Is There a Case for Endless War?
Painting depicting the battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius, by Pietra da Cortona
Perhaps one of the most maligned ideas today is that of “endless war.” People on both the right and the left in the United States have railed against “endless wars,” and politicians from Donald Trump to Joe Biden have pledged to end them. In the popular imagination, endless wars are like black holes, sucking away lives and resources, with no end in sight, as wasteful as they are pointless.
But could there be a case for endless wars? Are there benefits to engaging in them, and might those benefits outweigh the costs?
The most difficult way to defend endless wars is to defend them in principle, that is to say, to defend waging war perpetually in general.
Is there an argument for that? Perhaps. It goes like this: Practice makes perfect.
Consider this. The purpose of a military is to fight people (and the ability to fight people can be used both offensively and defensively), and one of the main ways of getting good at fighting people is by getting lots of practice fighting people. Indeed, some commentators have said that one of the major advantages the US military has over China’s is that it has way more combat experience, since China’s military hasn’t fought in a war since the 1970s. At present, though, less than 200,000 of America’s 1.3 million active-duty troops are actually deployed, and of that 200,000, only about 91,000 (7% of the total) are deployed in combat zones. If the US were to draw down its forces currently engaged in “endless wars” in the Middle East, that number will shrink even further.
The purpose of a military is to fight people, and one of the main ways of getting good at fighting people is by getting lots of practice fighting people.
Does it seem callous to talk about sacrificing lives so the military can get more practice and become more effective? Consider, though, that in recent years, about twice as many US troops died in routine training accidents than were killed in combat, and some years it’s been four times as many. The US could easily cut this number down by minimizing the amount of training soldiers have to go through, but (along with most other countries) it doesn’t. So, in principle at least, governments already accept a certain casualty rate in order to train a more effective military (though they should certainly try to reduce it).
This doesn’t mean, of course, that a country should pick fights with people for no good reason, or that it should deliberately seek to prolong conflicts, but there are many atrocities being committed or planned around the world, in response to which military intervention would arguably be morally justified. Take the example of Afghanistan, where, last year, the US only had about 12,000 troops (in recent months, the Trump administration cut that number down to just 2,500). In 2020, only 4 US soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan; in 2019, that number was 17; in 2018 it was 13; in 2017, 11; in 2016, 9; in 2015, 10. These are minimal losses, and even with this limited commitment, the US has, in the words of former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, prevented the Taliban from making any “appreciable gains, or gains that they can hold for more than a day or two,” as well as kept it from reimposing its draconian Islamist rule over most of the country and turning it into a hotbed of extremism and militancy. Nor are the financial costs prohibitively expensive: in 2019, the US spent $38 billion in Afghanistan, out of a total military budget of $719 billion, which, at 3.2% of its GDP, is not terribly high. If a country can do good, whilst at the same time giving its military valuable combat experience, and all at relatively low cost, wouldn’t that be a win-win?
US Marines and Afghan National Army soldiers in Helmand Province in 2010 (Picture Credit: Lance Cpl. James Clark)
Since this idea is predicated on the importance of combat experience, though, it’s worth looking at how important combat experience is exactly.
Virtually all the military experts and veterans I spoke to said combat experience is very important for a military. (All the people quoted in this article expressed their views in their personal capacity, and their opinions may not reflect that of their institutions or their governments.)
“The best way to get better at anything is to do more of it,” said Charles Faint, a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, who served in Special Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now the Deputy Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. “So it would seem logical that countries that engage in warfare frequently will be better at it.” At the beginning of WWII, for example, the US military had very little combat experience, and, as a result, performed badly against Vichy and Nazi forces in northern Africa. Its fighting skills improved as the war went on, however, such that it was a much more effective force by the time it invaded continental Europe.
Real combat, it seems, is the ultimate teacher, and no amount of training and simulations can approximate to it. “Exercises, simulations, and modelling all have their benefits,” Faint said, “but they’re rarely accurate. Combat modeling often has something like a 200% error rate. Simulations can’t consider every possible outcome of terrain, weather, and human decision-making. And most exercises don’t accurately account for all aspects of MIDLIFE (military, intelligence, diplomacy, legal, identity, financial, economic) that play into the outcomes of wars. The crucible of modern combat teaches us in ways that simulations, exercises, and models simply can’t. We can train all we want, but we don’t know what really works on the battlefield until we try it there.”
Combat has a way of revealing the weaknesses within a military, and, by imposing a heavy cost for error, is more effective in getting soldiers to reckon with it, weeding out bad assumptions and bad leaders.
“It is one thing to study war, another to develop concepts for how to employ force and to practice doing so, and yet quite another to engage in actual combat operations,” said Dakota Wood, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “It is only when you have a real opponent shooting back at you and doing his utmost to thwart your plans and logistical efforts that you learn what works and what does not.”
US infantry take cover during a firefight with insurgents in Baghdad in 2007 (Picture Credit: Sean A. Foley)
This means there’s no substitute for being in actual combat. China might learn some things from sitting on the sidelines and watching as the US fights in the Middle East, but it’s unlikely to learn half as much as the parties who are actually engaged in it.
But how well does experience in one type of combat translate to another? The value of combat experience, after all, would be limited if it’s highly specific to one type of warfare. How useful, for example, is experience fighting militants in Afghanistan to fighting a great power like China?
On this question there was more ambiguity. David Galluch, who was an explosive ordinance disposal officer in the US Navy, serving in Bahrain and Somalia, is skeptical of the translatability of combat experience. “The kinds of operational and strategic leadership necessary to prosecute campaigns in small wars are totally and fundamentally different than those needed to counter a peer with high technology and a fully-staffed and equipped military,” he said.
“The combat experience you mention only really relates to relatively small tactical engagements as well as the logistical sustainment of a large stabilization force engaged in low- to medium-intensity operations,” said Nicholas Murray, a professor in the Strategy and Policy Department at the US Naval War College. “As such, it is not as directly useful in terms of fighting a bigger war or a more sophisticated opponent.” He pointed to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Though the French had more combat experience from fighting colonial wars against low-tech opponents in Algeria, their army was poorly adapted to fighting the high-tech Prussian army, and was trounced in the war. Just a few years before that, in 1866, the Prussians beat the Austrians in a similar fashion. Although the Austrian army was more experienced, the Prussians made good use of new technologies like railways, telegraphs, breech-loading rifles, and needle guns, to win.
Painting by Georg Bliebtreu depicting the Battle of Koniggratz in 1866, in which Prussia crushed Austria
A former lieutenant colonel in the US Army I spoke to, who served in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and was a military attache in the Asia Pacific (but declined to be named for this story), was more circumspect, acknowledging the general value of combat experience, even to different kinds of warfare – so long as the military doesn’t get fixated on only one type of combat, and recognizes that certain practices that worked in one situation may not work in others. “As long as forces continue to train for high-end combat while alternating with low-intensity combat, it makes everyone much more capable,” he said. “This is where the US is now, operating across the spectrum. When forces do nothing but train for and operate in low-intensity [combat], they risk learning the wrong lessons.”
“As far as translatability, it’s not a direct match,” said Faint, who described significant differences even between fighting in Afghanistan and fighting in Iraq, let alone fighting against an opponent like China. “For example, it was enormously frustrating for me to hear ‘This isn’t the way we did it in Iraq’ from new arrivals to Afghanistan. I served three tours in Iraq and four in Afghanistan, and even though we tried to fight them similarly, at the end of the day they were two very different wars. Iraq was not Afghanistan, and China is not the Iraqi Army. China is certainly not the Taliban. A lot of things we took for granted in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even Syria, such as air supremacy, secure rear areas, and unimpeded logistics, would probably not be there for a major war against China.”
Despite this, though, he said the experience gleaned from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq still gives the US a considerable edge, even in war against another great power. “All of that said, the entire US military, from the tactical to the strategic level, has been stressed and tested by the last 20 years of warfare in ways that I doubt many (any?) other countries’ militaries have. There is a deep bench of very highly trained and experienced people inside the US military who won’t have the same kinds of learning curves and ‘discovery learning’ that personnel in China’s military will have in a large-scale, force-on-force conflict between the two countries.”
But then again, wars, even just low-intensity ones with low costs, can end up going badly, and if they do, instead of making a military more effective, this could even weaken it by damaging its morale. America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with their long durations, lack of direction, and limited (at best) achievements, have likely damaged the morale of its military. “I think the real cost of the wars in question is neither dead soldiers, of whom there are very few, and not dollars, in spite of the vast cost involved, but the continuing demoralization of the armed forces,” said Martin van Creveld, Emeritus Professor of Military History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
And, of course, wars also have a tendency to escalate, such that even “small and manageable conflicts” can grow into large ones, requiring a heavy expenditure of blood and treasure. In sum, the uncertainty involved in war makes engaging in it to train your military impractical.
Whilst there may be no practical case for deliberately seeking out endless wars, it’s a great mistake for countries to develop an irrational fear of them. A blanket refusal to engage in “endless wars,” belies the reality, which is that sometimes it’s not up to a country whether it’s at war or not – it’s at war with someone so long as the latter has the means and the will to attack it. Refusing to engage in a war with him simply means refusing to fight back when he attacks, which will only embolden him.
The United States, for example, was already at war with Al Qaeda long before 9/11. It was at war with Al Qaeda when the terrorist group tried to kill US marines in Yemen in 1992 and when it bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 – the US just didn’t declare war on Al Qaeda and concentrate on fighting it until it brought down the twin towers in 2001. And, just as not taking the war against Al Qaeda seriously enough didn’t stop it from repeatedly attacking the US, neither will any attempt to disengage from that war now. Islamist terrorist groups despise America for its values; they hate it because it’s a beacon of freedom, just as they hate all those who reject their extremist totalitarian rule.
“The term ‘endless wars’ is a pejorative, used to trigger emotional fatigue,” said Craig A. Whiteside, who was a lieutenant colonel in the US Army, served as an infantryman in Iraq, and is now Associate Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College. “War is an activity that both sides engage in, and one side can’t disengage. If we stopped our activities with partners against ISIS and Al Qaeda, those opponents would not stop fighting us. They would always go to war with the US because of their ideology – they identify the US as the source of their problems. With ISIS, there’s no negotiation that can happen with them. They’re never gonna surrender or negotiate.”
“The term ‘endless wars’ is a pejorative, used to trigger emotional fatigue.”
“We may want a war over – we may even declare it over,” said James Mattis, former defense secretary, and former four-star general in the US Marine Corps, criticizing the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, a decision that surrendered American gains in the country and which was immediately followed by the escape of hundreds of ISIS supporters from a detention center, “You can pull your troops out…but ‘the enemy gets the vote,’ we say in the military. And, in this case, if we don’t keep the pressure on, then ISIS will resurge. It’s absolutely a given that they will come back.”
Mourners lay wreaths in Paris after the terrorist attacks perpetrated there by ISIS in 2015, which killed 130 people (Picture Credit: Mstyslav Chernov)
One would have thought the US would have already learned this lesson the hard way. Former President Barack Obama’s decision to prematurely withdraw US troops from Iraq in 2011 (to disengage them from the “endless war” there) allowed ISIS, the most brutal Islamist terrorist group of all, to seize control of nearly a third of the country. Obama was forced to send troops back into Iraq in 2014 to retake the country and end the reign of terror ISIS called a “caliphate,” at considerable cost. “Human rights were violated, there was an attack on a US consulate, and American journalists were killed,” said Whiteside. “Now we’re back in Iraq, and we’re back on their terms.” Because the US declined to fight that war earlier, it ended up having to do so later, and at greater cost. A parallel can be drawn to the policy of appeasement leading up to WWII. The Allies refused to fight Hitler when he invaded the Rhineland in 1936, when they could have nipped his aggression in the bud, they refused to fight him when he took Czechoslovakia in 1938 to early 1939, when they would have had the Czechs on their side and would have won the war much more easily, and so instead they were forced to fight him in September 1939, when he was far stronger and had the backing of Soviet Russia. Refusing to fight fanatics and bullies when they threaten you usually means you’ll end up having to fight them later – and often from a weaker position.
This bodes ill for Afghanistan, which America looks set to abandon to the Taliban. The Taliban harbored Al Qaeda even after 9/11, even when faced with the prospect of war with the United States and being ousted from power, and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t harbor it again. If and when Al Qaeda proceeds to use Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against America once more, the US may well be forced to reinvade the country. As former national security adviser, and former lieutenant general in the US Army, H. R. McMaster warned, withdrawing from the Middle East would only make a bad situation worse. “[W]ithdrawing from the Middle East would neither conciliate the region’s violent passions nor insulate America from them,” he said. “[S]ustained engagement is critical to [the American people’s] future security and prosperity.”
In fact, as Donald Kagan, Emeritus Sterling Professor of Classics and History at Yale University, demonstrated in his great book On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, ironically, excessive reluctance to fight wars can make wars more likely to break out, as certain countries will be more aggressive if they don’t think anyone is able and willing to use force to stop them. Equally ironically, an excessive fear of endless wars can itself make wars endless. As by far the mightiest military power in the world, the US could win most wars very quickly with a serious commitment of troops. Because of the fear of endless wars, however, it often ends up deploying relatively small forces, and so conflicts drag on much longer than they need to. Just as a half-assed coronavirus lockdown may need to be extended indefinitely, fighting a war half-assed can make it endless.
The diatribes against “endless wars” are also frequently misleading because they imply that it’s possible to know from the outset which wars will last for a long time and which won’t, when this is seldom, if ever, the case. “Was there ever a time when we involved ourselves in combat, or found ourselves involved, with any certain knowledge about the time and duration of hostilities?” asked the writer and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens. “Are there two kinds of war, one of them term-limited?”
Leaders are not oracles, and so seldom have the luxury of knowing when a war will end before it even begins, but will have to decide whether to go to war anyway. “The alternative,” said John Stone, Senior Lecturer in War Studies, King’s College London, “is to say that armed force should only be employed in those relatively rare (non-endless) wars where it can deliver a definitive end to some problem. This reduces the options available to policy makers.” The argument against endless wars, therefore, often becomes an argument against going to war at all, for any reason.
The argument against endless wars often becomes an argument against going to war at all, for any reason.
But there are sometimes good reasons to go to war. To defend yourself and to defend your allies, who must know that you have their back if they’re expected to have yours. To beat back tyranny and to prevent mass human rights violations, as so many swore and yet repeatedly failed to do after the Holocaust, as the United States did in WWII to stop Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, as it did in the Korean War to prevent the Kim regime from taking the South (which is why the 50 million people there are now living in one of the richest, freest countries in the world, instead of starving under totalitarian rule), as it did in the Bosnian War to stop Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide against Muslims, and as it’s doing now in the War on Terror to keep Islamist terrorism at bay.
Photo of the Korean peninsula at night from the International Space Station. Note how dark North Korea is compared to South Korea. (Picture Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
Prolonged war does great damage to a society; other than the obvious costs in lives and resources, it makes people on all sides increasingly callous, it empowers those with a penchant and a talent for violence, making civil society and civilian rule more difficult the longer it goes on, and for these reasons, war should always be the last resort. If, as Carl von Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” it should be used only when all other possible means have been exhausted. Countries should only go to war for self-defense, and for the principled reasons mentioned above, and should ensure the war has clear, achievable objectives. The likely costs, as far as it’s possible to estimate them, should be weighed against the likely benefits, not just to itself, but to the rest of the world; a war would only be justified if the costs seem acceptable, and if it seems likely to help more people than it harms.
“There can be pressing cases to intervene and it’s as well to keep in mind when intervening that any conflict is unlikely to be over quickly,” said Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. “[B]ut my sense is that the experience of the past couple of decades has led Western governments to be increasingly reluctant to take that risk. This may mean that there will be more instances of humanitarian distress with no international response, and it may be that at some point that will be found unacceptable, leading to pressures – once again – to get involved.”
Every life matters, and troops should only be deployed judiciously. But there are times when war is preferable to the alternative: to do nothing whilst an enemy attacks you or your allies, or whilst tyranny and atrocities continue to spread, unchecked. In an era when everyone seems to be rushing to condemn “endless wars,” people might forget that.
 These are 2019 figures; the number is probably even lower now.
 To anyone who’s curious about how an error rate can exceed 100%, this can happen when modeling casualty rates, when the real number of casualties is several times higher, or several times lower, than what was projected.
 This is true of any reasonably competent military. Extremely stupid organizations (and people), of course, often seem to learn little to nothing from experience no matter how much of it they get, and end up making the same mistakes over and over again.