Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Our Quest For ‘Absolute Security’ Guarantees Forever War

It's not just the neocons. This is a deeply rooted American problem.

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 American deaths stem from right-wing extremists, or that the chances of dying in a terror attack are comparable 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 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, you’ve heard me drone on about the dangers of military optimism, and you are certainly familiar with Andrew Bacevich’s powerful takedown 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 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, 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 “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 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 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: “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 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 everything. The globe was now divided between the forces of good and evil. Bush communicated this quite clearly in an address 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 decisions this (and previous) administrations have made in this pursuit of absolute security from—“Islamic”—terrorists:

  • Travel (read: Muslim) bans and tightened immigration limitations as the world suffers through the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. All the while, ISIS has taken to calling Trump’s travel policy the “blessed ban.”  
  • Warrantless wiretapping and a domestic surveillance state (to paraphrase Mr. Trump) the likes of which this world has never seen. Anyone else miss the long ago-demolished Fourth Amendment?
  • A 16-year military campaign that has cost the U.S. military about 7,000 killed and more than 50,000 wounded in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen. What exactly did they all sacrifice for anyway?

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 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, 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.

[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.]