Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

War Denialism and Endless War

War has become so normalized over the last twenty years that the constant use of military force gets discounted as something other than "real war."
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One of the most revealing and absurd responses to rejections of forever war is the ridiculous dodge that the U.S. isn’t really at war when it uses force and kills people in multiple foreign countries:

War has become so normalized over the last twenty years that the constant use of military force gets discounted as something other than “real war.” We have seen this war denialism on display several times in the last year. As more presidential candidates and analysts have started rejecting endless war, the war’s defenders have often chosen to pretend that the U.S. isn’t at war at all. The distinction between “real war” and the constant U.S. involvement in hostilities overseas is a phony one. The war is very real to the civilian bystanders who die in U.S. airstrikes, and it is very real to the soldiers and Marines still getting shot at and blown up in Afghanistan. This is not an “antidote to war,” but rather the routinization of warfare.

The routinization and normalization of endless, unauthorized war is one of the most harmful legacies of the Obama administration. I made this point back in the spring of 2016:

Because Obama is relatively less aggressive and reckless than his hawkish opponents (a very low bar to clear), he is frequently given a pass on these issues, and we are treated to misleading stories about his supposed “realism” and “restraint.” Insofar as he has been a president who normalized and routinized open-ended and unnecessary foreign wars, he has shown that neither of those terms should be used to describe his foreign policy. Even though I know all too well that the president that follows him will be even worse, the next president will have a freer hand to conduct a more aggressive and dangerous foreign policy in part because of illegal wars Obama has waged during his time in office.

The attempt to define war so that it never includes what the U.S. military happens to be doing when it uses force abroad has been going on for quite a while. When the Obama administration wanted political and legal cover for the illegal Libyan war in 2011, they came up with a preposterous claim that U.S. forces weren’t engaged in hostilities because there was no real risk to them from the Libyan government’s forces. According to Harold Koh, who was the one responsible for promoting this nonsense, U.S. forces weren’t engaged in hostilities even when they were carrying out a sustained bombing campaign for months. That lie has served as a basis for redefining what counts as involvement in hostilities so that the president and the Pentagon can pretend that the U.S. military isn’t engaged in hostilities even when it clearly is. When the only thing that gets counted as a “real war” is a major deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops, that allows for a lot of unaccountable warmaking that has been conveniently reinvented as something else.