The United States has been at war continuously since 2001, and by most metrics, this is the longest war in our history – with no signs of ending anytime soon. But it's a profoundly different kind of war experience for several reasons, and this article (almost accidentally) gives an interesting perspective on that.
"The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign."
This, I think, is a key insight: we are experiencing war now as a chronic, rather than acute, phenomenon. Several things have enabled this. First is the fact that the wars we have been fighting in the past decades (with the exception of some idiotic bungling in Iraq in 2003) have not been wars against specific foes with concrete objectives; rather, they have been long-term holding actions against whoever happens to be fighting our troops, be it al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, arbitrary sides of a chaotic civil war in Iraq, or ISIS in the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. The very name "War on Terror" indicates its infinite duration; having no particular enemies, it can have no clear goals.
Second is a combination of changes which mean that wars can be operated without requiring the full commitment of US resources – most importantly, that perpetually scarce resource of political attention. The most important change was probably the elimination of the draft; in an all-volunteer force, membership in the military is highly socially separated, so that you either know a lot of people in the military or you know none. As military families tend to come from political "outsider" classes, this makes it very easy to go on sending troops and never having this be front and center in the press. (And it also makes it very easy to ignore the costs of war on these families, or to not talk about what properly funding the VA would look like)
Another such technology has been the increasing rise in asymmetric warfare on our part, especially the use of armed drones in areas like Yemen. Bombing raids against semi-military targets (typically individuals who mission planners have concluded are military targets, but who are living and targeted within a civilian environment) are routine, but highly classified and so never discussed. Even without classification, the press has generally shied away from any mention of it; so when American weapons were used by Saudi proxies to kill nearly 100 people at a market in Yemen in March, nearly the entire European-language press, from Fox News to the BBC, said nothing.*
This creates a deadly form of blindness: the Arabic and Farsi-language press most certainly did
cover this, just as they cover all such stories. You can imagine how our outcry would be if a foreign country bombed a shopping mall and our government were powerless to react; outcry over there was no smaller, and for the same reason. But because the press never discusses these matters, we find ourselves shocked and surprised when we are attacked.
"Why do they hate us?," one facile article after another writes; if it's from a left-wing newspaper, it's because of our cultural imperialism, and if it's from a right-wing newspaper, it's because of our freedom, and both smack of pompous self-justification: "it's because we're so damned powerful and great." The suggestion that, just maybe, people in these countries aren't particularly different from us, and the things that upset them are things which are actually pretty upsetting, almost never gets aired.
You may think that this is an anti-war article. Actually, it's not.
The fact is that chronic warfare is the rule in human history, not the exception. Giant set-piece wars like those of the 19th and 20th centuries are (thankfully) the anomalies. The wars we are seeing now are the chronic consequence of the ultimate limitation of resources. There is good reason to believe that some of them, at least, are reasonable choices: for example, ISIS is determined to be a bloodthirsty, expansionist force, and any solution to the longer-term problems of the region almost certainly will need to begin with their military defeat.
What this article is against is blindness. We cannot fight chronic wars for the rest of American history without being aware of what we are fighting, how we are fighting, and why we are fighting it. Our tactical decisions today in Yemen – to contain a politically unstable area in which groups like al-Qaeda may form a powerful foothold with a combination of continuous (highly classified) drone strikes from bases in Africa and the funding, quasi-managing, and arming of Saudi proxy forces, as a way to avoid the costs of a direct on-the-ground military intervention there – are not obvious and will have serious long-term consequences for the future. The children growing up in Yemen today will not see Americans as heroes; they will see them as monsters, an unknowable enemy which blows people up out of a clear blue sky for reasons nobody understands. Is this the right choice of costs and benefits? Are there other ways we could approach this problem which would be wiser?
Or take our military deployments. While we're no longer in quite as much chaos as in the mid-2000's, where stop-loss orders and blue-green rotations were feeding every available service member into the Middle East for years on end, the way we're fighting these chronic wars has led to a profound change in the nature of military life, and especially of family life for soldiers. What support systems do we need to be offering? Does it make sense to turn soldiering into a specialized field, the province of just a subset of the population, or does the nature of war (and of the political decisions that come with it) require that we share this across all of society to avoid either going to war foolishly or having a military elite take over?
I think that this article's appraisal of warfare as a chronic condition is a very astute one, and it's one worth considering seriously. Chronic and acute conditions are managed very differently. With medical conditions, the objective is no longer to end the condition (which is not generally possible), but to live as healthy and meaningful a life as possible in its presence. With political conditions, the options are no different – and a decision to "manage" the condition by a process of willful ignorance is a profoundly terrible one. We cannot allow the ordinariness and continuity of war to make it invisible to us, any more than one could manage diabetes by deciding not to think about it.
* You can see one of the few English-language coverages of this at The Intercept, which ran an excellent and well-researched story: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/07/u-s-bombs-were-used-in-saudi-led-attack-on-market-in-yemen-rights-group-finds/