America’s Long War & Its Consequences – Intended & Not


Washington DC:  Bus advert 'The last good phone call was Watergate' 3/7/13
Washington DC: Bus advert ‘The last good phone call was Watergate’ 3/7/13

          The names we choose for events and concepts matter.

           America’s post 9/11 ventures we called the Global War on Terror (GWOT).  It included a host of military and security measures.  In May President Obama abandoned the term:

We must define our effort not as a boundless ‘Global War on Terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.

 Disposing of the term – as inappropriate and undescriptive as it is – still has the effect, intended or not, of concealing the general in a welter of specifics.  It is Obama’s reformulation that is ‘boundless’.


           GWOT briefly had another name.  It survives in the name of the neo-conservative organ, The Long War Journal.

           In a must-read article, ‘Naming Our Nameless War’, scholar-soldier Andrew J. Bacevich says ‘the Long War’, coined by senior military, ‘never gained traction with either civilian officials or the general public’.   It should have, I believe.

           First, as Prof. Bacevich argues, it is a war of long duration.  Very long.

           He sardonically suggests it might be called ‘the Second Hundred Years War’, dating to Turkey’s disastrous entry into World War I on the German side.  From that great blunder came the remapped ‘Middle East’.  Its straight-edge boundaries – accommodating its new colonial masters, Britain and France – have caused a century’s grief and promise decades more.  

          Prof. Bacevich prefers to combine the struggle over the eastern Mediterranean littoral with that for Pakistan and Afghanistan into ‘the War for the Greater Middle East’.  While geographically accurate, it fails to capture either the duration or the distance ‘the Long War’ does.


           Like many four-letter Anglo-Saxon words, ‘long’ has several meanings and still more suggestive implications.

           ‘The Long War’ is one fought over a time and at distances only recently conceivable.  The image of a drone pilot, in an air-conditioned Nevada office launching missiles over Yemen, was out of ‘Star Trek’ a generation ago.

           Gradually, we are becoming aware this new technology has implications beyond its ability to kill without risking direct American casualties.  So points out Mark Bowden in ‘The Killing Machines’ in the September Atlantic.

           Drone warfare deadens American responses to the deaths it inflicts.  John Yoo, the Bush II lawyer who justified the use of torture in the Long War, told Bowden:

           …you ought to be much more upset about the drone than Guantánamo and interrogations.  Because I think the ultimate deprivation of liberty would be the government taking away someone’s life.  But with drone killings, you do not see anything, not as a member of the public.  You read reports perhaps of people who are killed by drones, but it happens 3,000 miles away and there are no pictures, there are no remains, there is no debris that anyone in the United States ever sees.  It’s kind of antiseptic….

           In a broader context, long-distance war at once grants greater status to American opponents and perverts our system of justice.  We are not dealing with a national foe, like Japan in World War II, but rather with a gang, like Whitey Bulger’s.  Writes Bowden:

           Once the “war” on al-Qaeda ends, the justification for targeted killing will become tenuous.  Some experts on international law say it will become simply illegal.  Indeed, one basis for condemning the drone war has been that the pursuit of al-Qaeda was never a real war in the first place.

           Sir Christopher Greenwood, the British judge on the International Court of Justice, has written:  “In the language of international law there is no basis for speaking of a war on al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group, for such a group cannot be a belligerent, it is merely a band of criminals, and to treat it as anything else risks distorting the law while giving that group a status which to some implies a degree of legitimacy.”  Greenwood rightly observes that America’s declaration of war against al-Qaeda bolstered the group’s status worldwide.  But history will not quarrel with Bush’s decision, which was unavoidable, given the national mood.

 On Bowden’s riposte, history will quarrel with the means – war, torture, non-combatant surveillance – Bush chose to pursue al-Qaeda, so long as history can be written.

           Bowden is on surer ground when he points out the responses to drone attacks.

           “The political message [of drone strikes] emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists, who are seen as David fighting Goliath,” Gabriella Blum and Philip B. Heymann, both law professors at Harvard, wrote in their 2010 book, Laws, Outlaws, and Terrorists: Lessons From the War on Terror.  “Moreover, by resorting to military force rather than to law enforcement, targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.”

           Is it any wonder that the enemy seizes upon targets of opportunity – a crowded café, a passenger jet, the finish line of a marathon?  There is no moral justification for deliberately targeting civilians, but one can understand why it is done….

           Bowden makes too little of the drones’ lasting effects on the people who can conceive of themselves as targets.  They and their descendants won’t forget for generations.  Our Long War will have a long tail.


Drones are not America’s only major long-range, low-American-casualty weapons.  ‘Sanctions’ – bars on international trade with countries whose governments we oppose – however are the opposite of ‘surgical’.

In ‘A Very Perfect Instrument’ ((Harper’s Sept. 2013) behind pay wall, but well worth the price), Andrew Cockburn explains modern blockades in theory and practise.  Writes Cockburn:

 Just as air power has evolved from the area bombing of entire cities during World War II to “precision” drone strikes, so the theory and practice of sanctions has evolved from straightforward blockades into a more ambitious and intricate system known as “conduct-based targeting,” aimed at the economic paralysis of thousands of designated “entities” – people, companies, organizations.

 ‘Economic paralysis’ means people die from malnutrition’s effects, for want of medicines.

But, sanctions don’t achieve their often-stated objective of so poisoning the relationship of the government and the governed that regime change occurs.  We are now into our sixth decade of sanctions on Cuba.  But the Castros still rule.

So did Saddam Hussein until we invaded a second time.  Says Cockburn:

           …although sanctions are frequently promoted as … “a heck of a lot better than war,” Iraqi sanctions are conservatively estimated to have killed at least half a million children, while estimates of the total death toll from subsequent violence – a still horrific 174,000 – are lower.

           As Cockburn notes, the intellectual and lobbying support for sanctions comes from groups like ‘the Foundation for Defense of Democracies [FDD], chaired by former CIA director James Woolsey.’

           “A friend told me recently that we are the Special Forces of the Washington think-tank community,” Woolsey said cheerfully when I called.  “I liked that.” Founded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the group has in the past secured its funding, currently around $8 million a year….  Fusing in one entity the parallel tracks of sanctions and drone warfare, the FDD also publishesThe Long War Journal, a chronicle of American military conflict in the twenty-first century.


           From a safe distance and without risk to military personnel or materiel, sanctions impose a collective punishment on a civilian population.

           The blockade that cost, perhaps, a quarter million German lives after the Armistice in 1918 continued, wrote John Maynard Keynes (a chief adviser to the British Treasury), due

most profoundly to a cause inherent in bureaucracy.  The blockade had become by that time a very perfect instrument.  It had taken four years to create and was Whitehall’s finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities of the English at their subtlest.  Its authors had grown to love it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements which would be wasted if it came to an end; it was very complicated, and a vast organization had established a vested interest.  The experts reported, therefore, that it was our one instrument for imposing our peace terms on Germany, and that once suspended it could hardly be re-imposed.

           Keynes perfectly described the US sanctions bureaucracy today.  And Cockburn aptly concludes:

As for those “skinny and bloated children” who so disgusted the British [occupation] troops in Germany a century ago, a later survey of 600 young Nazis on their motivations for supporting Hitler suggested that a major influence was their vivid memories of childhood hunger and privation.


           Long wars have still longer consequences.  History offers clear examples of them.  But very few are the countries that have rethought their long war strategies in light of the predictable consequences.

           The US shows no signs of becoming one of them.