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Our Quest For ‘Absolute Security’ Guarantees Forever War

Ah, the illusion of security. Most Americans love it, need it, crave it.

Need an example? Let us examine everyone’s least favorite (and ever present) national ritual. We’ve all been there: you queue up, empty those pockets, undo the belt, (maybe) kick off your shoes, do a final liquid check, and wait your turn for airport security. Depending on the day and the culture of the town, you listen as a cynical, jovial, or sometimes even clever TSA agent rattles off familiar instructions. “No metallic objects…blah blah blah…liquid…ounces…step back…step forward.” Wait, wait some more, then we raise our hands in a—for me—familiar pose of enemy surrender.

If you’re lucky, the whole affair consumes less than 20 minutes. Then you load the plane, do a cursory check for vaguely Arab faces—feel a tinge of liberal guilt about that—and settle in for the miracle of flight.

But realistically the sharper minds among us know we’re not really safe. Motivated terrorists are inevitably smarter than the average TSA agent, and the entire ritual (usually) only deters yesterday’s threat. The rational mind recognizes the illusion of it all. One is never truly safe from terrorism—or lightning strikes for that matter—in any absolute sense. Nevertheless, life goes on. It must.

There’s just one problem. At the macro level, policymakers, politicians, and the public alike actually expect total security from terrorism. Well, at least one kind of terror: as President Trump so loves to enunciate: Radical. Islamic. Terrorism. Never mind that more [1] American deaths stem from right-wing extremists, or that the chances of dying in a terror attack are comparable [2] to drowning in your own bathtub. Because the public, and our elected leaders, demand absolute security from terror, the United States has spent the last decade and a half shipping people like me on one quixotic adventure after another across the Middle East.

Brace yourself for an uncomfortable fact: the blame for today’s indecisive wars doesn’t rest with George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump alone. Rather, these quagmires represent symptoms of an entirely American problem. While it is quite satisfying to blame Iraq and Afghanistan on a group of neoconservative, interventionist zealots [3] in the Bush administration, that explanation will not entirely suffice. A combination of three factors has enabled the lengthy, inconclusive, and unnecessary “wars” of the 21st century: optimism about the efficacy of force, our current all-volunteer system of military service, and a fixation on absolute security.

If you’re a regular reader of TomDispatch [4], you’ve heard me drone on about the dangers of military optimism [5], and you are certainly familiar with Andrew Bacevich’s [6] powerful takedown [7] of the all-volunteer military. That leaves the third tradition: America’s fixation on the mythical search for absolute security.

Here I must invoke critical analysis [8] by the eminent military historian John Shy. Shy identifies several enduring characteristics of American military culture, among them “a concept of military security that was expressed not in relative but in absolute terms.” From the outset, Americans’ inherent military optimism has combined with this distinctive obsession for absolute security. As Shy notes [8], American interpretations of national security are traditionally binary—either “the United States is secure, or it is not; it is threatened, or it is not.” Only that’s not reality. Global geopolitics play out in a vast gray abyss. Some level of threat, insecurity, or uncertainty is inevitable, and to assume otherwise is to seek the impossible. Unfortunately, after 9/11 that’s exactly the path the United States embarked upon: to defeat [9] “evil” and restore the bygone era of “free security.” So here we are, tilting at windmills amidst fruitless campaigns across rather inhospitable sections of the globe.


When combined with fear—which, along with honor and (often economic) interest, are the prime motivators [10] of human behavior—obsession with absolute security led post-9/11 policymakers down the road towards open-ended military deployments. This just wasn’t realistic or smart. Too many places on earth house potential terrorists or anti-American extremists for our military to reasonably handle them all. Moreover, it is unclear whether the deployment of U.S. troops doesn’t in fact do more harm [11] than good. It is now certain that one of Osama bin Laden’s goals in the 9/11 attacks was to lure American ground forces into Islamic Southwest Asia in order to inflame local passions and ignite a millennial holy war. As bin Laden himself declared [12]: “Iraq has become a point of attraction and a restorer of our energies.” Well, mission accomplished!

While intelligence operations, Special Forces raids, and limited conventional incursions are (maybe) necessary and appropriate, prolonged occupations in the Middle East tend only to radicalize the locals and dangerously conflate nationalist with religious resistance. Human beings are a proud lot. We tend to get touchy about having our capitals seized and our streets filled with foreign soldiers. Think Americans would respond any differently? Hardly. Exhibit A: Boston, 1775. Exhibit B: Not one, but two [13] iterations of the film Red Dawn!

President Bush and his advisors wasted no opportunity instilling in the American people a distinct, if convenient, Manichean worldview. It all centered on mythical promises of perfect security. The events of 9/11, we were told, changed [14] everything. The globe was now divided between the forces of good and evil. Bush communicated this quite clearly in an address [15] to the nation just days after 9/11:  “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”  

Such proclamations define the contemporary American quest for absolute security. If terrorism exists, then so does evil, and evil must be swept away to avoid a 9/11 repeat. No one seems to ask whether a relatively small, 10-division, professional, volunteer army is even equipped to rid the world of evil. An even tougher question is whether U.S. military force has any utility in the Mideast these days. Two wars and 16 years in uniform later, this soldier, at least, isn’t so sure. Either way, it’s not the average citizen’s problem. Leave that quandary to a volunteer, warrior caste. The new American way.

But it gets worse. Think for a moment about all the counterproductive [16] decisions this (and previous) administrations have made in this pursuit of absolute security from—“Islamic”—terrorists:

And that’s but a cursory list.

On it goes, the eternal urge for American troops to do something about the over-hyped Islamic. Terrorist. Threat.  A surprisingly bipartisan foreign policy consensus combines with a flourishing military-industrial complex, American armaments [22] industry, and terrified—often by the proclamations of those same politicians—public to ensure there’s likely to be more military interventions in the near future.

Perhaps it is time to shed naïve notions of absolute security and reinstate the American people as agents of national defense. Ever since Nixon ended the draft, the vast majority of Americans have ceased to fear, expect, or even consider national service. The result is an apathetic citizenry disconnected from an all-volunteer, warrior caste. When combined with their obsession over absolute security, American apathy proves the lethal nail in the coffin. Seen in this light, America’s decade of failures appear wholly predictable. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on this and questioning the true—if unpleasant—legacy of the “War on Terror,” as hawks once again beat the drums for the ever expanding interventions in Syria, Iraq, and who knows where else.

Should the U.S. once again escalate its commitments in Iraq, I suspect the outcome will prove disappointing. But who knows: perhaps in the Persian Gulf, the third time’s the charm.

Anyway, I don’t buy it. Here’s one absolute you can bet on: we’ve already lost.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular [23], is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet [24].

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Our Quest For ‘Absolute Security’ Guarantees Forever War"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 23, 2017 @ 11:48 pm

“Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.”

Maybe they should. Laugh.

I won’t back away for a minute that after 9/11 we should have shut down the border. We should overhauled our immigration enforcement.

I remain convinced then a now Iraq was a huge strategic and ethical error, for which we have not yet received consequence. Afghanistan too was overkill and a needless invasion to the goal.

The subsequent meddling only made matters worse. We lost in Iraq. We may lose in Afghanistan.

And I don’t think a draw down is isolationist. I don’t think a serious rethinking of our role in the world is isolationist, but it is required by a nation unhinged till by the event of Sept 11. I won’t budge on illegal immigration and the undermining of the US citizens opportunities by other schemes of foreign labor.

We do have some areas of reasoned joint operations. I think ensuring the security of Niger, until it can secure itself is reasoned.

I wanted get that up front before agreeing with a good deal of this article. I re main guilt ridden about Iraq, because so much tragedy there is squarely on us. But that ship has long since sailed.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 24, 2017 @ 12:07 am

Absolute security means none, as everyone must be under suspicion.

#3 Comment By Hal Donahue On October 24, 2017 @ 6:25 am

Finally, a military officer says what needs to be said. long ago, I was involved with then Vice-President George Bush’s counter terrorism. The assumption was not if the US would be attacked but when and yes, the use of passenger aircraft was a considered option.
When possibility turned into reality, Bush the torturer panicked and shortly there after panicked the nation. It has yet to recover.
What amazes me is that by any military measure, the military failed its missions. Rather than demand answers and change, the American public blithely ignores the failures, claims to admire the generals and admirals who led the failures and embraces international violence without end. This will not end well without drastic change.

#4 Comment By Kent On October 24, 2017 @ 6:26 am

Great article. But I disagree that the people expect perfect security. The American people aren’t given a choice. I’m certain that, prior to the invasion of Iraq, had Congress proceeded with a national debate on the efficacy of an invasion as well as the quality of the evidence of WMDs, their wouldn’t have been an invasion.

This is an issue of governance. The structures of governance created by the Constitution are no longer capable of providing good decisions for the nation.

And really, the fact is that the USA is bounded by oceans to the east and west and friendlies to the north and south. We have little need for a military to begin with, all-volunteer or otherwise. Of course that must not be openly discussed.

#5 Comment By Christian Chuba On October 24, 2017 @ 7:29 am

I like to comment on the article that is written rather than retreat into my pet subject. In this spirit, I’d go as far to say that Islamists have tried to take advantage of this view by provoking us into wars to upset the game table. Think about it, wouldn’t you? You have this huge behemoth who isn’t all that bright. Wouldn’t you try to figure out ways to get the Rhino charging into conflicts that could tip the balance into your favor?

For example, ISIS rose in Syria because Obama didn’t enforce the ‘red line’. Wow, how would attacking Assad have deterred ISIS yet this is folklore repeated by talking heads fed to them by respected analysts.

Our incessant need to ‘do something’ in the endless need for perfect security can easily be manipulated. Our foreign policy experts aren’t that bright. Rex Tillerson should have been laughed at when he called for the Shiite militias to ‘leave Iraq and go home’ (Rex, they are Iraqis, they were born in Iraq) but it fits the narrative.

Beware the Red Cape you stupid Bull.

#6 Comment By Dan Green On October 24, 2017 @ 8:59 am

Great article for as they say someone in the know. Another slant however. I am from the very small so called silent generation born and raised by the greatest generation. When WW 2 ended at the troops came home as before they left and when they returned we never locked our doors we left the keys in the car. I could travel to a favorite hinting area and give my shot gun to the pilot during flight.

#7 Comment By polistra On October 24, 2017 @ 9:00 am

I don’t think the security motive is a major or constant theme of warmongering propaganda.

Wilson made war “to spread Democracy”, and the modern Wilsonians (Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump) have continued using the same insane pretext.

Security is the supposed reason for INTERNAL tyranny via FBI, DHS, TSA, etc.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 24, 2017 @ 11:18 am

“And really, the fact is that the USA is bounded by oceans to the east and west and friendlies to the north and south.”

If you think our relationship with Mexico is friendly, you are misreading mexico’s intentions. No state that willfully support violating your border regulations and who citizens undermine the integrity of the Us has friendly intentions. You might want to read La Raza’s charter.

Spend one minute listening to Hispanics in los angele, san diego, and san francisco complain about the theft of mexican territory —

It sounds over the top, but what we have in the making is a low scale war to recapture the southwest.


“I don’t think the security motive is a major or constant theme of warmongering propaganda.”

There’s a significant shift since then. Before the lean has been in support of existing democracies. Currently the press is to make democracies and if that means war so be it. The interventionists to that end are winning that argument to make democracies.

On its face it’ an appealing grand narrative, in practice impractical, destructive and probably infeasible.

#9 Comment By Fred Bowman On October 24, 2017 @ 11:31 am

Follow the money and see who’s getting rich from America’s quest for “Absolute Security”. And it seems to have been (and still is) one helluva of a “marketing campaign” that sadly way to many Americans have bought into. Meanwhile the Republic rots.

#10 Comment By Kent On October 24, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

“The interventionists to that end are winning that argument to make democracies.”

Democracies can be much more easily managed externally. You can manipulate who runs for office, how much advertising support they’ll get, how ballots are counted, who gets to vote, etc…

And you only need to control 51% of the elected officials. From that, you can get laws passed that ensure the profitability of your business investments are maximized.

Non-democratic leaders tend to have too much ill-gotten wealth to be so easily manipulated.

#11 Comment By John On October 24, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

I would like to contest the proposition that right-wing terrorists kill more Americans than radical Islamic terrorists. The Orlando shooting (49 dead) was never labeled “terrorism” because the Obama administration classified it as a “mass shooting.” If the Orlando shooting is correctly labeled “terrorism,” it follows that radical Muslims kill more Americans than right-wing terrorists.

#12 Comment By Will Harrington On October 24, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

“We’ve all been there”? Man, I haven’t flown but once in my adult life, and that was back in ’89

#13 Comment By SteveM On October 24, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

Concur with Fred Bowman, “Follow the money…”

Re: “From the There’s just one problem. At the macro level, policymakers, politicians, and the public alike actually expect total security from terrorism.”

Well no, it’s actually more complicated than that. The policymakers and politicians with the self-aggrandizing Pentagon Brass, Think Tank stooges and MSM lackeys fabricate the rationale for the obsolete and unaffordable America as Global Cop model that animates terrorists.

They then formulate a climate of hyper-fear with their massive propaganda engine. Tack on the sanctification of the military to preclude rational objections to the global meanderings of the Washington War Machine and we’ve got General Smedley Butler’s admonition that “War is a Racket” writ (very) large.

Under that rubric too much Security State is never enough. The sheeple are forced to play along. They are getting “total security” shoved down their throats whether they want it or not.

It’s all over but the crying…

#14 Comment By jk On October 24, 2017 @ 2:27 pm

One always hears the “cost of inaction” as if the lack of US intervention is responsible for any crime or terrorism or heinous government on earth.

I would argue that the true cost of action is trillions of dollars burned or pocketed by apolitical, amoral contractors and other MIC parasites from all nations, more deaths in the Middle East, more radical groups, more intractable sectarian conflicts.

The whole idea of “doing something” is better than “nothing” is a false choice as doing something stupid is infinitely worse than inaction.

The US should never be a referee in any Muslim civil war let alone any civil war.

#15 Comment By b. On October 24, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

“Brace yourself for an uncomfortable fact: the blame for today’s indecisive wars doesn’t rest with George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump alone. Rather, these quagmires represent symptoms of an entirely American problem.”

Very true, but I would wish for a brutal and clear distinction of individual – citizen, voter – and institutional – Senator, Representative, President etc. – responsibility here.

The individual side, in number sticker format, boils down to “Support the troops, uphold the Constitution” and “Grow a pair, live with your own mortality.” For many citizens, unconstitutional, illegal, far away wars in which many foreigners are killed are TV entertainment.

However, a populace so detached from war, so apathetic, and so accepting of government dysfunction, corruption, and overreach, will hardly agitate for war. The average penis, to borrow a quote, is a lot more likely to stand up than the average man, and that defines “likely” in relative, not absolute terms.

The driving force behind US wars is institutional – abetted by a willing majority and cheered by various idiotic minorities at every level of sophistication, maybe, but institutional, elitist, and ultimately oligarchic.

Force protection “at all cost” – whether domestic, or abroad – is just the service mirror image of the “security scam” in the general populace. We get to be heroes and we can be entirely safe, what’s not to like? Our measure of security is impunity!

“A surprisingly bipartisan foreign policy consensus combines with a flourishing military-industrial complex, American armaments industry…”

There is nothing surprising here. Truman built it, Eisenhower abetted it and pioneered its covert tendrils in Iran and elsewhere, and even named it (cowardly omitting the “Congressional” part of his initial moniker).

The Grand Unified Theory of what passes as “Foreign Policy” in the US is the profit that results from the self-licking ice cream cone of expenditures in the name of “national security”, including arms exports and “alliances” such as the Saudi Arabia-US Joint Business in Yemen. It is the large scale conversion of public tax revenue into private profit, from shareholder to executive to lobbyist to Congressperson to campaign advisor… to employee and contractor.

It is traditional to mention the draft – or lack thereof – in this context, but it also ridiculous. How many of those that have personal or family links to active duty soldiers actually oppose any, many, most of the current undeclared wars? I would not be surprised if the number of principled opponents to war among those with absolutely no individual ties to military personnel past or present outnumbered those with such ties, both in absolute terms and relative to their percentages in the general population.

It is also deeply depressing that we apparently expect of good, God-fearing citizens to not care about the large-scale slaughter of innocents – in illegal, undeclared wars, no less – unless a family member has been killed. Certainly, it appears that those same upstanding citizens do not even care about the enormous waste of taxpayer money. Maybe we do not need a war, maybe we need dedicated Defense Bonds and War Bonds that finally “bring the war home” to where it really hurts.

One of the most astonishing experiences of my life has been the vanishing act of any principled opposition to US interventionism in the wake of the Obama election. Even Sanders, for all his recent criticism of the “bipartisan foreign policy consensus”, has not really dared to put his finger on that gaping, open wound.

We need a lottery – a draft – to determine our elected representatives much more than we need a draft to get those that will “follow orders”. As we advance our “All-Remote Controlled Force” and prepare for the “All Autonomous Force”, there will certainly be fewer and fewer reasons for good Christians to oppose war. Why, some day we will have no human connection to those we have slaughtered in our name at all!

#16 Comment By Mountain Man On October 24, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

@jk “The US should never be a referee in any Muslim civil war let alone any civil war.”

No argument there.

The biggest mistake we ever made was becoming a referee between the Jews and the Muslims.

Right after Camp David it didn’t look too bad, and Reagan and Bush the Elder kept it all at arm’s length, but then Bill Clinton came along and we dropped the pose of “honest broker” and became “Israel’s lawyer”. Our reward for that was the series of Muslim terror attacks that climaxed on 9/11. Then, with the Saudis and Israelis cheering us on, we made even more mistakes that got us in even deeper.

They chumped Clinton, they chumped Bush II even more, and they chumped Obama.

Unfortunately, Trump is shaping up to be the biggest chump of all.

#17 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On October 24, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

TAC continues its slide into dubious logic: “Never mind that more American deaths stem from right-wing extremists…” Can the author cite credible sources for this incredulous statistic – at least from the past 40 years?

#18 Comment By PR Doucette On October 24, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

This article strikes me as having been written by somebody who has come to the conclusion that by volunteering for the Army he has put himself in harms way because of a US foreign policy that seems to rely more on military actions than diplomatic negotiations and is hoping that reinstating the draft would make Americans less willing to support military actions thereby reducing the risk he has to confront. Unfortunately this is wishful thinking as Americans have shown little resistance to sending their sons and daughters off to war if their political leaders tell them there is an evil that must be defeated to assure security at home.

I fully understand the writer’s concerns for his personal security but if he really wants to increase his security he would be better served to argue that American political leaders should stop trying to persuade the American public that every issue is a choice between good and evil. In international politics issues are seldom black or white but are most often grey which makes thinking military action will provide a clear cut solution problematic. In the case of Iran instead of hoping that a US invasion of Iran would somehow be the charm that increases American security the writer would be better placed arguing that diplomacy, as long and arduous as that may be, would be a better approach than pretending that a US invasion of Iran would be anything but the same sort of disaster that Iraq has proven to be. Iran is unlikely to be America friend anytime in the near future but talking with them is better than thinking invading them will the problem. If you look at what China is doing in developing its idea for a new silk road you will see that they could care less who is in power in any particular country as long as they can have diplomatic discussions that move towards achieving China’s economic goals.

Americans deserve better ideas than just thinking that reinstating the draft will lead to a more thoughtful foreign policy. We need real leadership that doesn’t think first of military action as the solution to difficult international issues.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 24, 2017 @ 5:44 pm

“Americans deserve better ideas than just thinking that reinstating the draft will lead to a more thoughtful foreign policy.”

No doubt. But make no mistake the change must be in the very nature of what it means to be a citizen.

A population not invested in the essence of country itself isn’t going to care or invest much in a gentler foreign policy — because ultimately

all foreign policy rests on the credibility perceived or real that one can back up/support the policy position they put forward.

#20 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 25, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

“The biggest mistake we ever made was becoming a referee between the Jews and the Muslims.”

Referee hardly describes the US role, save on rare occasions.

#21 Comment By Johann On October 26, 2017 @ 7:32 am

Dan Green, even as a baby boomer, some of us high school students took our shotguns to school so that we could go hunting straight from school. We did have to give them to the coach who put them in a locker though.

America has become a nation of cowards. The terrorist attacks have been successful. They have changed our way of life. Whatever happened to stoicism?

#22 Comment By MEOW On October 27, 2017 @ 11:26 am

Eliminating dual citizens from public office – as has been done in Australia would put a big dent in our appetite for wars fought by others.

#23 Comment By my countries t’is of thees … On October 28, 2017 @ 11:15 pm

@MEOW — “Eliminating dual citizens from public office – as has been done in Australia would put a big dent in our appetite for wars fought by others.”

Dual citizenship should be outlawed, period. But you’re right, at a bare minimum it should disqualify someone from either working for the government or running for public office. It’s hard to imagine a bigger red flag for corrupted loyalties and treachery.

What’s Trump doing about it? It’s a no-brainer.