The Many Purposes of War

Why can’t we bring them home? (U.S. Marine in Afghanistan; photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum)

W.J. Astore

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist who wrote at the end of the Napoleonic Era, is noted for saying that war is a continuation of politics.  That saying explains much of current U.S. military war-making, but only if you first and foremost focus on domestic politics – and economics.

Wars make money for weapons makers, and the U.S. dominates the world’s arms trade.  Wars require a large “defense” establishment, and the U.S. national security state has essentially become a fourth branch of government that threatens to eat the rest.  Wars tend to strengthen reactionary elements within society, shunting to the fringes those who argue for peace amid a climate of fear.  Wars, in short, have their purposes – it’s just that the salient ones often differ from the stated ones.  For clarity, it often helps to follow the money.  Who profits from war?  Addressing that question will explain many of the reasons why America’s wars have no promise of ending.

In the meantime, current U.S. war-making looks something like this:

  1. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the pursuit of “stability” (whatever that means) mainly through the arming and training of indigenous security forces. Using Afghans and Iraqis as foot soldiers, as well as a heavy reliance on private military contractors (mercenaries), reduces the U.S. military “footprint” on the ground, which reduces U.S. casualties and thus domestic interest in as well as opposition to these wars. Typical U.S. governmental actions include military training, selling weapons, and providing air support (mainly in the form of bombing and reconnaissance).

Waging these wars, at the end of long logistical lines, is profligate in dollars — witness the high cost of indigenous forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which rarely perform anywhere close to U.S. expectations — which has the added benefit of justifying enormous “defense” budgets in the U.S.

What these wars don’t promise is either “victory” or closure.  But that’s not the main point of them.  U.S. politicians like George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not concerned with victory: they’re focused on sustaining illusions of progress for domestic political gain.  For example, the recent recapture of Falluja from ISIS is defined by the U.S. government as “progress,” even though that city had already been “pacified,” i.e. largely destroyed at high cost to U.S. forces, more than a decade ago.

  1. In the war on terror, the heavy use of special operations forces and drones, both to kill terrorists and to interdict their supplies, logistics, and sources of their funding. Again, the emphasis is on minimizing U.S. casualties, which is the key consideration in U.S. domestic politics. American lives are not risked in drone attacks, and relatively few Americans have been killed in special ops raids, which, because they are often so highly classified, rarely register in the U.S. media unless Americans are indeed killed.

Here again, it’s unclear if any real progress is being made in this war, but the Obama administration in particular has sold such raids and strikes as killing thousands of terrorists while minimizing U.S. casualties.  Such claims serve to squelch, if only temporarily, Republican claims that Obama is weak and soft on defense.  Domestic political concerns, rather than long lasting effectiveness, once again rule.

  1. Confrontation with “peer” rivals like Russia and China. This is old-school stuff, a variant of Cold War containment and deterrence. “Pivots” to the Pacific and the rhetorical pillorying of Vladimir Putin help to justify massive U.S. military spending that approaches $750 billion each and every year.  The war on lightly armed terrorists isn’t enough to sustain this figure, but reports that China’s getting an aircraft carrier or Russia’s working on nuclear weapons justify new U.S. carriers and a trillion-dollar splurge on U.S. nuclear arsenals.

Here again, U.S. war-making is driven far more by domestic politics (and economics) than by needs-driven analysis of national defense.  Exaggerating peer threats like China and Russia keeps a sclerotic Pentagon, a supine Congress, and a bloated military-industrial complex happy.

At this point, an astute reader might ask: But what is the real Clausewitzian strategy for war-making in the United States?  How is war a continuation of politics?  Again, one must look to U.S. domestic politics to address this question.  “Toughness” must be demonstrated, therefore wars must be continued, no matter how costly and unpromising, if only to keep up appearances.  President Obama, for example, has refused to make key decisions about the Afghan war, leaving it to the next president to decide whether the U.S. commitment of troops continues after 2017.  There’s an outstanding chance that the next U.S. president will continue that war, placing it on the backburner to simmer until the next election cycle in 2020.

In sum, the new American way of war-making consists of methods rather than strategies, methods that produce endless war that serve mostly domestic political and economic purposes.  A telltale sign that things are going really poorly is when the U.S. military declares another “surge” of its ground forces, which whether in Iraq in 2007 or Afghanistan in 2009-10 seemed calculated not to produce victory or closure but again to squelch domestic political opposition from hawkish rivals.  That in itself is considered a “win” for whichever administration is in power.

What is never considered in U.S. war-making is ending the wars.  Domestically, attempts at limiting U.S. war-making are instantly tarred with the brush of “cutting and running,” of weakness, even of cowardice.  Rare is the U.S. president who dares to stand up to those clamoring for war.

Attempts to downsize the global presence of the U.S. military are similarly equated with weakness.  As a result, no U.S. president (or major party candidate for president, like Clinton or Trump) dares to suggest it.  Refusing to walk away, fearing loss of face but especially fearing domestic political defeat, presidents as diverse as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1960s and lately Bush and Obama have embraced the folly of waging unwinnable wars.  It’s likely little will change in 2017, irrespective of which major party wins the election.

Both presidential nominees of the major parties, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have promised to make the U.S. military bigger and better.  But for what purpose?  A bigger, badder military is the purpose, and again it’s driven by domestic political and economic imperatives.  You have to go outside the major parties, to the Libertarians or the Greens, to hear any talk of significant military reductions.  Libertarians have talked of military reductions of 20%, the Greens of deeper cuts of up to 50%.  In today’s militarized America, those parties aren’t going anywhere.

War-making as a continuation of domestic politics for political and economic profit – it sure explains a lot about the actions of the U.S. government and military.  It may not be what Carl von Clausewitz had in mind, but it surely is America’s reality.