In August 2014, I interviewed a group of shell-shocked Christian refugees from the town of Qarakosh — then, the largest Christian city of Iraq — in a makeshift refugee camp in Erbil following their harrowing escape from the terror group Islamic State (ISIS). ISIS fighters had just occupied Qarakosh a few days prior and immediately set out to systematically destroy any evidence of Christianity in the city. What struck me the most when I was interviewing the refugees was their sense of impotence. They wanted to fight but did not have the necessary arms. As their ancestral homes and churches were razed to the ground 80 kilometers west of Erbil, there was nothing they could do.
After covering the war in Afghanistan for two years, for the first time I could see the direct results of a battlefield defeat: Assyrian and Kurdish militias failed to fight off ISIS and as a result Qarakosh was taken. It was plain and simple. There was no need for abstractions to drive home the point of military power to those Christian refugees; no need to invoke complex concepts such as the “Domino Theory” or the “1938 Munich analogy” to justify a fight. The linear results of their military weakness were plainly obvious and the consequences absolute.
That night I remember wondering when was the last time Americans defeated in battle had entire cities razed, their women and children violated, and their elders shot? One would have to go back to the U.S. Civil War or the American Revolution to find comparable ravages of American citizens and their communities as a result of military action. Clearly, the American and Iraqi experiences of war were markedly different in recent memory.
True to George W. Bush’s mantra “We’ll fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here,” U.S. troops have fought in the faraway mountains of North Korea, the rice paddies of South Vietnam, the rolling hills of Bosnia, the snowy tops of the Hindukush, and the urban jungle of Baghdad, places foreign and far away to most Americans. During that time period, not a single American battlefield defeat, and there were a few, resulted in American civilians taken prisoner or American towns razed.
This unique American experience of war is first and foremost the result of a combination of geographical distance — the United States is protected from any threats of land invasion by two oceans — and the preponderance of American military might — the United States was and remains the world’s strongest military power. The most salient feature of what one may call the American Way of War is not only superior technology or massive firepower but geographic distance. America’s wars for the past hundred years have been fought thousands of miles away from American soil, scarcely exposing American territory to danger (with the exception of the ever-looming nuclear threat) and shielding Americans from many of the terrible consequences of war.
Four aspects of the American experience of over the past hundred years are worth highlighting.
First, geographic distance has shielded American civilians from the horrors of military conflict. (There were some exceptions, such as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II.) Over 30,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. According to the Iraq Body Count website, between 180,000 to 202,000 civilians have died since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Based on information collected by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, more than 10,000 Syrian civilians were killed in 2017 alone. While almost 7,000 American service men and women have been killed since 2001, there is a stark difference between professional soldiers killed in action and the accidental or deliberate death of unarmed civilians as a result of military action. (According to statistics compiled by Eliot Cohen, the last 100 years cost the U.S. military 626,000 dead and 1.18 million wounded, the lowest death toll among all great powers during that time period.)
Second, despite being continuously at war since 2001, American civilian and military infrastructure on U.S. territory has not been attacked, damaged, or destroyed during almost two decades of warfare. This is unparalleled for almost any nation at war for this duration. (A notable exception would be Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.) In contrast, Iraq has seen the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure over the last 15 years as a result of the war; Mosul has been especially hard hit. According to a World Bank estimate, a third of Syrian prewar housing stock has been destroyed along with half of the country’s education and medical facilities. As of July 2017, over 17,000 buildings have reportedly been damaged or destroyed in eastern Ukraine since the war began in July 2014. Often forgotten is the fact that destroying civilian infrastructure not only directly leads to civilian casualties but, even more damaging in the long run, accelerates the destruction of the social fabric and can threaten a society’s legal and cultural underpinnings.
Third, the expeditionary warfare the United States and many other Western countries have conducted for the past decades (including the relatively short rotational deployments of troops into a war zone), has led to a snapshot understanding of conflict, where men and women are exposed to war for short time periods and rotate in and out of a combat zone without developing an understanding of the specific nature of the unfolding conflict. Most importantly, short-term deployments are simply not conducive to learning about on the ground realities and empathizing with one’s enemy. Given this cursory understanding of war, it is not surprising that the American public and policy makers mythologize Special Operations Forces as the embodiment of swift and decisive expeditionary warfare and continue to believe in quick military victories.
Fourth, the prevailing Zeitgeist of “technological solutionism,” the idea that advanced new weapons systems can make winning wars easier and more humane, fosters a selective understanding of warfare. Remotely controlled and semi-autonomous weapons systems dehumanize war and turn it into a video game-like experience, in which terms such as “surgical strikes” or “collateral damage” camouflage the actual brutality and consequences of aerial attacks. It can also strengthen the belief that the tactical application of a “Wunderwaffe” can rectify any strategic military blunder. Additionally, to put it in Clausewitzean terms, U.S. policymakers, as a consequence of this thinking, often emphasize the changing character of warfare (how wars are fought) over the “constant” nature of war (chaotic, unamenable to human control, bloody, and catastrophic).
As a result of the four distinctions outlined above, American policymakers and military leaders, despite continuously waging war, paradoxically have a more “benign” and “cleaner” understanding of war, contributing to what I call the “War Gap.” Almost by definition, war for Americans now denotes conflict in a faraway country where only American troops and foreign combatants and civilians are killed. No American homes are ransacked or bombed and no foreign occupational regime (if only temporarily) is imposed. American citizens remain physically removed from mayhem and death. This is in stark contrast to the European, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern experience of war in the same context.
This particular American Way of War, ostensibly built upon a more scientific and enlightened understanding of war and warfare, pointedly fails to take into account the full nature of conflict. Among other things, it neglects the blind forces of war, defined by Clausewitz as primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which can only be experienced and, consequently, understood, when they hit home. (As the Austrian war correspondent Fritz Orter said, he only realized the true horrors of war when his wife unexpectedly was killed.) This has had a profound impact on U.S. military actions.
From the misreading of Chinese intentions during the Korean War, to the misunderstanding of North Vietnamese fighting morale during the Vietnam War, to underestimating the sectarian violence in Iraq, senior U.S. civilian and military leaders have repeatedly shown a cultural, social, and religious ignorance of foreign peoples. America’s distance from the frontlines of its wars and its inability to accurately discern the physical and human geography of its antagonists have led to a fatal violation of Sun Tzu’s dictum, “Know your enemy.”
A pernicious effect is that war, without an adequate understanding of its closely lived complexity and horror, appears more manageable to U.S. policymakers. As a result, American decision-makers are more prone to advancing military solutions over other options than leaders in other advanced democracies. Additionally, a more technological prosecution of war offers the illusion that policymakers have more choices during a military conflict than they actually obtain. Lost is the insight that the only real freedom to devise policy pertaining to a military conflict is before the outbreak of any hostilities.
American decision-makers would do well to remember that the American experience of war is unique. The United States has been fortunate — some even believe blessed — over the past hundred years for being spared the brutal totality of war. Americans last reckoned the human loss and the shock that I saw in the refugees in Erbil in the United States’ own epic civil discord and have tragically forgotten Sherman’s blunt testimony of the “all hell” of war.