The New American Way of War

Andrew Bacevich

Not long ago, Greg Jaffe, the Washington Post’s military correspondent, wrote that ‘this is the American era of endless war.’ Endless war manifestly does not suggest any eagerness to use military power with an eye towards liberating or pacifying countries governed by regimes that Washington happens to dislike. Post-9/11 experiments along those lines in Iraq and Afghanistan yielded little but disappointment. The American people have lost their stomach for invasions that lead to long-term military occupations, with all that implies in terms of casualties suffered and money poured down the drain. When Robert Gates said that anyone advising a future president ‘to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined’, he was codifying sentiments that had long since found favour with the American public.

For a democracy, waging endless war poses a challenge. There are essentially two ways to do it. The first is for the state to persuade the people that the country faces an existential threat. This is what the Bush administration attempted to do after 9/11, for a time with notable success. Scaremongering made possible the invasion of Iraq. Had Operation Iraqi Freedom produced the victory expected by its architects, scaremongering would probably have led in due course to Operation Iranian Freedom and Operation Syrian Freedom. But Iraq led to an outcome that Americans proved unwilling to underwrite.

The second way is for the state to insulate the people from war’s effects, thereby freeing itself from constraints. A people untouched (or seemingly untouched) by war are far less likely to care about it. Persuaded that they have no skin in the game, they will permit the state to do whatever it wishes to do. This is the approach the Obama administration is now pursuing: first through the expanded use of aerial drones for both intelligence gathering and ‘targeted’ assassination; and, second, through the expanded deployment of covert special operations forces around the world, such as the team that killed Osama bin Laden. The New York Times reported today that the head of the Special Operations Command ‘is seeking new authority to move his forces faster and outside of normal Pentagon deployment channels’.

Drones and special forces are the essential elements of a new American way of war, conducted largely in secret with minimal oversight or accountability and disregarding established concepts of sovereignty and international law. Bush’s critics charge him with being a warmonger. But Obama has surpassed his predecessor in shedding any remaining restraints on waging war.

How exactly the new American way of war will promote the longterm well-being of the United States is unclear. Indeed, the question goes almost unasked. All we know is that there are a lot of people out there who qualify as bad guys. And we aim to kill them all.


  • 14 February 2012 at 8:52am
    Say No to Corporate America says:
    Another aspect of the 'New American Way of War' is the army of "Private" security contractors like those used in Afghanistan and Iraq (a much higher cost to tax-payers).

    War isn't over in Iraq, it's just privatized!

    Iraq government refused to continue to give immunity to US troops beyond 2011 so US just sent more private contractors. It's just semantics when military troops pulled out in Dec and private contractors sent in January. It's hard to say how many are there now but the Wartime Contracting Commission report released in August 2011, there are more than 260,000 private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than the number of ground troops in both countries.

    Private contractors are making a killing. The annual base pay for an American soldier is around $19,000 and the contractors are reportedly pulling in between $150,000 - $250,000 per year.

    War for profit, bombing from remote controlled drones and an American public that is lied to and too far removed from the reality of war, all make for a very bad mix. A report from Brookings Institute said drones kill 10 civilians for one insurgent so it seems that creates enemies. The drone operator may be removed from the bomb but I'm sure it has a profound impact on his/her psyche nonetheless.

    The MIC is ignoring international law abroad and the TIC (Terrorism Industrial Complex) is ignoring Constitutional law at home (indefinite detention, Patriot Act, NDAA 2012 etc). It makes for perpetual war and that is not good for the well-being of anyone. It seems to me there is just one big 'War on People'

  • 14 February 2012 at 9:17am
    George Hoffman says:
    An erroneous assumption has been made in your argument. Namely, that America "for a democracy, waging endless war poses a challenge."
    President Obama conducts his war policies with the impunity of a constitutional dictatorship, as journalist Mark Danner noted in an article in The New York Review of Books. Even the Republicans, who have fought him relentlessly on federal entitlements and the budget deficit, defer to to him when it comes to his executive powers as a war president. And in a recent poll a majority of citizens who identify themselves as liberals supported the targeted assassination of Anwar al-Alawki, an American citizen in Yemen, by a drone attack. They would have been up in arms if President Bush had authorized that attack. So much for moral principles among liberals in America.
    But I agree with you that President Obama will continue to base his military strategy upon the use coordinated of drones and special forces operations. Drones are cost-effective, and the special forces have became the answer to a counter-insurgency policy within the armed forces, which evaded them in Afghanistan against the Taliban. The "shock and awe" days are over. Covert operations offer the best option and cover for President Obama.
    "All we know is there are a lot of people out there who qualify as bad guys. And we aim to kill them all."
    I agree. Finally after all these years, President Obama has finally found "a target-rich environment" that Secretary of Defense David Rumsfeld searched for so frantically during his tenure in the Bush administration.
    And who are the bad guys? Whoever President Obama thinks they are. The Imperial Presidency has been magically resurrected from a college professor who once taught constitutional law.

  • 17 February 2012 at 3:10pm
    SamShropshireUS says:
    Who stands to benefit from an endless state of way? The US/transnational military industrial complex, of course. What we need is a US Department of Peace and a US/international military that is enthusiastically willing to take on the responsibilities of the US Peace Corps (

  • 18 February 2012 at 2:20am
    aalkeilani says:
    Can the US try this new war paradigm in Syria? Pretty please?

    • 23 February 2012 at 1:15pm
      George Hoffman says: @ aalkeilani
      aalkeilani, I really don't think that's a viable political option right now in the land of the brave and the home of the free.
      My fellow Americans are just plain fatigued after the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq and are licking their wounds. Confronted by two more foreign policy debacles, our disillusionment with frontier justice has made us turn inward. Cowboy movies that have gone south of the Rio Bravo. There were too many uppity Indians once again.
      I feel your pain, as President Bill Clinton was always telling us. But the last proxy war with Russia and China only ended in defeat and humiliation in Vietnam, the prequel to the two wars mentioned above.