The Price of Perpetual War


The United States has entered an era of perpetual war. The U.S. military has been at war for 15 straight years with no end in sight, and President Obama will soon have the dubious distinction of being the only American president to have been at war for all eight years of a two-term presidency. The traditional logic of American wars — that the United States would mobilize, fight, win, and end its wars through overwhelming force of arms — no longer seems to apply. Today’s wars can be characterized more as conflicts in the gray zone, ambiguous battles with less-defined shapes and even less-clear outcomes. This increasingly blurred line between peace and war is posing a range of new challenges for the U.S. military, for elected officials, and for the nation as a whole.

The United States did not choose this era of perpetual war. It is the price of living in a world where, for the first time, terrorist groups and malevolent individuals can reach the United States and wreak havoc from virtually any corner of the world. That threat was literally brought home by al Qaeda on 9/11 and reinforced all too recently by the terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino.

Helping to prevent and disrupt further attacks from such groups also largely explains why the United States still has troops in Afghanistan and has redeployed troops to Iraq. The United States also now faces other far-flung threats abroad that include dangers from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. These groups have conducted attacks across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Recent surveys show that more than 80 percent of Americans believe that ISIL and international terrorism are the biggest threat to the United States. While these worries may be overstated, they nevertheless drive policymakers to action. The United States has responded by deploying small teams of U.S. special operations forces to a range of countries — from Syria to Yemen to Libya to the Central African Republic — to help support local governments and their militaries in countering these malign actors.

What does this era of perpetual war mean for the U.S. military? First, “war” and “peace” are no longer binary conditions, as they had been for much of the nation’s history. This is one of the few times that the U.S. military has had to undertake the demands of continuous warfare while at the same time rigorously preparing for a wide range of potential future threats. Even the limited conflicts in Korea and Vietnam were fought within the context of a possible global war against the Soviet Union, and each had a relatively clear end. Today’s military must think in unconstrained ways about what could be the much different wars of the future, while simultaneously conducting wars with no prospective end points.

In the past, the periods of peace that followed periods of war gave the U.S. military time and space to prepare for the next war — to devote serious intellectual energy to thinking about scenarios for a range of these future challenges and to develop the doctrine, force structure, technologies, and capabilities to meet them. Even though the military often did not predict the next war correctly, that period of time, reflection, and investment helped make it more ready to adapt to the next set of challenges it faced. But that protected time and space no longer exist in this era of perpetual warfare, since the military will inevitably have to focus on fighting current battles and preventing them from worsening or expanding. Neither military nor civilian leaders can think deeply about the wars of 2030 when the roiling conflicts of today dominate the headlines and have immediate political and international impact.

Thus the U.S. military faces an inevitable tradeoff between maintaining readiness for today’s wars and building preparedness for the possible wars of tomorrow. Its need to focus on current conflicts clashes with the necessity to rebuild after two major wars and prepare for the possibility of the next big war. This makes it very difficult to maintain a ready, forward-looking, agile military force — and strict budget and troop limits make this challenge even harder. Wars that never end risk begetting militaries that are always fighting today’s fight and never quite looking ahead adequately to the bigger dangers of tomorrow.

Second, this era of perpetual war places significant stress on the force – not only because of the unending operational demands, but also because there is little national recognition that we remain at war. While the White House insists that U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are not involved in combat operations, they still face bullets and bombs, still are maimed and killed, and still return home bearing the scars and stress of war. Their experiences differ little from their predecessors in previous “big wars.” At least Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was truthful in describing the recent death of a SEAL team member in Iraq as a “combat death.” The men and women of the armed forces are willing to fight — and die, if necessary — to defend the nation. But asking them to do so without acknowledging that they are at war is simply wrong. Failing to provide a clear idea of the size, duration, and ultimate objectives of an ever-expanding set of hazily defined conflicts may eventually erode their willingness to fight and the readiness of young Americans to serve in the military in the first place.

This era of perpetual warfare also poses a big challenge for the civil-military relationship. In the past, the United States almost always made a clear decision to go to war at a defined moment — think Roosevelt going to Congress after Pearl Harbor, Truman deploying troops to defend Korea against invasion, or the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing Johnson’s major troop increases in Vietnam. Each of these conflicts started at a well-defined point and was authorized by Congress. More recently, Congress explicitly voted to authorize both the 2001 war in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Yet today’s wars often expand beyond the places where they begin as the threats morph, change, and spread. Today, U.S. military operations are being conducted in Syria, Libya, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Nigeria. Because they mostly involve non-state actors operating within transnational networks, these wars stretch across continents and are nearly limitless in time horizon — even described in terms such as “multigenerational.” It’s not at all clear what success, much less victory, means in such operations.

What they all currently share, however, is a lack of Congressional authorization. Few of these new battlefronts have sparked substantive debates on Capitol Hill, and recent efforts to enact a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force have been swiftly defeated (including just last week). These wars have not engaged Congress or the American people in discussions about how, where, and why the nation should use military force. Sending young American men and women overseas into combat has always been a shared responsibility between executive and legislative branches. Congress continues to pay the bills, but the lack of further legislative involvement essentially gives the executive branch free rein to continue and expand today’s wars.

As a result, it is easier for the United States to go to war today without any connection to the American people — a trend already well underway for two other reasons. First, advanced capabilities such as unmanned armed drones, long-range standoff munitions, and highly lethal special forces now enable remote precision strikes with very little if any risk to U.S. military forces or American lives. Second, as we’ve argued elsewhere, the all-volunteer force means that fewer and fewer Americans have any connection to, let alone serve in, the U.S. military. Neither of those trends is likely to change, which makes Congressional involvement in the decision to go to war even more vital.

The price of perpetual war is high, but some of the costs can be lowered. U.S. military leaders, for example, will never be able to escape the tension between fighting today and preparing for tomorrow, but they can prioritize far-sighted investments in broader leader education, innovative scenario development, and aggressive red teaming. But the nation’s elected leaders — in the White House and in Congress — need to publicly acknowledge the reality of these wars: that they involve real combat, that traditional concepts of “success” and “victory” don’t apply, and that they require the support of the American people. The United States did not choose this era of perpetual warfare. The threats are real and must be countered. In this era of open-ended conflict, the nation’s leaders must do a better job of addressing the costs of this new reality.


Lt. General David W. Barno, USA (Ret.) is a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, and Dr. Nora Bensahel is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, at the School of International Service at American University. Both also serve as Nonresident Senior Fellows at the Atlantic Council. Their column appears in War on the Rocks every third Tuesday. To sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter, where you can track their articles as well as their public events, click here.

Image: Sgt. Earnest J. Barnes