Chapter One: Perpetual War chapter one PERPETUAL WAR
In today’s perpetual news machine, the unspoken first commandment is to never stop. I’ve borne witness to this, working as an on-air analyst, journalist, and national security expert over two decades. I’ve been in the news trenches covering the 9/11 attacks, wars in the Middle East and Africa, and everything from nuclear weapons to domestic watchlists.
During the 2016 presidential campaign season, NBC News asked me to join their new investigative reporting unit. My job was to bring in the big national security stories—beyond the day-to-day.
What I proposed to report on was perpetual war, a deeply entrenched and inherently invisible system that has taken hold of our government and our society—one that not only controls how we navigate our way in the world but also influences every other priority. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have spread throughout the Middle East and into Africa. Somehow, no matter what happens in the countries where we are fighting, despite continual declarations of success—killing terrorist leaders, winning battles, freeing territory—the fighting never diminishes. And, to put it bluntly, despite so much activity, despite the sacrifice of so many lives, despite enormous cost, and despite countless excuses and justifications behind why we cannot stop fighting, we are neither defeating our enemies nor do we ever become more secure.
Then Donald Trump happened.
When in the first week
of the administration a disastrous special operations raid went down in Yemen and the new national security advisor, retired general Michael Flynn, rushed to the microphone to threaten Tehran, I thought, with 9/11 fading and a seemingly more aggressive president taking over from Barack Obama, that America might finally pay attention to its many wars, that this system would finally have its reckoning. Pentagon sources told me that officers felt pressured to produce a quick win for Donald Trump and that, in rushing to do so, a Navy SEAL died unnecessarily. An operation justified to weaken Al Qaeda was dragging America into Yemen’s civil war. What is more, these same sources said, the raid would never have happened had the Obama White House not approved it.
To me, that Yemen raid seemed a tangible way not just to illustrate our lack of attention but to serve as a metaphor for how the never-ending fight sustained itself. Over the months that I worked on the investigation, I uncovered the clandestine fabric of American special operations, secret agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—even a clandestine war with Iran. And yet because Donald Trump had taken over the news, all the public heard was former Obama administration officials and national security gatekeepers telling them how Donald Trump was doing everything wrong and how they had done everything right.
Over the next six months my investigation into perpetual war grew increasingly out of step with this now singular message. A long investigation scheduled to appear on Dateline
, NBC’s marquee prime-time investigative program, got cut back and buried to air on a weekend morning. And even there, a story that I thought should span two administrations and show an autonomous system operating regardless of who was president transformed into one centered on an interview with the dead sailor’s father, who was denouncing Donald Trump.
Then North Korea rocketed into the news. As the Navy built up an armada, and as the Air Force brought in bombers, news coverage skewed. It was as if Donald Trump were at the helm of every aircraft carrier and the pilot of every airplane. And even worse, in the frenzy to convey how dangerous Donald Trump was, as if he were responsible for Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, the news media filled with scaremongering and superficial accounts: that North Korea could not only now attack Hawaii and the West Coast but that it could also destroy a powerless South Korea and defeat any American counterattack. News stories lazily reported that Kim Jung-un possessed “the fourth largest army in the world,” the exact formulation used decades earlier to justify war with Iraq. It was a misleading picture of military might. The message conveyed was that America had no real options other than a perpetual standoff. No one seemed interested in the fact that over the last twenty years the U.S. military had transformed its war-fighting capacity, accruing advantages that not only explained the North’s fears but also paved the way for new solutions.
Then interest in North Korea waned as the next story took over. By the end of Donald Trump’s first year, reporting anything that did not feed the breathless machinery of presidential missteps and wrongdoings floundered. And not only that, but NBC and the rest of television was saturated with former national security bigwigs and retired generals telling America how things should be done. I tried to point out that these paid commentators, Obama and Bush administration officials alike, were the very makers of our global mess. On their watch, everything—everything
—had gotten worse. They had presided over quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. They had overseen North Korea going nuclear. Under their tenure they had watched as the Islamic State rampaged, lodged the United States in Yemen, and moved perpetual war into Africa. They had even presided over the creation of a new cold war with Russia and China, backing a new generation of nuclear weapons.
Stranger still, then, was a subtle narrative building (not just at NBC) that somehow these makers of perpetual war and the secret agencies of government that they represented—the so-called deep state—were going to save America from the new president’s recklessness—or, even worse, his supposed treason. Forgotten in the deification of these supposed saviors were their legacies, their histories of misdeeds, their violations of civil liberties, and, more recently, their forays into torture and secret prisons and warrantless surveillance. Former officials now spouted purported wisdom about the world and the threats, those giving them airtime ignoring how they and their very agencies had proven wrong so many times in the past, misinterpreting everything from the fall of the Soviet Union to Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the very emergence of ISIS.
When I say Donald Trump happened, what I mean is that he is such a gigantic presence that he shifted our definition of national security. As the new president proposed a Muslim travel ban and pushed a border wall, as he attacked friends and allies, as he insulted his own intelligence community while complimenting Vladimir Putin, he
came to embody instability. Amidst mounting allegations of wrongdoing and even lawbreaking, and with a backdrop of Russian interference in America’s domestic affairs, many people came to believe that President Trump was the greatest threat to America. And not only that, but that the new president was going to blow up the world.
But to give him some credit, Donald Trump, in his own impetuous way, was also questioning what he called America’s endless wars. He was right to do so, just as many in the national security establishment were right to worry about how he would go about withdrawing. And yet the debate became the national security status quo versus Donald Trump. And whether they intended to do so or not, the news media and the national security experts ended up arguing that nothing should or could change. With Syria and Afghanistan, when Trump said he wanted to withdraw, they supported continued fighting. On North Korea, when Trump said he wanted to denuclearize, they argued that it wasn’t possible, and even that it wasn’t worth trying. On Russia, they questioned why the president wasn’t being more
offensive. On Iran, they practically pushed for Trump to expand America’s battlefield.
When I suggested to editors and bosses that Donald Trump might be right in some of his scatterbrained intuitions, I remember being met with astonishment. I argued that we’d long ago stopped asking what it was we were really fighting for, how much we were accomplishing, or what was the desired ending. After nearly two years of arguing, and as the scope of news coverage shrunk to this one man, I left in frustration, writing an open letter to my colleagues in which I bemoaned the “Trump circus” and the news media’s transformation into one of perpetual war’s many enablers.
“I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting,” I wrote. “I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders.”
That letter went viral in January 2019. I was flooded with invitations to speak out. Those requests instantly affirmed my unease. For all across the news media, as I tried to make the case that we had done a disservice in not reporting more aggressively on perpetual war, I found myself being asked about Donald Trump. And the news media.
“The national security community itself has gotten stronger and has gained strength under Donald Trump,” I said on CNN, “and part of our responsibility as journalists is to cover the government, not just the president.” To demonstrate our lack of engagement with and knowledge of America’s wars, I asked the host Brian Stelter if he could name the ten countries around the world that the United States was currently bombing.
“I can’t,” he responded.
And here’s the tragic punch line: I’m not sure that I got that number right. It’s probably more countries than ten. Officially, I knew then that on any given day the United States was killing terrorists and bombing in at least
ten different countries. But there were others, more obscure—Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Uganda—where I also knew that American forces were secretly operating. In fact,
the so-called global war on terror engaged the U.S. military in fifty-five different countries. And there were more places where
our “allies”—a total of eighty nations and counting—were killing on our behalf. Indeed, American special operations forces were routinely present in more than ninety countries, sometimes with partners and sometimes unilaterally. And
only a quarter of those countries were officially acknowledged.
I’ve been a student of this world for more than forty-five years, since I joined the Army in 1974. Trained as an intelligence analyst and assigned to West Berlin, I was focused on the physical manifestation of the Cold War—Soviet weapons, bases, military units—a where
and a what
that cut to the core of what really goes on: “capabilities and not intentions” we used to say, beyond the words of politicians and the news media coverage. When I got out of the military and started writing about the American military, I approached the United States in the same way, endeavoring to methodically piece together a big picture—a true picture—from the smallest details. My belief then, as it is now, is that these tiny pieces accumulate into a physical machine, and a larger truth, more powerful than whoever is president. What is more, this machine in its many parts emits its own energies—like a black hole—with hidden and unintended consequences, provoking the other side, creating crisis, constraining change.
Given that we are talking about national security, another feature of this machine is that so much of what it does is intentionally kept secret. That secrecy, I’ve also come to learn, is not just directed at America’s adversaries. It also serves to defend the machine, to keep it out of view of the public and the news media, from congressional overseers, and even from insiders with alternate views. During the Cold War, and today during perpetual war, one of the greatest consequences of secrecy is that very few people—even government officials—have a complete grasp of the total physical system. And not only that, but the stimuli emitted by the machine, demanding day-to-day decisions and constant effort to forestall crisis if a wrong move is made, keeps insiders focused on the immediate rather than the big picture.
During the Cold War, a misstep in the nuclear machine might have led to nuclear war, and this created a world of cautious deliberation and a general resistance to change. Perpetual war follows a similar pattern, the fear being that letting up anywhere might result in another terrorist attack as catastrophic as 9/11. Where the two eras further intersect is in the presence of a disruptive leader. We forget that Ronald Reagan—with all of his Star Wars craziness and neutron bomb enthusiasm—was outrageous and considered ignorant and dangerous. And yet his disruptions challenged the entire fabric of deterrence, and his musing about disarmament led to the single greatest shift in ending the Cold War. So too did Donald Trump’s disregard for the conventions of perpetual war open the way to diminish its influence and find an end. Even before coronavirus I thought that would be his legacy.
Although Donald Trump continues to dominate the news, as I write this, coronavirus promises to reorder national security priorities, even to close the chapter on 9/11. As changes are contemplated, it is essential to keep the focus on the big picture of war making’s physicality. Today, a gigantic physical superstructure sustains endless warfare. Given the participation of half the countries on earth, it is extraordinarily complex. It is made up of bases and outposts, air and sea operations only tentatively connected to the ground, and it includes robust clandestine forces. And, befitting this modern era, much of this perpetual war infrastructure is a globe-straddling network of communications and sensing, largely invisible even as it “wires” together the planet into a single system. Like the nuclear system that preceded it, few have a grasp of the entirety. People who work within the war infrastructure, both the decision makers and the participants, are largely oblivious to the totality.
The perpetual-war machine also reverberates and transforms the world by militarizing foreign policy and nation-state relations in areas that have little or nothing to do with terrorism. The list of additional activities—countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, dealing with long-range missiles and drones now owned by all, fighting cyber threats, defeating piracy, policing the drug trade and stemming transnational organized crime, stopping illegal migration and human trafficking—creates more infrastructure and is more stimuli and more to orchestrate. Though justified as necessary to deal with the roots of terrorism, these activities have expanded military missions and diffused the main effort.
And finally, perpetual war transforms the world by promoting greater domestic militarization and challenging the liberal multilateral order. Authoritarianism flourishes around the globe. The age of cooperative globalization that many hoped would replace the five decades of the Cold War and lead to an era of peacekeeping has slowly disintegrated. Nationalism gains strength throughout Europe and spreads onto other continents. NATO—the Western heart of internationalism—sleepwalks toward global domination. The United Nations unites no one and has become a powerless bystander. Even the reliable global peacemakers of the past like Sweden are bolstering their militaries and taking sides.
What started as the “global war on terror” after 9/11, what was rechristened “
countering violent extremism”
by President Obama, what Donald Trump calls “endless war,” what the news media refers to as “forever war,” and what weary generals describe as “fifth-generation warfare,” “hybrid war,” war in “the gray zone,” and “the long war,” is what I call “perpetual war.”
The costs have been astronomical. Since 9/11,
nearly 11,000 Americans have died fighting. More than
53,000 have been physically broken, while countless more have been inflicted with psychological injuries. Because of secrecy, that number of deaths is thousands more than most people think. That’s because the widely accepted number of American deaths—that over 7,000 soldiers
have been killed—excludes the number of private contractors who have also died. These are civilians, some highly skilled technicians, but some just security guards, who have become an increasingly large proportion of the machine, sometimes added when host countries don’t want to see people in uniform, sometimes added because the military itself wants to obscure how many people are engaged in the fight. By 2018 the
number of contractors killed began to exceed the number of soldiers. Not only does this say something profound about how out of view perpetual war has become; it also shows how distanced we have become from the physical realities on the ground. For a country that so reveres its fallen warriors, so many unnoticed and unrecognized American deaths are a
double standard, both for the government and the public.
Beyond America, how many have died is a gigantic missing piece. After almost twenty years of fighting, the estimates of the civilian toll range from a few hundred thousand to as many as two million killed, most as a result of the chaos that has come to dominate where we fight. Millions more have been driven from their homes, causing a refugee crisis that the United Nations calls the
worst since World War II. Lurking somewhere behind all of this is an even greater mystery regarding how many terrorists have been killed. No one, not even within U.S. intelligence, has a precise number. The intelligence agencies don’t even know how many terrorists there actually are in the world. The consensus is that
there are probably a couple of hundred thousand, although how many there are seems increasingly lost in definitions of who is a terrorist and, distressingly, how many new ones are created every day.
Fighting against these terrorists are the nearly 8.5 million military personnel of the United States, NATO, and their coalition partners in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Of course
8.5 million troops aren’t fighting
a couple of hundred thousand lightly armed insurgents. It’s an account of the resources available. But the number should illustrate how the war on terrorism is a very different kind of war where conventional forces and arithmetic don’t apply. And as will be seen, it should give some idea of how huge the superstructure is that sustains the few thousand who actually do fight.
Illustrative of how huge the larger perpetual war machine is, not just in forward deployed troops but in the physical base, communications, and intelligence network that sustains them, is an accounting of how much money we spend. Since 2001, warring in foreign lands has cost the American taxpayer
more than $6.5 trillion, a sum more than twice what the government officially reports. That’s
more than the defense budget of all the other nations combined, over six years of spending
. It’s twice the
cost of annual health care for all Americans. It’s
ten times the annual budget of the entire American public school system.
And what is the result? After two decades of fighting, not one country in the Middle East—not one country in the world
—can argue that it is safer today than it was before 9/11. Every country that is now a part of the expanding battlefield of perpetual war—from Pakistan to Lebanon in the Middle East, from Somalia across Africa to Mali, in South and Southeast Asia, and even in Central and South America—is an even greater disaster zone than it was two decades ago.
Whether one is a hawk or a dove, Democrat or Republican, on the left or the right, it’s hard not to concede that the world is an ever more dangerous place. Top national security officials agree. “
We face the most diverse and complex set of threats we have ever seen,” Dan Coats, Trump’s first director of national intelligence, told Congress in 2018. James Clapper, who preceded Coats in the same position in the Obama administration, warned two years earlier with almost identical words, saying additionally that “
unpredictable instability” had become “the new normal.” Marine Corps general Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under both Obama and Trump, said that he thought the planet was in
its most uncertain time since the Second World War. And Dunford’s predecessor, General Martin Dempsey, wrote that “today’s global security environment is
the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service.”
In other words, things have gotten worse as we have waged war. So how did we end up here? Partly the answer is that while those engaged in national security go about doing their jobs, we haven’t done ours. We can argue about why, but we, the citizenry, have taken our eyes off the ball, going about our lives unaffected by war. Much of the reason is that this is just the time we live in, that fewer and fewer people’s lives are touched by war because fewer and fewer soldiers
are needed to sustain the modern machine. The perpetual war system has advanced—and it has
advanced, in the air, in unmanned systems, in the cyber sphere, in space, and most importantly in a network that ties together all of these parts—to where it no longer is represented by armies and navies that once demanded public participation and sacrifice. And attention.
But the machine has also changed internally, able to persist in fighting without absorbing much harm to itself. We aren’t yet at the point where everyone is sitting at a keyboard, but the preponderance of people who work in national security are supporting a very small number who are actually on the ground and in the fight. It is a ratio of hundreds of thousands
to one. The physical reality of actual combat—the sounds and smells of war—has grown distant to nearly everyone in the national security community. It’s a pinnacle of achievement to maximize one’s advantages and not put one’s own people at risk. And yet, if that’s the state of things for those at
war, imagine how and why the public can so easily live as if there were no war at all.
It’s a macabre bargain we live with. After 9/11, it seemed that the United States would pursue terrorists with every means possible and that the war would be ferocious, bloody, and quick. But the American military has its own culture. It fights with the promise that it will not only stop terrorism but also contain the effects of fighting. The American way of war, born of the last three decades in this era of precision, is one of smart weapons and remote instruments and even the newer cyber and electronic acrobatics of hacking into enemy networks and systems. Minimizing soldier deaths and injuries and even
civilian harm facilitates frictionless continuation. I’m not arguing that there isn’t great danger and sacrifice for those few on the ground who actually do fight. But the American way has also become to make war invisible, not just because counter-terrorism demands secrecy, but also because the military assumes that the America public doesn’t want to know because it isn’t prepared to sacrifice. And for that reason the American way of war preserves the enterprise, minimizing outside interference.
Technologically driven and stretched out over many years, one of the unintended consequences of this style of fighting is that time has also allowed more and more terrorists to be manufactured. Despite so much focused effort, despite killing Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, not a single organization has been eliminated. Indeed, new ones constantly emerge, while existing ones disperse and spread to new parts of the world. Unlike any previous conflicts, the dead and the dispossessed are not just victims. In perpetual war, many of them and their relatives become soldiers for future battles. We are now at a point where young men (and women) born after 9/11 are old enough to take up arms against us. And they do.
Still, we should not let images of American weakness prevail. In comparison to others, to our adversaries who don’t have a global network and who haven’t gained twenty years of experience fighting with modern instruments, the truth is that no one compares to the United States in military capacity. I reject that Russia or China are surpassing us or even catching up. They may have lots of things and even bigger weapons, and they may even have developed brute force cyber armies that seem menacing and superior. But where real military capability materializes—in integration, in choreography, in initiative, and in decentralization, and on any global scale—there is no comparison. But while the United States is the most powerful nation militarily, we also have failed in our war against terrorism. Not only is it one of life’s central maxims that one can win every battle and still lose a war, but there’s a more difficult truth that challenges the American self-image. We haven’t won every battle. Our way of war and our style of warfare has never been well suited for this counter-terrorism fight. When we turn the fight over to secret armies, spending so much energy trying to kill terrorist leaders is the wrong approach. And killing terrorists in battle merely condemns us to our own endless assembly line of doing that forever.
In the chapters that follow, I develop a more comprehensive picture of perpetual war and how it thrives, grounding it in examples of actual practices and events. I precisely identify the practitioners who support and protect it, who built this system and operate it within their own set of rules. I show also how counter-terrorism extended the fight not just geographically overseas but also far beyond military missions. The impact has been that perpetual war, particularly at home, is no longer a military affair—that it now incorporates law enforcement and the vague armies of Homeland Security, and even civilian agencies charged with protection of critical infrastructure. Warfare has never been purely a military problem, but the wages of perpetual war have infected the whole of our society while also pushing that very society to have less and less input.
I conclude with three primary proposals. First, that civil society, which has become ever more detached from all things military, develop greater literacy about matters of national security. I argue that the public reengage and make its voice heard. Second, I argue for greater civilian control. I call for a new cadre of civilian experts similar to those who existed during the Cold War: the arms controllers and nuclear experts who became knowledgeable enough to challenge the generals and the status quo. And finally, I propose a “global security index,” a Dow Jones–like tracking tool that would quantitatively measure our state of security—that is, keep an eye on progress or the lack thereof in our constant warring. It is so easy for everyone—national security experts, the news media, politicians—to just focus on the day-to-day, constantly manufacturing ever more threats, never quite getting to the question of whether the continuation of fighting is actually achieving its objectives. A GSX could remedy that, arming the public with a bottom-line assessment driven by big data and not by fear or habit.
Ending perpetual war isn’t a formula, and, as we shall see, its supporters are so broad and ubiquitous that any single set of policy proposals—to stop fighting in this or that country or to eliminate this or that program or organization—runs into arguments and constituencies that are powerful and overwhelming. In the final analysis, ending perpetual war really means a psychological shift, one that derives from understanding the physicality of what’s going on and one that demands an unsentimental look of what we’re actually accomplishing. In Syria or Afghanistan or in the rest of the Middle East, with North Korea and Iran, or even against Russia and China, I make suggestions that I believe will ultimately lead to better outcomes than the tracks we are on. In my proposals, I stack the physical reality of what we are actually doing against the enduring goal:
to protect the American people and to make a safer world for our children. In that regard, perpetual war has been a failure and ending it—really ending it—is essential.