The Price of Perpetual War

May 24, 2016

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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

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17 thoughts on “The Price of Perpetual War

  1. The United States has been continuously conducting combat operations since the 1st of January 1981 (start day for award of the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal for El Salvador), making President Obama the fourth President to have troops committed to combat service over the entirety of his two terms.

    El Salvador: 1 Jan 81 to 1 February 92

    Operations under the Iraq AUMF 1991
    Desert Shield/Desert Storm 2 AUG 90-30 NOV 95
    Operations Southern Watch 27 Aug 93-19 March 03
    Operation Northern Watch 1 JAN 97-17 MAR 03
    Note: Presidents Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama have kept the Combat Zone established under the authority of the 1991 AUMF to remain open continuously during the period.

    War and Peace have rarely been binary conditions for the Army and Navy over our nations history. You can make a good argument that the Army’s operation on the American frontier between 1785 and 1890 were just other examples of “Grey Zone” conflicts.

    While it would be convenient to have a clearer Congressional Authorization than the 9/11 AUMF (or 1992 Iraq AUMF which is also cited by the Administration for current operations in Iraq and Syria), its not legally necessary as Congress has bought off on the legal rational used by this and the previous administration. Even our increasing operations in the northern third of Africa against AQ and ISIL affiliates are authorized as they are being conducted within a Joint Operating Area which was established and reported to Congress in 2005.

    1. Also to counter the article. The US Navy and Marine Corps have been fighting “small wars” outside of big conventional war (WWI, WWII ect) for it’s entire existence. Lest one forgets the anti-piracy actions in the Caribbean in the 1800s, the counter Barbary/North African Pirate actives in the 1800s, the counter slavery of the African coasts in the 1800/1900s, the punitive actions (hence the term Gunboat diplomacy), I could go on about the Marines in Peking or Haiti or other locations. The point is conventional war (WWI and WWII) is not the norm and our forces on the frontiers have always been involved in perpetual warfare since the found days of the republic.
      I also disagree with your idea that this disconnect between the military and civilians is new. There is a reason why you have Naval families where generations have gone to the USNA (see McCain as just one example with a father and grandfather ADMs and his also a grad). The same holds true for West Point. Officer and Enlisted personnel from before the period before the Civil War and then again from after the Civil War to just before WWII (minus WWI) would disagree with you. The military has always been segregated away from the vast military populations. Our forts and bases were often at the edges of the frontier or in locations that others didn’t really want (looking at you swampy Cherry Point). Since the founding days of the republic, we have wanted to keep the military away from the public…not like the Prussian example where the military was a state within the greater state but still separate from the rest of polite sociality
      I agree with your premise that the costs are high, but much of that is self inflicted or the result of well intentioned but risk adverse commanders. Perfect example was not allowing convoys in Iraq to run during bad weather (because you could not medevac injured) however the result was the insurgency quickly realized that US forces would not leave their FOBS (minus a few special forces units) because of the risks. This allowed them time to plant IEDS and create harm to us and the locals. So in the concept of protecting US forces, we allowed the enemy times of respite and safety. Also dealing with Helos and the golden hour. Instead of convoying troops (and especially commanders) from post to post… we flew them. The problem is we needed tons of gas to do that thus requiring more transport teams and convoys to move the vast quantities of fuel. So while the commander got a relatively safe flight to visit the “troops” he actually put hundreds of more people at risk by requiring us to drive up and down the roads with AV-gas. My first tour there less than 15% of the base went outside the wire on a regular basis for missions, maybe another 15% went outside the wire from time to time (myself included)…. that leaves hundreds of staffers and support staff “in combat” but actually just sucking up resources and forcing more logistics elements into the fight. While most combat forces (trigger pullers) have done well…. command and staff elements have really botched the job. For costs… instead of using a cost efficient light attack aircraft (LAC) like the AT6 or Super Turnaco we instead are spending millions flying top of the line F16s, F15s and bombers to drop a few bombs. Just like the overly expensive drones (Reaper, Grey Eagle) we could have done the same job cheaper (people always forget the cost of satellite bandwidth needed for Predator operations) and more effectively with a LAC.

      1. The Secretary and Chief of the Air Force seemed to have been the only leaders who recognized those additional costs for fighting the war, and were trying to reduce their administrative footprint in Iraq and AF/PAK. Unfortunately, they were fired for other justifiable reasons before gaining any traction on this issue.

  2. As more than one historian has argued, the authors’ bald assertion that “The United States did not choose this era of perpetual warfare” is nonsense. No one thrust our post-Cold War engagement in the Greater Middle East on us. We chose to insert ourselves, and could just as readily – and a lot more sensibly – choose to extract ourselves. Our problem isn’t perpetual war; it’s the perpetual creation of new enemies.

  3. When discussing about a possible third world war (WWIII) people expect a full scale nuclear attack and the annihilation of civilizations. It will be quasi a man made day of judgment, short and without real winners, except some psychopaths.

    By setting such a limited framework of imagination about war, they easily ignore that “tactical” nuclear weapons is already used in Middle East. Who is using this weapons, when the Arab states don’t posses them?

  4. Let me start by stating I agree withe the premises in this article. There are serious divides between the American people and their understanding of the military, partially because of the “all-volunteer force.” Some of these issues I addresses as a senior fellow in my monograph for the Joint Special Operations University titled The Changing Nature of War. I argued that even the definition of war has changed – especially for those of us old enough to remember WWII.

    The issue I think is missing in this piece is the impact the state of perpetual war is having on the military members who are actually fighting it. We now have servicemembers with double digit employments in these combat zones. We have vastly underestimated that impact (both physically and psychologically) and what we own to those service-members when they return and leave active duty. The pricetag is going to be horrendous and greatly exceed anything we have contemplated so far.

    1. I’ll look forward to reading the monograph, but doubt I’ll agree with the premise. The nature of war hasn’t changed as much as the way we’ve chosen to conduct it. Deployments are a good example. We’ve chosen to send units over for 6-15 months, rotate them home, then rotate them back again for another 6-15 month tour, rather than the older practice of deploying them for the duration, with periodic (and shorter) rotations out of combat. Many WWII veterans were deployed for 3-4 years…which equates to somewhere between 4 and 8 deployments the way we do them now. I’d argue these short tours are hugely disruptive in many ways (especially for Reserve units and personnel), but it’s not inherent in any changing nature of war — it’s the way the services have chosen to manage the force.
      Ditto when it comes to public engagement. Crediting a gap between the general population and the military to lack of conscription or the small proportion of the population serving ignores many other ways previous conflicts engaged the population. Again, comparing with WWII or Korea, there’s far less apparent effort to inform the public or engage them in supporting these conflicts. That doesn’t mean there’s no information coming out, but it’s not on the scale of organization previously practiced — we’ve ceded control of the information stream to independent sources. Likewise, beyond token efforts to “support the troops”, often organized and conducted outside the government, the general population hasn’t been asked to help with material support — we levied no war tax, sold no war bonds.
      Frankly, much of the reason we’re in “perpetual war” is because our leadership has ignored the purpose of war: to achieve a political result through use of organized violence. Instead, things have morphed into a vague expectation that belligerents should behave according to U.S. standards once we’ve weighed in, and until they do, we’re bound to stay engaged. The nature of war hasn’t changed…we’re just expecting more than war — as an instrument of policy — is capable of delivering.

      1. I have had that debate many times. There is a school that says as you that the nature of war doesn’t change. My premise is that it has, and at the level of definition. We have abused the word so badly that the vast majority of people have no idea what all-out war is like. I’m old enough to remember WWII (as a kid) and perceive something very different from the current conflicts. The monograph is available on the JSOU site (if you have access to it) or mine. Just Google John B Alexander and it will come up.

        1. I’ll certainly agree that the term is misused. Found the monograph (just wasn’t looking far enough back). I have a long airplane ride coming up…lots of time for contemplation….

  5. ” 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” The US was totally unprepared for WWI and WWII, barely Korea and again unprepared for Vietnam. The ONLY conflict we were ready for, was Gulf War Part I.

  6. Perpetual war without Congressional declaration fails to limit the extent and scope of that action. There is no longer a mandate to Win! It can go on forever. The American military, being a volunteer force, will dwindle down to those willing to serve and further separate them from the public; they are already a society separate from the American public. Career soldiers will be less and less and on the field experience will be limited to dangerous levels because of continuous deployments and the continuing loss of career incentives. It is little known that 20 year retirement pay is gone and is replaced with 401k type plans, largely paid for by the soldier, which is essentially a loss in overall pay. Combat and Post Traumatic stress will increase, more veterans will go on to be neglected and less veterans will fit successfully back into society. The real danger is that the American public doesn’t care.

  7. Americans have been at war since 1688. First as English colonists and after 1776 as American citizens they were engaged in the 132 year War for Control of North America. Foe the USA the Indian Wars lasted 100 years from 1789 to 1890. And then there are assorted well known wars lasting to the current time. The points made by the authors regarding the present day are important and valuable. To be applied, however, there must be more than Dr. Peabody Fractured History of the USA.

  8. This article is very clearly Army thinking about the Army and in the general case it is useless.

    The history of the United States Marine Corps is actually a history of continuous small wars.

    SOCOM gets it.

    What we really need to do is cadre Big Army, put 95% of Big Army TO into the Army reserves, and use the cash savings to plus up USMC and SOCOM.

    1. It is worth noting that the Fleet Marine Force was created as a replacement for the Advanced Base Force in 1933 and that by 1939 the Marine Corps still only had a strength of 19,000.

      While I agree that we would be better off with a large reserve force and a small expeditionary active duty force the proportion of this force that should be amphibious is not large. It is a factor of how much of the possible use of the force is best accomplished through sea transport and amphibious forced entry.

      That we have turned the Marine Corps into a second land army is more a part of the problem than a possible solution.

  9. However, the Unites States did choose the path of Empire building after WWII.

    Schools and churches indoctrinate students and parishioners into conforming to the social norm of productive worker, patriotic citizen, nuclear families producing more subservient dullards and cannon fodder, docile taxpayers, half of whose levy goes to the Department of War—let’s call a spade a spade: that was it’s original name from from August 7, 1789–September 18, 1947, until it split into the Department of the Army and Department of the Air Force and joined the Department of the Navy as part of the new joint National Military Establishment (NME), and was euphemistically rebranded as the United States Department of Defense in 1949.

    Defense? With enough conventional firepower and nuclear weapons to kill everyone on the planet plus all other organic life many times over, who are we defending ourselves against? Who is going to call us out? And exactly what is the insane endgame of providing weapons of mass destruction to Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and more than fifty other countries, some of whom are enemies?

    But why use weapons that destroy valuable infrastructure, which would only have to be rebuilt—all those office buildings, factories, roads and bridges, shopping malls, etc.—when the neutron bomb is available?

    “With the neutron bomb, which destroys life but not property, capitalism has found the weapon of its dreams.”
    ~ A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey (1927-1989)

    “In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
    ~ George Orwell (1903-1950)

    Tell Obama and Trump: “No Nuclear War.”