This is just a small selection of how analysts and commentators have described the concept of “endless war” over the course of 2020. Yet, as I argue in a new report for New America, the phrase is not merely a political talking point but a useful tool for analysis of America’s wars. Contrary to critics, the concept of “endless war” is neither new nor purely a reaction to the post-9/11 wars. Recognizing the meaning of endless war is essential to challenging the bipartisan rhetoric that portrays the term as simply referring to the presence of U.S. troops in different countries rather than the broader state of war – whether or not airstrikes are occurring or troops are carrying out operations in any particular moment. Embracing the concept also holds an important policy lesson for the incoming Biden administration: that the United States should abandon its stated objective of defeating and destroying al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist terrorist groups. This goal exists somewhere between an unachievable objective and an incoherent one.
A Legacy of Meaning
What is an endless war? For many in the foreign policy establishment, the answer seems to be that it is merely a political talking point, a trope, or simply a broad term for the current wars that lacks a specific meaning and clouds the debate and assessment of policies.
Yet, for all the complaints, the phrase’s purchase among the public and their political representatives would seem to suggest that the phrase does speak to something real about America’s counterterrorism wars. The past three presidents have used the phrase “endless war” or close synonyms to describe the current character of U.S. military operations that began in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2013, President Barack Obama warned of the dangers of a “perpetual wartime footing.” President Donald Trump and his administration routinely used the phrase “endless war.” Then-candidate, now president, Joe Biden committed to ending what he termed America’s “forever wars.” Biden’s main challengers in the Democratic primary also committed to ending endless war.
While in vogue to describe the post-9/11 wars, the concept has deep roots in our culture. In 1984, George Orwell writes of a “permanent war” that he describes as “continuous.” Orwell wrote “in past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat,” but in Orwell’s fictional endless war, the superstates “cannot conquer one another,” leading him to draw a comparison to “the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another.”
The concept also appears in Leslie Gelb’s 1972 congressional testimony on the Vietnam War. The term has also been used to describe wars that don’t involve the United States as a primary belligerent, such as Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Colombia’s civil war.
That endless war keeps appearing as a concept in different contexts suggests it describes a real dynamic. But it doesn’t mean that every use of the term makes sense. After all, Trump said he was ending endless wars as he also committed to waging an expansive war to “wipe out global terrorists” and despite his commitment and much touted partial withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, he has not actually ended any of America’s wars. President Biden’s use of the term “forever war” is also problematic. He has promised to end the forever wars while, in the same breath, saying, “we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).” In other words, the same objectives that launched these wars are still being pursued.
A Definition of Endless War and its Uses
If endless war is a concept that seems to repeatedly emerge to describe the character of certain wars, how can we define it in a way that is useful for analyzing the United States’ current wars?
I argue that endless wars can be usefully defined in the following manner. Wars take on an endless character when two conditions are met: First, when a belligerent adopts objectives while lacking the capability to achieve said objectives. Second, when, despite the inability to achieve its objectives, the belligerent is also not at risk of being defeated itself. Where these two conditions hold over a prolonged period of time with no clear possibility of change in sight, endless war emerges.
This definition evokes the underlying themes visible in Orwell’s analogy to a battle between animals whose horns are set so they can’t truly hurt each other. Importantly, it moves the metric for ending endless war away from merely counting the number of troops on the ground.
By focusing on objectives, it becomes clear that there is no linear relationship between a troop decrease and the effort to end endless war. A point that has been made quite clear by the Obama administration’s return of forces to Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS following a 2011 withdrawal, the long pause between the Bush administration’s first drone strike in Yemen and the Obama administration’s escalation of the drone war there largely relying upon the same 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and the continued uncertainty over whether the drone war in Pakistan has ended despite more than two years without a reported U.S. strike in the country. As a Department of Defense manual on the law of war puts it, “As a legal concept, war has usually been described as a condition or state that applies more broadly than only the mere employment of force or the mere commission of acts of violence.”
Ending a war means bringing one’s objectives in line with what is achievable and then achieving them. Substituting a tactical withdrawal or pause or a shift to air strikes while continuing to pursue the same objectives is not an end to war. It is important that those who talk about endless war not fall into the trap of assuming that troop withdrawals are permanent or that the return of troops constitutes a new war when it pursues the same objectives under the same authorizations that justified previous uses of force.
A Path Forward?
What do we get out of defining endless war as a usable concept – beyond dismissing misleading uses of the phrase to describe troop reductions? Defining endless war opens up the ability to analyze why America’s counterterrorism wars have prompted so many to identify a feeling of endlessness within them. It can also ground a framework that identifies the consequences of selecting unlimited and expansive objectives, such as defeating entrenched terrorist groups; failing to establish stable objectives; and not preparing sufficiently for war termination. Such a framework can identify how particular combinations of these factors can generate different routes to endless war, and shape which policies are required to end them.
In deciding whether to initiate a war or whether and how to wage those currently being fought or, alternatively, how to withdraw, policymakers can and should provide public explanations of what their objective is and how it would be achieved. Congress can and should force such statements via expanded oversight, reporting requirements, and the repeal and revision of existing authorizations. My report also provides a series of definitions that can also be used to assess policymaker claims to have done so via the analysis of specific wars and strategies.
Most importantly, however, defining endless war is a first step toward ending them. In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, Democratic Representative Barbara Lee warned, “We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” Decades later, Lee’s comment is no longer a warning of what the war could become but a diagnosis of what it is.
Clarifying what makes today’s war endless helps point toward the much-needed changes to existing authorizations and the culture that views military force as the proper response to terrorist violence. In putting American objectives back in the spotlight, it can reopen broader debates over the wisdom of the wars in the first place and not just the means of fighting them.