James Holmes

Is America Actually War-Weary?

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James Holmes

Is America Actually War-Weary?

Are the public, military, or policymakers the ones who have lost the passion for war in the US?

So is America "war-weary"? Commentators beyond counting assure us that is the case. But who is war-weary, and precisely what does that mean? A little precision in our use of words goes a long way.

Let's ask that notable gentleman from Prussia, Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz breaks down warring societies into three "dominant tendencies," namely rational subordination of war to policy; chance and creativity; and primordial passions, mostly dark passions like fear, rage and spite. He associates the three tendencies "mainly" with statesmen, the overseers of policy; the commander, for whom the mercurial conditions of the battlefield open up vistas where tactical brilliance roams; and the populace, the body politic's chief repository of sentiment.

War-weariness sounds like a loss of passion, doesn't it? A non-Prussian, the 20th-century American pundit Walter Lippmann, maintains that a foreign policy commands popular support when policymakers provide means sufficient to uphold the commitments they undertake. Cognitive dissonance results when the nation takes on ambitious goals yet fails to pay the necessary price in lives, treasure or hardware. Society loses interest. In his treatise Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943), Lippmann takes pre-World War II presidential administrations to task for annexing the Philippine Islands without fielding an army and navy strong enough to hold them. Such a policy loses credence. Ordinary citizens understandably grow tired of putting resources into a misbegotten effort. Better to forego a venture than pursue it on the cheap.

War-weariness could also be a material phenomenon, a malady primarily afflicting the military. Are the U.S. armed services worn out from a decade-plus of combat? Evidence abounds. Ground-force chiefs fret constantly over "recapitalizing" the force, meaning replacing or upgrading worn-out gear.

The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, moreover, imposed heavy opportunity costs not just on the U.S. Army and Marines but on the Air Force and Navy. It's no mystery why, say, ship numbers kept dwindling despite the post-9/11 surge in defense spending. Fewer ships to execute the same missions translate into higher operating tempo, less time for upkeep. longer deployments, more time away from the family, you name it. In other words, mariners and airmen can succumb to war-weariness in an age of land warfare. And they may fight the next war without armaments that could have been developed with the resources spent fighting this one.

And policymakers? For Clausewitz it's incumbent on them to keep the three dominant tendencies in balance, like an object suspended among three magnets. They rouse popular passions, but without letting the dark side take over the war. They encourage military commanders to exercise their tactical and operational artistry, but discourage military actions that work against the political purposes for which the war is being fought. In short, presidents and their lieutenants must exercise rational mastery of the enterprise to keep war-weariness from setting in.

Think back to your college physics. An object suspended among three magnets is intrinsically unstable. It's constantly on the move, never retracing the same path, always in danger of falling. The metaphor implies that statesmen must continually adjust their handling of the war to preserve sociopolitical equilibrium.

Now that sounds wearisome.