Infinite War, by Andrew J. Bacevich - The Unz Review - The Gravy Train Rolls On
United States of Amnesia.” That’s what Gore Vidal once called
us. We remember what we find it convenient to remember and forget everything
else. That forgetfulness especially applies to the history of others. How
could their past, way back when, have any meaning for us today?
Well, it just might. Take the European conflagration of 1914-1918, for example.
not have noticed. There’s no reason why you should have, fixated as we all are
on the daily torrent of presidential tweets and the flood of mindless
rejoinders they elicit. But let me note for the record that the centenary of
the conflict once known as The Great War is well underway and before the present
year ends will have concluded.
hundred years ago this month, the 1918 German Spring Offensive —
codenamed Operation Michael — was sputtering to
an unsuccessful conclusion. A last desperate German gamble, aimed at shattering
Allied defenses and gaining a decisive victory, had fallen short. In early
August of that year, with large numbers of our own doughboys now on the front
lines, a massive Allied counteroffensive was to commence, continuing until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of
the eleventh month, when an armistice finally took effect and the guns fell
years that followed, Americans demoted The Great War. It became World War I,
vaguely related to but overshadowed by the debacle next in line, known as World
War II. Today, the average citizen knows little about that earlier conflict
other than that it preceded and somehow paved the way for an even more brutal
bloodletting. Also, on both occasions, the bad guys spoke German.
Americans, the war of 1914-1918 became a neglected stepsister of sorts, perhaps
in part because the United States only got around to suiting up for that
conflict about halfway through the fourth quarter. With the war of 1939-1945
having been sacralized as the moment when the Greatest Generation saved
humankind, the war-formerly-known-as-The-Great-War collects dust in the bottom
drawer of American collective consciousness.
to time, some politician or newspaper columnist will resurrect the file labeled “August 1914,” the grim
opening weeks of that war, and sound off about the dangers of sleepwalking into
a devastating conflict that nobody wants or understands. Indeed, with
Washington today having become a carnival of buncombe so sublimely
preposterous that even that great journalistic iconoclast H.L. Mencken might
have been struck dumb, ours is perhaps an apt moment for just such a reminder.
different aspect of World War I may possess even greater relevance to the
American present. I’m thinking of its duration: the longer it lasted, the less
sense it made. But on it went, impervious to human control like the sequence
plagues that God had inflicted on the ancient Egyptians.
relevant question for our present American moment is this: once it becomes
apparent that a war is a mistake, why would those in power insist on its
perpetuation, regardless of costs and consequences? In short, when
getting in turns out to have been a bad idea, why is
getting out so difficult, even (or especially) for powerful
nations that presumably should be capable of exercising choice on such matters?
Or more bluntly, how did the people in charge during The Great War get away
with inflicting such extraordinary damage on the nations and peoples for which
they were responsible?
countries that endured World War I from start to finish — especially Great
Britain, France, and Germany — specific circumstances provided their leaders
with an excuse for suppressing second thoughts about the cataclysm they had
·mostly compliant civilian populations deeply loyal to some version
of King and Country, further kept in line by unremitting propaganda that minimized dissent;
·draconian discipline — deserters and malingerers faced firing
squads — that maintained order in the ranks (most of the
time) despite the unprecedented scope of the slaughter;
·the comprehensive industrialization of war, which ensured a
seemingly endless supply of the weaponry, munitions, and other equipment
necessary for outfitting mass conscript armies and replenishing losses as they
would no doubt add sunk costs to the mix. With so much treasure already
squandered and so many lives already lost, the urge to press on a bit longer in
hopes of salvaging at least some meager benefit in return for what (and who)
had been done in was difficult to resist.
none of these, nor any combination of them, can adequately explain why, in the
midst of an unspeakable orgy of self-destruction, with staggering losses and
nations in ruin, not one monarch or president or premier had the wit or
gumption to declare: Enough! Stop this madness!
the politicians sat on their hands while actual authority devolved onto the
likes of British Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, French Marshals Ferdinand Foch
and Philippe Petain, and German commanders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich
Ludendorff. In other words, to solve a conundrum they themselves had created,
the politicians of the warring states all deferred to their warrior chieftains.
For their part, the opposing warriors jointly subscribed to a perverted
inversion of strategy best summarized by Ludendorff as
“punch a hole [in the front] and let the rest follow.” And so the conflict
dragged on and on.
Forfeiture of Policy
simply, in Europe, a hundred years ago, war had become politically purposeless.
Yet the leaders of the world’s principal powers — including, by 1917, U.S.
President Woodrow Wilson — could conceive of no alternative but to try harder,
even as the seat of Western civilization became a charnel house.
leader bucked the trend: Vladimir Lenin. In March 1918, soon after seizing
power in Russia, Lenin took that country out of the war. In
doing so, he reasserted the primacy of politics and restored the possibility of
strategy. Lenin had his priorities straight. Nothing in his estimation took
precedence over ensuring the survival of the Bolshevik Revolution. Liquidating
the war against Germany therefore became an imperative.
to suggest that the United States should consider taking a page out of Lenin’s
playbook. Granted, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, such a
suggestion might have smacked of treason. Today, however, in the midst of
our never-endingefforts to expunge terrorism,
we might look to Lenin for guidance on how to get our priorities straight.
the case with Great Britain, France, and Germany a century ago, the United
States now finds itself mired in a senseless war. Back then, political leaders
in London, Paris, and Berlin had abrogated control of basic policy to warrior
chieftains. Today, ostensibly responsible political leaders in Washington have
done likewise. Some of those latter-day American warrior chieftains who gather
in the White House or testify on Capitol Hill may wear suits rather than
uniforms, but all remain enamored with the twenty-first-century equivalent of
Ludendorff’s notorious dictum.
course, our post-9/11 military enterprise — the undertaking once known as the
Global War on Terrorism — differs from The Great War in myriad ways. The
ongoing hostilities in which U.S. forces are involved in various parts of the
Islamic world do not qualify, even metaphorically, as “great.” Nor will there
be anything great about an armed conflict with Iran, should members
of the current administration get their apparent wish to provoke one.
Today, Washington need not even
bother to propagandize the public into supporting its war. By and large,
members of the public are indifferent to its very existence. And given our
reliance on a professional military, shooting citizen-soldiers who want to opt
out of the fight is no longer required.
also obvious differences in scale, particularly when it comes to the total
number of casualties involved. Cumulative deaths from the various U.S.
interventions, large and small, undertaken since 9/11, number in the hundreds of thousands. The precise tally
of those lost during the European debacle of 1914-1918 will never be known, but
the total probably surpassed 13 million.
similarities between the Great War as it unspooled and our own
not-in-the-least-great war(s) deserve consideration. Today, as then, strategy —
that is, the principled use of power to achieve the larger interests of the
state — has ceased to exist. Indeed, war has become an excuse for ignoring the absence
now, U.S. military officers and at least some national security aficionados
have referred to ongoing military hostilities as “the Long War.” To describe our
conglomeration of spreading conflicts as “long” obviates any need to suggest
when or under what circumstances (if any) they might actually end. It’s like
the meteorologist forecasting a “long winter” or the betrothed telling his or
her beloved that theirs will be a “long engagement.” The implicit vagueness is
not especially encouraging.
high-ranking officers of late have offered a more forthright explanation of
what “long” may really mean. In the Washington Post, the journalist
Greg Jaffe recently reported that “winning for
much of the U.S. military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying
put.” Winning, according to Air Force General Mike Holmes, is simply “not
losing. It’s staying in the game.”
long ago, America’s armed forces adhered to a concept called victory,
which implied conclusive, expeditious, and economical mission accomplished. No
more. Victory , it turns out, is too tough to achieve, too
restrictive, or, in the words of Army Lieutenant General Michael Lundy, “too
absolute.” The United States military now grades itself instead on a curve. As
Lundy puts it, “winning is more of a continuum,” an approach that allows you to
claim mission accomplishment without, you know, actually accomplishing
soccer for six-year-olds. Everyone tries hard so everyone gets a trophy.
Regardless of outcomes, no one goes home feeling bad. In the U.S. military’s
case, every general gets a medal (or, more likely, a chest full of them).
days,” in the Pentagon, Jaffe writes, “senior officers talk about ‘infinite
like to believe that Jaffe is pulling our leg. But given that he’s a
conscientious reporter with excellent sources, I fear he knows what he’s
talking about. If he’s right, as far as the top brass are concerned, the Long
War has now officially gone beyond long. It has been deemed endless and is
accepted as such by those who preside over its conduct.
infinite war is a strategic abomination, an admission of professional military
bankruptcy. Erster General-Quartiermeister Ludendorff might
have endorsed the term, but Ludendorff was a military fanatic.
that. Infinite war is a strategic abomination except for arms merchants,
so-called defense contractors, and the “emergency men” (and women) devoted to
climbing the greasy pole of what we choose to call the national security
establishment. In other words, candor obliges us to acknowledge that, in some
quarters, infinite war is a pure positive, carrying with it a promise of yet
more profits, promotions, and opportunities to come. War keeps the gravy train
rolling. And, of course, that’s part of the problem.
should we hold accountable for this abomination? Not the generals, in my view.
If they come across as a dutiful yet unimaginative lot, remember that a
lifetime of military service rarely nurtures imagination or creativity. And let
us at least credit our generals with this: in their efforts to liberate or
democratize or pacify or dominate the Greater Middle East they have tried every
military tactic and technique imaginable. Short of nuclear annihilation,
they’ve played just about every card in the Pentagon’s deck — without coming up
with a winning hand. So they come and go at regular intervals, each new
commander promising success and departing after a couple years to make way for someone else to give it
us something about our prevailing standards of generalship that, by resurrecting
an old idea — counterinsurgency — and applying it with temporary success to one
particular theater of war, General David Petraeus acquired a reputation as a
military genius. If Petraeus is a military genius, so, too, is General George
McClellan. After winning the Battle of Rich Mountain in 1861, newspapers dubbedMcClellan “the Napoleon of the
Present War.” But the action at Rich Mountain decided nothing and McClellan
didn’t win the Civil War any more than Petraeus won the Iraq War.
not the generals who have let us down, but the politicians to whom they
supposedly report and from whom they nominally take their orders. Of course,
under the heading of politician, we quickly come to our current
commander-in-chief. Yet it would be manifestly unfair to blame President Trump
for the mess he inherited, even if he is presently engaged in making
failure is a collective one, to which several presidents and both political
parties have contributed over the years. Although the carnage may not be as
horrific today as it was on the European battlefields on the Western and
Eastern Fronts, members of our political class are failing us as strikingly and
repeatedly as the political leaders of Great Britain, France, and Germany
failed their peoples back then. They have abdicated responsibility for policy
to our own homegrown equivalents of Haig, Foch, Petain, Hindenburg, and
Ludendorff. Their failure is unforgivable.
midterm elections are just months away and another presidential election
already looms. Who will be the political leader with the courage and presence
of mind to declare: “Enough! Stop this madness!” Man or woman, straight or gay,
black, brown, or white, that person will deserve the nation’s gratitude and the
support of the electorate.
that occurs, however, the American penchant for war will stretch on toward
infinity. No doubt Saudi and Israeli leaders will cheer, Europeans who remember
their Great War will scratch their heads in wonder, and the Chinese will laugh
themselves silly. Meanwhile, issues of genuinely strategic importance — climate
change offers one obvious example — will continue to be treated like an
afterthought. As for the gravy train, it will roll on.