Overseas, the United States is engaged in real wars in which bombs are dropped, missiles are launched, and people (generally not Americans) are killed, wounded, uprooted, and displaced. Yet here at home, there’s nothing real about those wars. Here, it’s phony war all the way. In the last 17 years of “forever war,” this nation hasn’t for one second been mobilized. Taxes are being cut instead of raised. Wartime rationing is a faint memory from the World War II era. No one is being required to sacrifice a thing.
Now, ask yourself a simple question: What sort of war requires no sacrifice? What sort of war requires that almost no one in the country waging it take the slightest notice of it?
America’s conflicts in distant lands rumble on, even as individual attacks flash like lightning in our news feeds. “Shock and awe” campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, initially celebrated as decisive and game changing, ultimately led nowhere. Various “surges” produced much sound and fury, but missions were left decidedly unaccomplished. More recent strikes by the Trump administration against a Syrian air base or the first use of the most powerful non-nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the MOAB super-bomb, in Afghanistan flared brightly, only to fizzle even more quickly. These versions of the German blitzkrieg-style attacks of World War II have been lightning assaults that promised much but in the end delivered little. As these flashes of violence send America’s enemies of the moment (and nearby civilians) to early graves, the homeland (that’s us) slumbers. Sounds of war, if heard at all, come from TV or video screens or Hollywood films in local multiplexes.
We are, in fact, kept isolated from Washington’s wars, even as America’s warriors traverse a remarkable expanse of the globe, from the Philippines through the Greater Middle East deep into Africa. As conflicts flare and sputter, ramp up and down and up again, Americans have been placed in a form of behavioral lockdown. Little more is expected of us than to be taxpaying spectators or, when it comes to the U.S. military, starry-eyed cheerleaders. Most of the time, those conflicts are not just out of sight, but meant to be out of mind as well. Rare exceptions are moments when our government asks us to mourn U.S. service members like Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, killed in an abortive raid President Trump ordered in Yemen in early 2017 in which children also died (though that was something just about no one here even noticed). While the military has been deploying and striking on a global scale, we’ve been told from the very first moments of Washington’s self-proclaimed war on terror to go shopping or to Disney World and let the experts handle it.
We have, in short, been sidelined in what, to draw on the lexicon of World War II, might be thought of as a sitzkrieg, the German term for phony war.
A bizarre version of blitzkrieg overseas and an even stranger version of sitzkrieg at home could be said to define this peculiar American moment. These two versions exist in a curiously yin-yang relationship to each other. For how can a nation’s military be engaged in warfare at a near-global level — blitzing people across vast swaths of the globe — when its citizens are sitting on their collective duffs, demobilized and mentally disarmed? Such a schizoid state of mind can exist only when it’s in the interest of those in power. Appeals to “patriotism” (especially to revering “our” troops) and an overwhelming atmosphere of secrecy to preserve American “safety” and “security” have been remarkably effective in controlling and stifling interest in the country’s wars and their costs, long before such an interest might morph into dissent or opposition. If you want an image of just how effective this has been, recall the moment in July 2016 when small numbers of earnest war protesters quite literally had the lights turned off on them at the Democratic National Convention.
To use an expression I heard more than a few times in my years in the military, when it comes to its wars, the government treats the people like mushrooms, keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit.
The Fog of Phony War
Prussian war theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously spoke of the "fog of war," the confusion created by and inherent uncertainty built into that complex human endeavor. As thick as that fog often is, in these years the fog of phony war has proven even thicker and more disorienting.
By its very nature, a real war of necessity, of survival, like the Civil War or World War II brings with it clarity of purpose and a demand for results. Poorly performing leaders are relieved of command when not killed outright in combat. Consider the number of mediocre Union generals Abraham Lincoln cycled through before he found Ulysses S. Grant. Consider the number of senior officers relieved during World War II by General George C. Marshall, who knew that, in a global struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, subpar performances couldn’t be tolerated. In wars of necessity or survival, moreover, the people are invariably involved. In part, they may have little choice, but they also know (or at least believe they know) “why we fight” — and generally approve of it.
Admittedly, even in wars of necessity there are always those who will find ways to duck service. In the Civil War, for example, the rich could pay others to fight in their place. But typically in such wars, everyone serves in some capacity. Necessity demands it.
The definition of twenty-first-century phony war, on the other hand, is its lack of clarity, its lack of purpose, its lack of any true imperative for national survival (despite a never-ending hysteria over the “terrorist threat”). The fog it produces is especially disorienting. Americans today have little idea “why we fight” other than a vague sense of fighting them over there (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Niger, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, etc.) so they won’t kill us here, to cite George W. Bush’s rationale for launching the war on terror. Meanwhile, with such a lack of national involvement and accountability, there’s no pressure for the Pentagon or the rest of the national security state to up its game; there’s no one even to point out that wherever the U.S. military has gone into battle in these years, yet more terror groups have subsequently sprouted like so many malignant weeds. Bureaucracy and mediocrity go unchallenged; massive boosts in military spending reward incompetency and the creation of a series of quagmire-like “generational” wars.
Think of it as war on a Möbius strip. More money shoveled into the Pentagon brings more chaos overseas, more imperial overreach, and undoubtedly more blowback here at home, all witnessed — or rather largely ignored — by a sitzkrieg citizenry.
Of course, for those fighting the wars, they are anything but phony. It’s just that their experience remains largely isolated from that of the rest of us, an isolation that only serves to elevate post-traumatic stress disorder rates, suicides, and the like. When today’s troops come home, they generally suffer in silence and among themselves.
America’s New (Phony) National Defense Strategy
Even phony wars need enemies. In fact, they may need them more (and more of them) than real wars do. No surprise then that the Trump administration’s recently announced National Defense Strategy (NDS) offers a laundry list of such enemies. China and Russia top it as “revisionist powers” looking to reverse America’s putative victory over Communism in the Cold War. “Rogue” powers like North Korea and Iran are singled out as especially dangerous because of their nuclear ambitions. (The United States, of course, doesn’t have a “rogue” bone in its body, even if it is now devoting at least $1.2 trillion to building a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons.) Nor does the NDS neglect Washington’s need to hammer away at global terrorists until the end of time or to extend “full-spectrum dominance” not just to the traditional realms of combat (land, sea, and air) but also to spaceand cyberspace.
Amid such a plethora of enemies, only one thing is missing in America’s new defense strategy, the very thing that’s been missing all these years, that makes twenty-first-century American war so phony: any sense of national mobilization and shared sacrifice (or its opposite, antiwar resistance). If the United States truly faces all these existential threats to our democracy and our way of life, what are we doing frittering away more than $45 billion annually in a quagmire war in Afghanistan? What are we doing spending staggering sums on exotic weaponry like the F-35 jet fighter (total projected program cost: $1.45 trillion) when we have far more pressing national needs to deal with?
Like so much else in Washington in these years, the NDS doesn’t represent a strategy for real war, only a call for more of the same raised to a higher power. That mainly means more money for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and related “defense” agencies, facilitating more blitz attacks on various enemies overseas. The formula — serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland — adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.
Solutions to Sitzkrieg
Of course, one solution to phony war would be to engage in real war, but for that the famed American way of life would actually have to be endangered. (By Afghans? Syrians? Iraqis? Yemenis? Really?) Congress would then have to declare war; the public would have to be mobilized, a draft undoubtedly reinstated, and taxes raised. And those would be just for starters. A clear strategy would have to be defined and losing generals demoted or dismissed.
Who could imagine such an approach when it comes to America’s forever wars? Another solution to phony war would be for the American people to actually start paying attention. The Pentagon would then have to be starved of funds. (With less money, admirals and generals might actually have to think.) All those attacks overseas that blitzed innocents and spread chaos would have to end. Here at home, the cheerleaders would have to put down the pom-poms, stop mindlessly praising the troops for their service, and pick up a few protest signs.
In point of fact, America’s all-too-real wars overseas aren’t likely to end until the phony war here at home is dispatched to oblivion.
A final thought: Americans tell pollsters that, after all these years of failed wars abroad, they continue to trust the military more than any other societal institution. Consistent with phony war, however, much of that trust is based on ignorance, on not really knowing what that military is doing overseas. So, is there a chance that, one of these days, Americans might actually begin to pay some attention to “their” wars? And if so, would those polls begin to change and how might that military, which has experienced its share of blood, sweat, and tears, respond to such a loss of societal prestige? Beware the anger of the legions.
Faith in institutions undergirds democracy. Keeping the people deliberately demobilized and in the dark about the costs and carnage of America’s wars follows a pattern of governmental lying and deceit that stretches from the Vietnam War to the Iraq Wars of 1991 and 2003, to military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere today. Systemic lies and the phony war that goes with them continue to contribute to a slow-motion process of political and social disintegration that could result in a much grimmer future for this country: perhaps an authoritarian one; certainly, a more chaotic and less democratic one.
Societal degradation and democratic implosion, caused in part by endless phony war and the lies associated with it, are this country’s real existential enemies, even if you can’t find them listed in any National Defense Strategy. Indeed, the price tag for America’s wars may in the end prove not just heavy but catastrophic.
William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor, is a TomDispatch regular. He blogs at Bracing Views.
Copyright 2018 William J. Astore