The Sufficient Condition for Forever War is Never War
The term “forever war” has officially entered the lexicon. News reports of the disastrous American military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August were virtually guaranteed to contain at least one reference to the “forever war” that had slow-boiled there for almost 20 years. The 20th anniversary of the nightmarish morning of September 11, 2001, has also given Americans pause, causing us to reflect on the “forever war” against terrorists, and then against terrorism, and finally against all forms of insecurity these past two decades.
The classically minded will recall the temple of Janus in the Roman forum, whose gates were closed but rarely, signifying that Rome was at peace on land and at sea. For most of imperial Roman history, as for most of imperial American history, the former republic was engaged in some battle or another, somewhere around the world. Our “chronotope,” the shape of our historical and cultural context, has indeed become the smoking towers of the World Trade Center, followed by the fog and gravestones of endless war.
But there is something odd about the use of “forever war,” something almost uncanny. Afghanistan was not a war at all. A conflict, an intervention, a police action, a kinetic ground movement, a deployment, a forward operating base, a mission, a drone field, a battlespace, a theater—Afghanistan has been all these things to us since 2001. Before that, too, Afghanistan was where the mujahideen picked off Soviet infantry and helicopters using CIA-provided weapons. (I remember reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and learning that the jihadis, as the right-wingers put it during the Reagan years, fought for me.)
It is even more cliched to refer to Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires than to the war there as a forever war, but the truth is that the war our empire has been waging there was never declared. The big business of forever war appears to be wedded to the late-imperial taboo against declaring war in the first place. Forever war rests on never war. Our empire’s elites have been doing just fine, in fact, thriving in the never war which has now taken on the contours of permanence.
This is not to say that never war means that American wars no longer exist. My generation, and a couple of generations before mine, have indeed known endless war. But I do not know a single American, however aged, who fought in a war, despite knowing so many who were warriors.
This is due to a simple historical fact—a technicality, perhaps, but a tremendously important one, with big consequences for our republic. The last time the United States used Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to declare war, as the foundational rules of our republic require, was, you’ll be surprised, 1942. This was against, you’ll be surprised again, Hungary, Bulgaria, and “Rumania.” The reason the United States, in Congress, declared war on Rumania, as H.J. Res. 321 (dated June 3, 1942 and approved by the Senate the following day) makes clear, is that Rumania declared war on us. Germany, Italy, and Japan had already done this in December of 1941, and the United States, in Congress, duly responded by declaring war on them. This is the way war is supposed to work. In order for there to be a war, and for fighting to take on the color of legal legitimacy, war must be declared.
The United States declared other wars prior to 1941 and 1942, as schoolchildren once learned (before schools became prison camps). Prior to World War II, the United States formally declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917, on Spain in 1898, on Mexico in 1846, and on Great Britain in 1812. The war against Great Britain in the 18th century predated the Constitution, of course, but funding for the fighting was taken on by the Continental Congress (in the form of fiat currency and an early form of war bonds), and by the several states. Wealthy Americans also chipped in. War was a whole-of-society effort.
Wars after the ratification of the Constitution have also been whole-of-society fights. When a war is declared, the United States, as a constitutional republic, goes all-in on winning it. There is an enemy, there is a draft, there is an objective, there comes an end. The Founding Fathers were very perspicacious in making Congress take ownership of wars. Declaring war is a solemn and sobering thing. Unless someone is mad, he or she will think very hard and clearly about whether war is really the best or only course of action. Experience and history both teach that wars are popular at first and then increasingly unpopular once jingoism is swapped out for body bags. Politicians during wartime must balance the perceived need to fight against the reality of death, rations, and, if things drag on too long, labor strikes and internal rebellions. A declared war is the biggest political gamble of them all. Politicians who declare wars stake their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor on the outcome. At the very least their reelection chances.
But what is a war, exactly? This is where our current trouble originates. In Clause 11 of Article I, Section 8, the Constitution provides that Congress has “the Power” to “declare War”. That is all it says about “War” as such. The rest of the enumerated powers related to belligerency are these, from the same clause:
To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
To provide and maintain a Navy;
To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;
To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…
The ink on the parchment was barely dry before Washingtonians began stretching the plain meaning of the text (and ignoring the Ninth and Tenth Amendments spelling out that “enumerated” means “enumerated”). In 1819, John Marshall shifted congressional powers from their base in enumeration to a much broader base of national sovereignty in McCulloch v. Maryland.
In the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln took clearly unconstitutional measures which were retroactively declared as such in Ex parte Milligan (1866). Some argue that Lincoln himself didn’t intend for his overreach to be institutionalized, but the damage was done. The singular “war power,” a Hamiltonian-Marshallian bundle of federalized fasces, emerged as a legacy of the (undeclared) War between the States. Bonapartism, otherwise known in the American context as the Imperial Presidency, was born—I think, although many differ—with Lincoln’s elevation of the executive above the judiciary and the legislative branches during the first half of the 1860s. In saving the Union, Lincoln destroyed the republic. War, as Thucydides wrote, is a hard teacher.
Presidents after Lincoln continued to seek declarations of war until World War II. But after that war, a new sovereignty was ratified in New York and Bretton Woods, and Congress has been rebuffed by warring presidents ever since. A system bigger than the Constitution provides cover now for belligerency. Two systems, in fact: the United Nations and all the globalist appurtenances thereunto, and the deep state, or unelected federal bureaucracy, which really runs the United States. The Korean War was a United Nations police action, a “conflict” in the historical record. Political assassinations and coups have been the specialty of the CIA since before it officially existed. (Google “Mosaddegh” or “Lumumba+Gottlieb” for more information.)
Vietnam, too, was a war never declared. The War Powers Act, passed over Richard Nixon’s veto in 1973, was the symbolic end of the enumerated powers in Article I, Section 8, Clause 11. It was also, concomitantly, the congressional imprimatur on forever war. The Vietnam debacle gave us forever war as we now know it. Agencies well beyond congressional control—James Bamford’s classic 1982 Puzzle Palace is a history of agency sovereignty written before things got really bad—run wild around the world. American citizens who ask questions about this often find themselves in prison, or worse.
George H.W. Bush made great use of war as part of the political toolkit in 1991, when “Gulf One” initiated a new species of never war. “Shock and awe” is familiar from Gulf Two, but grainy videos of Tomahawks and smart bombs blowing desert targets to smithereens and Iraqi armies surrendering en masse to American forces gave Americans the first-person-shooter view of warfare long before anyone had heard of Call of Duty. War in the ’90s was mechanized, sanitized, and televised. What it wasn’t was declared by Congress. Presidents had learned a new trick.
Bill Clinton waged a desultory forever war via missile strike during his hedonistic presidency. Ronald Reagan had waged a much more macho forever war against terrorists and drug traffickers worldwide. It all began to coalesce into an unsettling zeitgeist. The war on drugs, the war on obesity, the war on women, the war on the federal deficit, the war on science, the warp-speed war against the Chinese coronavirus—our chronotope is war and so everything we do must be some kind of assault on Carthage.
George W. Bush’s War on Terror (now increasingly referred to as the “Global War on Terror,” replete with calls for a monument in D.C.) was true forever war, the classic of the genre. Terror is an abstract noun, meaning it is quite literally invincible. If someone wanted to turn war into a function of a bloated and immoral bureaucracy, waging it on an abstract noun would be the way to go. Obama continued the forever war in the form of a drone swarm. I remember reading stories in the left-wing rags in the anxious aughts about drone specialists operating Predators remotely from stateside bases, sipping Diet Coke as they hit the “fire” button and wasted some jihadis (or people mistaken for such) in Mesopotamia. The logic of forever war is stealth and ostentation, braggadocio and bureaucratic control, and the wounds of forever war burrow deeper in the psyche than any drug can reach.
None of this organized violence was ever declared under Article I, Section 8. Congress paid for it, and for the “homeland security” apparatus which essentially put the entire country under a benign (as promised, at least) form of martial law. But nobody came out and said what the Constitution requires, that we, as Americans, were fighting a war. I think we Americans accepted this out of a Faustian bargain which few of us ever named. We know that declared war is a whole-of-society endeavor. In a declared war, many of us will have to fight, and many of us will die.
In a forever war, though, the “all-volunteer military” does the hard work for us. Mercenaries and “security forces” can even replace soldiers and Marines in the field. We can stay warm and dry in our mortgaged homes, while people we don’t know (and would probably never be friends with anyway) go off to places we can’t find on maps to kill people in countries we know absolutely nothing about. Or we can let machines do the grunt jobs for us, flying in figure-eights over Afghanistan until “intel” acquires a “target” to be “eliminated.” “Hooah!” became “Who, us?” We lost our souls in the process.
We offshored war to the military, which in turn offshored it to Blackwater (Academi). In exchange, we got to keep the shock and awe without any skin in the game. We could have demanded that Congress reassert its enumerated powers. But we didn’t. We kept electing people who sold us cheap patriotism while covering up, with shock and awe, the terrible costs of our empire. Our brothers and sisters came home in boxes, or with minds shattered from war. We checked our retirement accounts and told ourselves we could ride the empire out for a little while longer.
We should have been paying closer attention. Resisting under President Donald Trump, himself an enthusiast of atomization by drone strike, the deep state began to see the possibilities of waging forever war at home, without all the hassle of deployment. Mike Spann, a CIA officer killed in Afghanistan in October of 2001 and the first casualty of the War on Terror, and Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and Trump supporter killed in the halls of Congress in January of 2021 and the first casualty of the War on Terror Two, are the two Janus doors of our Forum temple. Now the forever war, under Biden, has come home. Already conservatives are being called “the American Taliban.” Not just by celebrities, but by former generals, too. The implications are obvious, and terrifying. Now we will truly pay the price—the price we thought we could avoid by letting Hessians fight our battles for us.
If we have forever war, it is because we insisted on having never war. The sufficient condition for forever war is never war. And for this we have only ourselves to blame.
Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan. His personal site can be found here.