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How War Became Absurd — Again

With a massive, growing gap between our military goals and actual outcomes, we must acknowledge that U.S. strategy has hit a dead end.

The October 1955 issue of Harper’s magazine featured a trio of essays grouped together under the heading “How War Became Absurd.” Leading off was an article by Bernard Brodie, then a prominent theorist in the arcane field of study known as nuclear strategy, titled “Strategy Hits a Dead End.”

Today Brodie is all but forgotten. With its abstruse vocabulary of deterrence and decapitation, counterforce and countervalue, first strike and second strike, nuclear strategy attracts about as much contemporary interest as slide rules or reel-to-reel tape recorders. Even Hollywood, which once regularly churned out movies hyping the horrors of nuclear war, has seemingly moved on to other cataclysmic scenarios. Yet the issues that troubled Brodie back during Eisenhower’s first term as president have lost none of their salience.

The advent of thermonuclear weapons, Brodie claimed in 1955, had made “every other comparable development of the entire five or six thousand years of recorded time pale in importance.” One immediate result was to rob war of plausible purpose. Writing only a decade after World War II, Brodie insisted that “the military ideas and axioms of the past” were becoming “inapplicable.” For the foreseeable future, armed conflict itself would be suicidal, nihilistic, and, worse still, politically useless. “War is rational,” he wrote, “only insofar as it safeguards or carries forward the political interests of the state.” It appeared to Brodie that “no idea could be further from the minds of the people who presume to discuss national politics and strategy.”

The people to whom Brodie scathingly referred were his fellow defense intellectuals and the cadre of senior military officers obsessing about the prospect of World War III, egged on by insider journalists pleased (like their present-day successors) to pose as authorities on all things military. By the mid-1950s, Brodie charged, theorizing about nuclear war had become an end in itself, divorced from larger questions related to the nation’s actual wellbeing. Hence his conviction that “the end of strategy as we have known it” was at hand.

While Brodie identified the need to devise “ways of using military power which are not orgiastic,” he expressed little hope of such an effort succeeding. On that point, he erred. In fact, large-scale field experiments in non-orgiastic armed conflict had by then already occurred in Korea and French Indochina. Ever the chameleon, war was already adjusting itself to the existence of nuclear weapons even before Brodie’s article appeared.

If pursued with the right mix of intelligence, ruthlessness, and calculated restraint, war remained potentially purposeful, notwithstanding the ominous possibility of Armageddon hovering in the background. If conducted fecklessly, however, war could indeed verge on becoming nihilistic, as the United States demonstrated a decade later when it plunged into Vietnam. So Brodie’s pessimism, although understandable, was overstated. War was finding ways to adapt and to persist.

As it turned out, despite concerns about triggering a nuclear holocaust, no nation demonstrated a greater propensity for waging non-nuclear war than did the United States, even as it held in reserve a vast nuclear arsenal of thousands of weapons. Especially after the passing of the Cold War reduced the likelihood of a life-extinguishing nuclear spasm to near zero, the U.S. military embarked upon a grand experiment premised on the conviction that tapping the potential of advanced technology holds the key to maximizing the utility of war. Brodie’s successors as military theorists persuaded themselves that speed and precision offered the possibility of perfecting war, with clean and decisive victory the surefire result. Thus was born what came to be called the “revolution in military affairs,” another source of arcane and obfuscating vocabulary.

Roughly four decades since its inception, we are now in a position to evaluate the merits of this grand experiment. Sadly, to judge by what we’ve achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan, the results affirm Brodie’s essential finding of 65 years ago. Among the people who drive the national conversation about military affairs, safeguarding and carrying forward the interests of the state, not to mention the wellbeing of the American people, once more figure as no more than an afterthought. The political center, encompassing both the mainstream right and the mainstream left, has abandoned even the pretense of trying to align existing military practice with the national interest. The Pentagon proceeds on autopilot.

It is a striking feature of contemporary politics. On any number of core issues—justice, equality, fairness, opportunity, rights, education, amending historical wrongs—Americans find plenty to talk about, but on war, near silence reigns. Supporting the troops is mandatory; attending to what they are tasked with doing, and with what result, is optional.

During the 1950s, the exponential growth of the U.S. nuclear strike force alarmed Brodie and appalled even the nation’s elected commander-in-chief. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower felt compelled to warn his fellow citizens of the threat to their “liberties and democratic processes” posed by what he called “the military-industrial complex.”

In our present political moment, only the most naïve or inattentive citizen will take our liberties and democratic processes for granted. Yet in Washington the absurdity of U.S. military policy, as expressed by the disparity between effort and outcomes, goes almost entirely ignored.

Donald Trump famously promised to “end endless wars,” and he has not. Loath to concur with Trump about anything, Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party shy away from making such promises. The likelihood of Washington rediscovering strategy anytime soon is on a par with either party declaring its fealty to a balanced budget.

Restoring the United States to health after the apocalyptic events of 2020 will require concerted action on many fronts. No such restoration will succeed unless it includes a reckoning with the grotesque misuse of U.S. military power in recent decades. The nation could use a vibrant nonpartisan antiwar movement comparable, say, to Black Lives Matter. Candid acknowledgment that U.S. strategy has indeed hit a dead end would constitute a step in the right direction.

Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, is TAC’s writer-at-large.

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