William 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.
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.
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