War Fatigue and the Uncritical Critics of War

From Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, the first decade of the 21st century has solidified the U.S. reputation as the energizer bunny of war. While these conflicts continue to rage on, there are a growing number of signs that even the United States has a limit to how much war it is willing to wage.

The signs of war fatigue began to appear in March, when former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates questioned the sanity of a land war in Asia. In May, the calls to start bringing the troops home from Afghanistan proliferated in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. Last month, Congress threatened to stop bankrolling the undeclared war in Libya. And while Republicans are still guarding millionaires’ tax cuts as though the fate of the world depended on it, they have not protected the defense budget with quite the same level of religious fervor. 

Longstanding critics of U.S. defense policy and militarism more broadly might be tempted to have their own little "mission accomplished" moment. But, as we know too well, such moments tend to mistake short-term success for long-term victory.

War fatigue is a powerful political force and the arguments that flow from it are not without their merits. However, these narrower arguments should not be confused with a more fundamental critique of U.S. militarism. This becomes clearer when we distill some of the statements of war fatigue into their most basic arguments.

The War in "X" Is Unwinnable

This is the underlying argument behind Gates’ declaration, "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined."

There is a lot of truth to this claim. The war in Afghanistan is indeed unwinnable. Despite progress reports to the contrary, it would be virtually impossible to root the Taliban out of the region without annihilating the entire country. When the end finally does come, it will be through negotiations with the Taliban — which will inevitably assume a leadership role in any future Afghan government. 

But Gates and other officials refuse to acknowledge why the war against the Taliban is unwinnable and what this says about the nature of the war effort in the first place.

The Taliban are unbeatable partly because they are a mostly indigenous force fighting a foreign military. Although the Taliban are not actually a single organization, but rather a loose conglomeration of disparate groups unified in the belief that the U.S. occupation must end. According to several recent studies, the escalation of the war in southern and eastern Afghanistan has actually contributed to the growth and radicalization of the Taliban throughout the region.

Gates would not want to call attention to the real source of the Taliban’s strength lest he undermine the entire basis of the war. He also would not want to call too much attention to the war’s disastrous effects on the Afghan people, lest he undermine the idea of the United States as a benevolent force in the world.

We Won, Now It’s Their Turn

Even as Gates and other officials increasingly hinted that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, they have made a special point of citing progress in the war effort. We have witnessed this twisted logic before. In the case of Iraq, it tended to emanate from the Democrats who, despite railing against the notion of victory in Iraq, nonetheless suggested that we had reached a point where it was possible, indeed necessary for the Iraqis "to take responsibility for their own future." This is a good example of how in the United States war fatigue tends to manifest in the form of a qualified success story. The Democratic leadership insisted that it was time to leave Iraq not because the war was illegitimate or destructive, but rather because we had achieved what we could and it was now time for the Iraqis to take over. After all, we can’t do everything for them.

In recent weeks, we have been hearing similar arguments for ending the war in Afghanistan. First, there was the claim that the war could be ended because the United States had succeeded in killing bin Laden. "We got Osama bin Laden. Let’s get out of Afghanistan," declared former governor of New Mexico and 2012 Republican hopeful Gary Johnson.

Of course, Johnson and others who made this argument failed to point out that bin Laden was killed in Pakistan and thus failed to even acknowledge that the killing of thousands of Afghans in the meantime might have been in vain. To consider these things would have been to question the very legitimacy of a 10-year war in Afghanistan and would not be in keeping with the American way of war fatigue.

As the deadline for Obama’s announcement on troop withdrawals approached, several Democrats began to hop on the war fatigue bandwagon. All across Washington, you could hear the pages being pulled out of the Iraq War fatigue playbook: "It’s time for the Afghan people to take responsibility for their own country," they said. We’ve done all we can for Afghanistan by destroying their communities with our bombs and our guns. Now it’s time for Afghans to pick up the slack.

These Wars Are Too Damn Expensive

Of course, the first two arguments would not exist were it not for this one. The cost of waging war is arguably the driving force of today’s war fatigue. Both liberal Democrats who want more government investment in the economy and Tea Party Republicans who want to slash spending have argued that the wars in Afghanistan and Libya are just too damn expensive.

The projected cost of war funding between 9/11 and 2012 is $1.415 trillion. That includes $49.3 billion in fiscal year 2011 for the supposedly concluded war in Iraq. It does not include the undeclared war in Libya, which is costing over $9 million dollars a day. That’s a lot of money for a government to spend on war in any economy and a whole lot of money for a government considering cuts to education and basic entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

While we can and should oppose the bloated defense budget, opposing a war on the grounds that it is too expensive is an argument against the cost of war. It is not an argument against the war itself. Opposing the economic costs of war is akin to saying that, if the United States had all the money in the world, you might actually support the wars in Afghanistan and Libya. So, although emphasizing the price tag of our current wars may be an effective political tool, it fails to explain why, in either geopolitical or moral terms, these wars would not make sense at any price. Focusing on the costs of war to the United States leaves the door open for a very closely associated argument.

Why Not Just Use Drones and Special Forces Instead?

This argument is implicit in Gates’ specific caution against "a big American land army." It is also part of Obama’s latest strategy in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border, where drone strikes and Special Forces operations have risen sharply since his inauguration.And it is the consensus reflected in recent legislation that gave Obama another year in Libya as long as he doesn’t commit ground troops.

More generally, this is the consensus that counter-terror, which utilizes stealth technology and not ground troops, is the way to go not only in Afghanistan and Libya, but also in Somalia and Yemen, as well as any other country where there is a real or exaggerated threat to U.S. security. This stance is an extension of the cost argument. In addition to emphasizing the economic cost of war, it also draws attention to the value of a U.S. soldier’s life.

Like the other arguments with which it is associated, the counter-terror argument does not question the basic validity of military intervention or worry much about who is getting killed by all these drones. It just assumes that the process of figuring out who is a real threat to U.S. security and who is not is as precise as the technology. Thus, when innocent civilians die, as they inevitably do, they are either deemed enemy combatants ex post facto or "collateral damage" in an otherwise well-functioning machine. The basic categories and processes for determining who the enemy is and what fate is in store for them remain unquestioned.

Déjà vu All Over Again

This is hardly the first time the United States has experienced war fatigue. The most pronounced case came in the last stages of the Vietnam War. Observing this phenomenon, Noam Chomsky wrote in 1973,

"America is weary of this war, and in the narrow groups that determine foreign policy there are many who see it as pointless, a failed venture that should be liquidated. But official doctrine nonetheless prevails. It sets the terms of the debate, a fact of considerable importance. And as long as victims are designated as ‘communists,’ they are fair game. Virtually any atrocity will be tolerated by a population that has been profoundly indoctrinated."

As Chomsky predicted, Vietnam War fatigue did little to end the Cold War that provided the conflict with its ideological framework. In key ways, that ideological framework has persisted into our current moment. Instead of communists in Afghanistan, they are Islamists. Instead of supporting an international communist conspiracy, the adversary is conducting a global jihad. In both cases, the United States claims to be waging a war of self-defense, which is simultaneously in the world interest.

In Libya, where this framework doesn’t hold as an argument for the war, it has in fact surfaced as an argument against the war. Opponents of the war have argued that the rebels may have links to al-Qaeda. Very few of these critics draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Libya, which the so-called humanitarian war has actually worsened. Such concerns fall outside the parameters of war fatigue.

We are all too familiar with the typical end game that results from war fatigue. For various, and sometimes contradictory reasons, we opt to wind down the current battle, but not the larger war. The winding-down phase is as symbolic as it is actual, with military bases and defense dollars continuing to flow well after the media stops reporting on the conflict. The current conflict may come to some form of conclusion, but the larger war continues. War fatigue, it seems, is a key element in the larger story of perpetual war.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.