Forever War Culture War Forever
Starting the story of the Forever War in 2001 misses violent understanding of domestic politics enjoyed by its architects in the 1990s.
Let me start this story in the middle.
It is the Spring of 2009, I am a sophomore studying Political Science at Tulane University, and I am eager to bring news to my War on Terror class. It is, as best I can tell, March, and the brand new Obama administration has declared an end to the War on Terror. This is the news I am bringing, that the term now is “overseas contingency operations,” and with it, surely, will come the end of the actual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 7.5 and 6 years old at the time.
The professor laughs, says something along the lines of “we’ll have to see” if that change sticks, and we finish out the class. I forget everything else I wrote for the class, and the specifics of the discussions. Instead, it is that moment of naive exuberance for a promised change, gently smothered with knowing cynicism, that sticks with me today.
Here is the story closer to the end.
Noah Smith, an opinion columnist for Bloomberg with a sizable Twitter following and a Substack on the side, declared “The end of the War on Islam” in his newsletter, dated February 5th, 2021. To point to an end of hostilities, he cites a fall in reported Islamophobic attacks, and then weirdly attributes this fall to the battlefield success of the US military against ISIS.
There is much maddeningly off about his analysis, to the degree that I think virtually every other sentence is at least largely or entirely inaccurate, but there is one line I want to highlight as a sort of accidental arrival at a useful truth.
“Winning a War on Terror is not like winning a normal war,” writes Smith. “There is no surrender, no victory parade.”
What’s accurate, ish, is that middle phrase. Structurally, the War on Terror was designed with an expansive definition of an enemy, and as such, it cannot possibly end in surrender. (That Smith himself shifts in the essay from an understanding of the war as targeting a kind of nonstate group linked to religious ideology, and then reverts to the familiar terror terminology, only further undermines his theory of the war’s end).
The war, the war that was long when I was a college sophomore and is much, much longer now, structurally cannot end in a surrender. It could still end in a victory parade, because those, unlike surrenders, are an event the United States can declare on its own, anyway.
What is missing from so much writing about the Forever War is an understanding of what kind of changes can bring the war to an end. It isn’t a new name or a temporary lull in authorized attacks.
What will end endless war is a break from the infinite authorizations and indefinite deployments. An end means, essentially, finding a face-saving and doable definition of an end state, and declaring it. This end state must be one that explicitly ends the US role in ongoing combat, and would require a Congressional authorization to get the US involved again.
This end cannot be accomplished through a shuffling of troop levels, a promises of near-term tactical victories, or a rebranding on top of an existing war.
“Wars become endless when a belligerent adopts objectives it doesn’t have the capability to achieve, but isn’t at risk of facing defeat,” writes David Sterman, of New America.
Sterman’s project is defining endless wars as a meaningful category, so that policymakers may see the actual obstacles to the ends of those wars. That the United States can continue to fight the War on Terror, or the Overseas Contingency Operations, or whatever new name the war gets, is a function of the freedom the US has to act, and also, a function of the threat not actually being an existential one.
Just as the war cannot be won, it cannot, really, be lost.
This indefinite status quo, with constant violence authorized by Congress and mostly imperceptible to people living within the states, carries a whole slew of risks. Many of those are geopolitical, the kinds of accidents or battlefield decisions that can lead to a greater danger of violence between countries, which endanger the war from escalating out of a low-burn violence into more intense state-to-state warfare.
“Even the small numbers of U.S. forces active in Syria and Iraq have clashed with forces tied to Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, and Turkey—hardly a record that suggests escalation control,” writes Sterman. “Evaluating the costs today makes a temporal error of analysis—calculating the costs of the war before they have ended under conditions where there is no clear plan to end them. While all wars bring risks, those risks are magnified when wars are pursued in strategically incoherent ways without achievable objectives.”
I think Sterman’s work is worth reading in its own right. I’ve revisited it every few days since it was published, trying to parse out what, exactly, I think is important to people outside the legislative- and executive-aide audience of all think tank work.
I think it is this: a claim to fight and win an endless war becomes totalizing, in a way the imposes a political cost on subsequent administrations if they try to define limited objectives and declare the war done once those are achieved.
“[T]he moral power mobilized by and through the language of unlimited objectives imposes political constraints on admitting that the aim was always just a limited objective, such as denying territory to ISIS or degrading its ability to project power,” Sterman writes. “One’s political rivals can launch accusations of failing to destroy the remaining adherents. If one has proclaimed defeat as the necessary aim, it then becomes difficult to credibly claim defeat really meant something more limited.”
There is a rhetorical feint in talking about the Forever War as a series of endless errors, following a series of bad and voluntary choices, following events that demanded a response. Sterman, to his credit, notes the among the risks of endless war is a militarization of domestic politics, and he includes Representative Barbara Lee’s September 14th, 2001 warning that “we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.”
This is a narrative, told as it so often is, with an origin in 2001, and with the war a series of disasters that followed.
I think, though, stories that start with the casus belli for the war miss the ideological groundwork that was laid, the kind of mobilization for a perpetual righteous violence already lurking in the minds of the war’s authors, and especially on their radio waves.
“Fifty years from now, historians are unlikely to write, ‘In the mid-nineties, politicians and talk-show radio hosts created an atmosphere of poisonous hatred against the national government. Also in a completely unrelated development, somebody blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City,’” wrote Adam Gopnik in the May 8, 1995 issue of The New Yorker.
Gopnik’s piece, titled Violence as Style, is about both an aesthetic embrace of violent rhetoric and a rhetorical distancing from people ever taking the consequences of that rehtoric seriously. Parts of the essay have aged poorly, like his asides about rap, the Black Panthers, or, also, how the same impetus behind Pulp Fiction is why it’s unsafe for kids to be out after 5pm.
Yet there’s at least one durable observation in it, besides his accurate prediction of how history would understand the Oklahoma City Bombing decades on from the fact.
“It turns out there isn’t one world of cultural theatre and another world of real acts. The terrorists, though, had come to believe they weren’t bombing a building full of people but obliterating an abstract object of hate,” writes Gopnik. “The “grievances” that are said to have moved them seem, on examination, curiously bloodless -- things seen on television and in “instructional” videos rather than actually experienced.”
Gopnik notes that the timing of the bombing meant columns endorsing violent language, if not outright violence, were published at the same time as their authors walked back that same language in reaction to the news, thanks to the lag between print filing and print publication. For more real-time broadcasters, like the late and monstrous Limbaugh, violence carried out in sympathy with his beliefs was unrelated to his calls for violence against the state.
And besides, Limbaugh argued, the real culprit in the bombing wasn’t the people who build and detonated the bomb, it was the constraints he imagined the left had imposed on the FBI that prevented federal police from catching the plot before it happened. It was a seamless pivot to his preferred sort of conflict, a Forever Culture War where he got to cite Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and then use that same citation to imagine an enemy left far more powerful and cohesive than actually existed.
The durable feature of this era, and every era since, is rhetorical play around real violence, built on an assumption shared between broadcaster and listener that their enemies are real, are present, are growing in power, and seek to make life worse. The degree of explicit and winking endorsements of violence against these imagined enemies fluctuates with the news, with elections, and with other media attention. It endures as the foundation of an entire political understanding of the world.
It’s also, I think, part of what Smith gets so wrong about the present moment.
“The GOP has decisively shifted away from the party of Bush to the party of Trump, and Trumpism has decisively shifted away from attacking Islam to attacking BLM, wokeness, Antifa, anarchism, rioters, etc. etc,” writes Smith, after noting that Trump’s primary target was immigration. What is missing from Smith’s analysis is that, as bundled together, these fears have been durable staples of the right, persisting under the umbrella of the Forever War, and were never crowded out by any one focus.
The culture war created the rhetoric and pre-stocked the tropes for the Forever War. The Forever War, once instituted, gave ammunition and cover to the culture war. The endlessness of the wars abroad became a feature, as they matched a perception among the right about real domestic enemies, whose power was on the rise, and who could only be contained through endless violence. (That the War on Terror borrowed the War on Drugs expansiveness, and the ability to straddle domestic/international fronts, slots in here, though this essay is long enough as it is.)
“The absence of a strong socialist movement is given as one of the reasons given that there can’t be genuine fascism [in the United States], because fascism is largely a reaction to the rise of socialism,” writes John Ganz, as part of a larger debate on whether or not Trump-era right politics approached fascism.
Ganz continues, “But as I pointed out, in the right wing imagination there is a strong threatening socialism in the United States, it’s just what they call any manifestation of basic, multi-racial democracy. One will notice the “socialism” label is particularly thrown around when the interests of ethnic minorities are the political question.”
The thread through all of this is that the Forever War, like the Culture War, creates conditions for comfortable people to imagine themselves in an existential struggle, without actually being in one.
There is, I think, a compelling case that the post-9/11 era properly ends with the pandemic and with the insurrection of January 6th. But it cannot reach that end if the Forever War continues on, endless in shape and duration, feeding the perception of existential danger to people convinced they are shopkeepers living in a simulacra of the 1920s, ready to accept the protection of barbarism against an imagined red peril.
Breaking that illusion would mean accepting that the last 20 years of war abroad, and the last 30 years of culture war domestically, were fought without end, not because the United States was in danger, but precisely because it was not.
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