EARLIER THIS year, West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies Program invited me to participate in a panel discussion on the future of warfare. For historians, and particularly for Vietnam War students like me, such requests seem fraught with peril. Given the contentious debate that continues to surround America’s involvement in Vietnam, now fifty years after Lyndon Johnson’s fateful decision to send ground combat troops to Southeast Asia, commenting on the future of warfare obliges conjecture without much evidence. Yet for uniformed officers considering strategic issues and the use of military force, these questions surely are as sensible as they are unavoidable. How can soldiers prepare for future war without thinking about its latest incarnations?
The guidance for the panelists underlined two questions: “What will be the dominant trend in warfare from 2015–2035?” and “How should the U.S. military and government prepare for this trend?” Perhaps shying away from such an imposing query, I found myself dissecting the question itself. The prompt contained a host of assumptions and deeper questions. Would there be, for instance, only one dominant trend over the next twenty years? Could one find in the United States’ last thirteen and a half years of war a certain trajectory of technological or political developments hinting at the future of warfare?
Most importantly, the question seemed to assume, almost reflexively, that the United States would be at war over the next twenty years. (Peace, apparently, was not likely to be a dominant trend.) Such assumptions should give us pause. Yet preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.
This willing acceptance of perpetual war offers a congenial (and lucrative) market for national-security visionaries who glance into the future and offer advice on defense-related topics ranging from cyberwarfare to the use of drones. Pundits offer advice on the “militarization of cyberspace” and the likely arms race that will ensue given the United States’ reliance on drone technology in counterterrorism operations. Other oracles, such as David Kilcullen, have placed their forecasts within an operational environment they see as increasingly crowded, urban and connected, much different from the remote and rural Afghanistan in which Americans have been bogged down for over a decade. Still others, like former British Army officer Robert Johnson, have highlighted Western military officers’ concerns over the legal aspects of wars in which they “will be too constrained to maneuver at all in the future.”
Of course, we should not conflate war and defense. Arguably all nations require a defense strategy, even in times of peace. Yet too few of the predictions on war’s future offer meaningful explanations of the necessity of perpetual war. Rather, they content themselves with statements about national vulnerabilities, the need to meet impending threats (real or hypothetical), or military requirements to keep the country safe. The 2015 National Security Strategy, published in February, offers a case in point. While acknowledging America’s growing economic strength and the benefits of moving beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the document stresses the “risks of an insecure world.” Despite its global power and reach, the United States, we are told, faces a “persistent risk of attacks.” The escalating challenges are manifold—threats to the nation’s cybersecurity, aggression by Russia, rising violent extremism and an evolving danger posed by the catchall menace of “terrorism.” We live in a dangerous world, the document’s authors say, one in which only vigilant nations—led, naturally, by the United States—preemptively rooting out evil can survive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, explanations of the necessity of war have tended to downplay the economic aspects of global engagement. Americans traditionally have been uncomfortable with the word “empire,” even if its current form suggests securing economic access abroad rather than promoting traditional colonialism. Andrew J. Bacevich’s diagnosis that the purpose of American grand strategy, since at least the early 1990s, has been to create “an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms” can seem jarring. Rather more appealing to most are President George W. Bush’s remarks on the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks. In three paragraphs alone, the president employed the word “freedom” ten times. Terrorists feared freedom. Evil enemies, we were told, hated freedom, rejected tolerance and despised dissent. Americans, however, were “advancing freedom and democracy as the great alternatives to repression and radicalism.” War meant liberty triumphing over evil rather than promoting the nation’s economic interests abroad. And so on.