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Endless War Makes America Less Safe

Members of the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard transfer Capt. David A. Wisniewski's casket to a caisson while HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters fly overhead during his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Aug. 23, 2010. Wisniewski died July 2, 2010, from injuries suffered during a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (Credit: SSgt Gina Chiaverotti-Paige/Public Domain)

Paul Miller doesn’t like it when people call for an end to endless war:

Consider: does anyone literally advocate for endless war? Of course not.

The trope about ending endless wars is really a way of arguing that the US foreign policy establishment has failed, that the supposed doctrine of interventionism is ineffective and counterproductive, and that the United States should retrench, withdraw, and do less in the world.

Supporters of endless war engage in semantics to counter criticism in a few ways. Either they deny that the U.S. is at war anywhere, they defend current U.S. wars but reject the characterization of them as being endless, or they pretend not to understand that “ending endless war” refers to ending U.S. involvement in multiple foreign conflicts. Miller dismisses what he calls the “endless war trope” by saying that no one advocates for endless war by name, but his essay is an extended defense of continuing to fight endless war. At the same time that supporters of endless war reject the description, they are adamant that the U.S. keep doing what it is doing abroad without end. Miller goes beyond that to insist that the only way to end endless war is to keep fighting it:

We are indeed in an era of endless war. But the wars never end because we are not playing for a win.

This is the lament of every war supporter when confronted with evidence of failed wars: if only we were “trying to win,” then victory would follow. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that military victory isn’t possible at an acceptable cost. The reality is that the U.S. already lost the wars it has been fighting, but it refuses to give up on them because our leaders don’t want to admit the defeat that is staring them in the face.

Miller says near the end of the essay:

Those who use the “endless war” trope owe it to themselves, the public, and the troops to explain why defeat is the right choice.

Once again, the defeat has already happened. Refusing to acknowledge it doesn’t make the defeat any less real. Persisting in a failed war just wastes more lives and resources for nothing. Every year that we delay admitting failure is another year of preventable losses.

It is true that opponents of endless war also believe that the U.S. foreign policy establishment has failed, and we cite endless war as evidence of that failure. When we say that the U.S. should end endless war, that really does mean that the U.S. should cease waging the unnecessary wars that it has been fighting over the last two decades. Yes, we think that military interventionism is “ineffective and counterproductive,” and we know that because we have the record of ineffective and counterproductive endless war to back us up. Opponents of endless war may have different views about the extent to which the U.S. should “do less in the world,” but there is general agreement that the U.S. needs to stop the futile, open-ended military campaigns that it engages in right now. Miller thinks they should continue until some far-off, undefined time when there is no more conflict in these countries. In other words, he thinks they should keep going with no end in sight.

Miller continues:

The debate is not whether we want wars to end or not, but about what strategy is best suited to end them on the best terms. Advocates of restraint believe that we can end wars by simply leaving them.

Of course the debate is over whether we want wars to end or not. That is what we’re debating right now. Those that insist that we cannot leave Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq before fighting ends there are quite explicitly arguing for U.S. involvement in unending conflicts that we cannot win at an acceptable cost.

Miller writes:

Behind withdrawal is a premise that wars have expiration dates.

This is a silly thing to say. No one advocating for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Syria, or Iraq imagines that conflicts automatically cease at a certain point. We are advocating for withdrawal because the costs of open-ended U.S. involvement in these conflicts are far greater than any supposed benefits. It is simply not worth our while to stay. We know very well that conflict is likely to continue. We see no good reason why Americans should still be taking part in these wars.

Miller’s essay doesn’t offer any compelling reasons why Americans should keep fighting. There are a lot of assertions that the U.S. is “less safe” because of various things overseas, but there is no proof that any of these claims is true. There is no evidence offered that the U.S. has any vital interests at stake in any of the wars it is fighting, and if there are any vital interests that would be jeopardized by withdrawal, Miller doesn’t tell us what they are.

The supporters of endless war do not have a strategy to end these wars “on the best terms” because the wars are unwinnable. Advocates of restraint accept the reality that these wars cannot be won at an acceptable cost. Supporters of endless war pretend otherwise. America is less safe after nearly twenty years of endless war, and endless war has made many other parts of the world less stable and secure. We have seen what the hawkish version of “long-term commitment, deep engagement, and American leadership” has wrought in the world, and it is time to put an end to that as well.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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