Permanent State of Remote War

predator droneWilliam J. Astore, retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), has a post recently on the remoteness of American wars from the American people:

America’s wars are remote.  They’re remote from us geographically, remote from us emotionally (unless you’re serving in the military or have a close relative or friend who serves), and remote from our major media outlets, which have given us no compelling narrative about them, except that they’re being fought by “America’s heroes”against foreign terrorists and evil-doers.  They’re even being fought, in significant part, by remote control—by robotic drones “piloted” by ground-based operators from a secret network of bases located hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the danger of the battlefield.

Their remoteness, which breeds detachment if not complacency at home, is no accident.  Indeed, it’s a product of the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq were wars of choice, not wars of necessity.  It’s a product of the fact that we’ve chosen to create a “warrior” or “war fighter” caste in this country, which we send with few concerns and fewer qualms to prosecute Washington’s foreign wars of choice.

Astore goes on to argue that  wars of choice have led to “a state of permanent remote war” that “has weakened our military, drained our treasury, and erodedour rights and freedoms.”

The engagement of the people with a nation’s wars has been central to ideas about warfare.  War theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote of the people as both an engine and a restraint on warfare.  Clausewitz’s “wonderful trinity,” describes the nature of war as “composed of the original violence of its elements, hatred and animosity, which may be looked upon as blind instinct; of the play of probabilities and chance, which make it a free activity of the soul; and of the subordinate nature of a political instrument, by which it belongs purely to the reason.”  The trinity is often reduced to those Clausewitz thought to embody these elements:  the people, the military, and the government.

The emotional element of war, centered in the people, can help motivate a nation to warfare.  But the people can also rein in warfare.  When the costs of war are too great, the people are thought to lose their will to fight, hampering the nation’s ability to pursue war.

But what happens if the people are never in engaged in a war in the first place? This where Astore’s point is so important.  The remoteness of the American people from American wars, he argues, enables the nation’s wars of choice.  The absence of the people — the embodiment of the emotional element Clausewitz thought was a central feature of warfare — means that the people do not tire of the costs of war.  The people’s remoteness and isolation from war undermines their traditional role as a restraint.

Astore writes:

As Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it recently to Time:  “Long term, if the military drifts away from its people in this country, that is a catastrophic outcome we as a country can’t tolerate.”

One of the consequences of this development appears to be our current “permanent state of remote war.”

Mary L. Dudziak
War Time 


  1. says

    Mary points out that Iraq and Afghanistan were elective wars, and that elective wars have been enabled by creation of a ‘warrior caste’ – i.e. the volunteer arm services. A more complete history would note that today’s reliance on volunteers likely arose not from a conscious plan for remote warmongering but rather from recognition of Lyndon Johnson’s key and huge mistake in fighting the Vietnam war – a mistake which personally cost him hope of reelection in 1968: reliance instead on unwilling unmotivated middle-class draftees.

    I agree with prior commenter Joe (no surname, not me) that a key and even necessary tool against misbegotten US warfare in distant ‘target’ lands is to deliberately foster psychological bonds between our people and ‘leaders’ and the ordinary people in those lands.

    Notice that I say ‘misbegotten’. Some relatively benign warfare will actually be encouraged if we felt closer to the ordinary folk. It’s in fact truly ignoble that, for all our interventions electively in the Mideast region, we give no no-fly sanctuary to the oppressed Syrians, we do nothing against Bashir’s genocides in Darfur and south Sudan, and only finally are we sending all of 100 troops to help hunt down that butcher of central Africa – Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

    Arguably, even the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan had their initial good side, in that we could sympathize with the common folk oppressed by Saddam and by Taliban supporters of Osama. But the misbegotten nature of these wars is revealed by the basic fact that in each case the massive US presence continued well beyond the excuse: beyond the death of Saddam and any belief that Osama was to be found in Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan.

    The biggest obstacle to bonding between American ‘leaders’ and ordinary folk abroad is that already our ‘leaders’ – in the political <1% oligarchy – scarcely bond with the rest of us 99% even at home. The only real solution to that will come when the thus-far uncomprehending 99% are finally moved to reject 225 years of pseudo-patriotic propaganda which extols our constitutional Roman-republic-style oligarchy as a form of 'democracy'.

  2. Joe says

    A possible restraint with which we can oppose remoteness explained in the article is a reduction in psychological alienation in the minds of people and political “leadership” in the U.S. from the people living in the target lands.

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