This is the American era of endless war.
To grasp its sweep, it helps to visit Fort Campbell, Ky., where the Army will soon open a $31 million complex for wounded troops and those whose bodies are breaking down after a decade of deployments. The Warrior Transition Battalion complex, the only four-story structure on the base, towers over architecture from earlier wars.
“This unit will be around as long as the Army is around,” said Lt. Col. Bill Howard, the battalion commander.
As the new complex rises, bulldozers are taking down the last of Fort Campbell’s World War II-era buildings. The white clapboard structures were hastily thrown up in the early 1940s as the country girded to battle Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. The buildings, like the war the country was entering, were supposed to be temporary.
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The two sets of buildings tell the story of America’s embrace of endless war in the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001. In previous decades, America viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm.
Today, radical religious ideologies, new technologies and cheap, powerful weapons have catapulted the world into “a period of persistent conflict,” according to the Pentagon’s last major assessment of global security.
In the decades after Vietnam, the U.S. military was almost entirely focused on training for a big, unthinkable war with the Soviet Union. There were small conflicts, such as Grenada, Panama and the Persian Gulf War, but the United States was largely at peace.
After the Soviet collapse and America’s swift Gulf War victory, the military bet that it would be able to use big weapons and vastly better technology to bludgeon enemies into a speedy surrender. It envisioned a future of quick, decisive and overwhelming victories.
A decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has crushed the “smug certainties” of that earlier era, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian who served in the George W. Bush administration.
Most soldiers and Marines in today’s military have seen their entire careers consumed by combat.
The long stretch of war has also isolated the U.S. military from society. Senior Army officials worry that career soldiers have forgotten how to take care of their troops outside the war zones. A 2010 Army study partially blamed the service’s unusually high suicide rate on the “lost art of leadership in garrison.”
Other top military officials fret that the troops are developing a troubling sense that they are better than the society they serve.
“Today’s Army, including its leadership, lives in a bubble separate from society,” wrote retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan, in an essay for the website of Foreign Policy magazine. “This splendid military isolation – set in the midst of a largely adoring nation – risks fostering a closed culture of superiority and aloofness. This must change if the Army is to remain in, of, and with the ever-diverse peoples of the United States.”
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have not had the broad cultural impact of previous conflicts such as World War II or Vietnam. The new wars have not produced war bonds, internment camps, victory gardens or large-scale counterculture protests.
The endless conflict, however, has changed the way Americans view war and peace. Call of Duty, a series of video games, offers up a fun-house-mirror reflection of this new understanding of conflict. The popularity of the series soared in 2009 with the launch of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which portrayed U.S. troops locked in a struggle with the Taliban. The game’s conflicts are unending.
“You find yourself doubting why we fight,” said Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, an industry veteran and game designer. “Villains are killed, but you are left in the end with a completely devastated world.” Victory is unattainable.
Peace has also faded from any debate in Washington surrounding the wars.
In June, when President Barack Obama laid out his plans to begin reducing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he sought to assure a weary American public that the country’s longest war was drawing to an end.
“Tonight we take comfort in knowing that the tide of war is receding,” he said. “And even as there will be dark days ahead in Afghanistan, the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.”
Obama was not promising an end to America’s wars. He was suggesting that the United States needed to find new, more cost-effective ways of fighting them.
Even as the Obama administration has started to cut troop numbers in Afghanistan, it has ramped up drone strikes and the use of special operations forces in places such as Yemen and Somalia.
One lesson of today’s endless war seems to be that Americans will have to learn to live with a certain amount of insecurity and fear.
“In this world we will not ‘win wars,’” Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former Obama administration official, wrote in the British foreign-policy journal RUSI. “We will have an assortment of civilian and military tools to increase our chances of turning looming bad outcomes into good – or at least better – outcomes.”