015. Yet, the aerial campaign has failed to translate tactical successes into strategic advances, while providing a powerful recruiting tool to the Islamic State, seemingly validating its accusations of American imperialism against the Muslim world. Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, the U.S. Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, recently stated, “If you inadvertently — legally — kill innocent men, women, and children, then there’s a backlash from that. And so we might kill three and create 10 terrorists.”

The political desire and expectation for bloodless, risk-free (yet victorious) military operations has created an impossible standard in the use of military force. “Not another Iraq” has become a euphemism for the myth of the easy war in Washington — the belief that wars can be won without any costs and from an arm’s distance. Speaking about the Islamic State, Donald Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, said, “I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, every single inch, there would be nothing left.” With a similar reliance on airpower, Hillary Clinton called for a “more effective coalition air campaign, more allied planes, more strikes, and a broader target set.” Whether Republican or Democrat, the political consensus insists on reproducing the “successful” exercise of airpower in Kosovo, a neat little war. So as if in a constant state of historical amnesia, the United States continues to repeatedly pursue the easy war mythos with reckless abandon.

Yet in light of repeated failures of U.S. strategy over the past decade and a half, America’s victory culture “starts to look like wishful thinking, unhealthy braggadocio, and illusory triumphalism — good for the nation’s self-esteem, perhaps, but not good for handling reality.” The United States naively divorces military force from the violent, complicated nature of conflict — effectively sweeping away the human costs and fog of war. But there is nothing easy or neat about wars. This is a fact — indisputable, unchangeable, and wholly unforgiving. Victory is a fickle mistress, here for moment and gone the next. Thus, if the United States continues to be enamored by the myth of the easy war, the country will only fuel its cycle of feckless wars, devoid of any connection to reality. The myth of the easy war only promises more Iraqs, more Afghanistans, more Libyas, more Syrias.

Wars are messy, unpredictable, bloody affairs. To forget this fundamental fact is to concede success before the first shot.


Sebastian J. Bae, a major contributor to Best Defense in Foreign Policy, served six years in the Marine Corps infantry, leaving as a Sergeant. He deployed to Iraq in 2009. He received his Masters at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, specializing in counterinsurgency and humanitarian interventions. He is the Executive Editor at Ramen IR. Twitter: @SebastianBae