Avoiding the Time Trap

By David Sterman

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States government embarked on what it framed as a war on terror made up of a number of specific wars that fall under the broader global ambit of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Ever since, Americans have struggled to name and define the peculiar character of this open-ended war. In some cases, this character is evoked via the phrase “endless war.” In other cases, people have adopted the phrase “forever war.” And some commentators have denied that such names convey anything meaningful about the United States’ current use of military force in the first place. As I have contended elsewhere, “endless war” is a phrase that not only conveys meaning but is essential for proper strategic analysis of the United States’ current wars. 

Yet advocates of ending the endless wars should carefully examine the language they use. Specifically, advocates and analysts should be wary of the language of “forever war” and tend towards using “endless war” instead. 

 “Endless war” invokes a set of meanings that can help avoid pitfalls that come with the word “forever” and its focus on duration.  “Endless” can encompass the sense of temporal permanence provided by the word “forever” but also provides other ways of thinking about the concept.

I define endlessness as existing when a belligerent pursues objectives it cannot achieve but is also safe from being either destroyed or denied access to the battlefield. Importantly, a war can meet this definition for a period of time that does not go on forever, but during which the belligerent in question pursues a strategy with no foreseeable end without fundamental changes in policy or context. It is a definition that focuses on particular moments regardless of whether the situation persists forever. This approach claims no special ability to predict the future in perpetuity and does not presume the absence of unanticipated events that might end the war. It is a definition that draws upon the meaning of “end” as “purpose” or the “the object by virtue of or for the sake of which an event takes place” as well as the meaning of endless as something “joined at the ends.”

Endlessness invokes a different visual language than forever, as seen in the cover art of so many articles on endless war featuring a Mobius strip or infinity symbol loop covered in marching military forces. This is also the sense that is conveyed by the joke that the reason senior officials kept saying they had turned the corner in Afghanistan was that they were going in circles with “no end in sight.” If you cut the loop or stop choosing to walk in the circle, the war ends, but such an end does not mean there was not an endless character in the moment. After all, surfacing ways to end endless war is generally the aim of theorizing about endlessness. 

Leslie Gelb’s 1972 testimony on Vietnam provides an illustration of how the language of “endless war” can connect to and support a detailed analysis of the specifics of a war and potential ways to end it. As a 1980s exchange between John Mueller and Richard Betts, who co-wrote a book with Gelb that expanded the arguments of Gelb’s testimony, illustrates, the frame of “endless war” continued to connect to discussion of theory and policy even after the Vietnam War ended. Gelb’s preface to a 2016 reissuing of his and Betts’ book in turn drew the debate further, drawing comparisons and contrasts with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Another reason to prefer the phrase “endless war” is that “endless war” has a far longer history of use than “forever war.” To the extent that the phrase “forever war” predominates in discussion, it tends to cut analysis of today’s wars off from the wars of the past, producing a sense of exceptionalism. 

This is counterproductive. It can help fuel arguments that claims about a seemingly endless or forever character of today’s wars are merely talking points driven by recent war-weariness or specific political campaigns. There are many counter-arguments, but one of the most powerful counterarguments is to simply point to the long legacy of people referring to wars as endless. Unfortunately, it is an argument that the term “forever war” tends to surrender.

It is not just a matter of what makes for a strong rhetorical argument. Endless war can function as a handy phrase to locate other moments in time that resonate with our own because it does have a longer history. In encouraging activists and analysts to connect with that longer history, it pushes them to wrestle with the prior uses of the phrase. In some cases, this may mean plumbing the insights of earlier theorizations about the roots of endlessness in the Korean War or the Vietnam War regarding what can motivate people to fight without a foreseeable victory. However, it also means recognizing how some have historically used warnings of “endless war” to push for immoral policies, as was the case when Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge stated that he would prefer to see the rebellious southern slave states peacefully separate from the Union “than to see endless, aimless, devastating war, at the end of which I see the grave of public liberty and of personal freedom.”

The phrase “endless war” has a long pedigree that helps resist presentist bias. More than two centuries ago, it was referenced in discussions of Britain’s relations with the Irish and with France describing an “endless war, without resources and without any clear and defined object.” 

In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower described the armistice in the Korean War as having ended “the seemingly endless war in Korea, with its tragic casualty lists.” Almost two decades later in his second inaugural, President Richard Nixon, who had been Eisenhower’s Vice President invoked similar language alluding to the Vietnam War, stating that four years prior, the United States faced the “prospect of seemingly endless war abroad.” The Vietnam War saw widespread use of the concept by those with a range of views. A Google Ngram of “endless war” shows a crescendo of use in the late 1960s and early 1970s amid the war (something that is not visible for the phrase “forever war”).

Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote in the July 1976 issue of Mother Jones magazine of how Israel was pursuing an “endless war” in its dealings with Palestinians and Arab states, pointing to the “cynicism, despair, exhaustion, and corruption” produced by the war. In the 1980s, the CIA emphasized the sense of endlessness in the Iran-Iraq war and how it might motivate belligerents to escalate in new ways.

The concept of endless war was sufficiently established in general discourse that George W. Bush felt compelled to address concerns that the war on terror would be endless. In his notorious 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech, he sought to reassure the American people that “The war on terror is not over; yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.” The concept of endless war has a long history of use – and not just by critics of existing wars, as Bush’s statement illustrates.

In contrast, the phrase “forever war”  overly privileges the temporal aspect of endlessness and cuts today’s analysis off from the analysis of prior wars with an endless character.

“Forever war” as a term grants priority to the sense of temporal endlessness in today’s wars. Privileging the temporal character of endlessness as expressed by claims about duration is likely to lead to poor analysis. As Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl notes in his book Quagmire in Civil War, there is a risk of equating a long duration with what he terms quagmire and thus implying “that length is produced solely by the circumstances under which belligerents are backed into choosing to continue to fight despite the seeming uselessness of that choice.” He points out that “it is problematic to consider duration as an imperfect yet useful indicator of quagmire. When compared across wars, duration misleads. A war may be chronologically long and yet not feature entrapment, or chronologically short and revolve around it.”

The most prominent purveyor of the concept of permanent war, George Orwell, provided just such a caution when he criticized James Burnham (from whom he drew much of the theory behind his representation of permanent war in 1984) for reflecting an attitude that missed the coming victory against the Nazis in World War Two because the duration of the war bred pessimism even as signs increasingly pointed towards victory.

It is this point that defenders of America’s long wars emphasize when they speak of the need for strategic patience in wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. Effectively responding to the argument requires more than invoking a metaphorical forever-ness to emphasize the long duration of the war. Instead an effective response requires debating the strategy itself, and identifying its errors. In particular, it requires analysis of why the ends being sought are not achievable even with a long-term commitment either because the ends are ever-shifting, so expansive as to be impossible to achieve, require actions that would involve unacceptable costs thus undermining the desirability of the end, involve actions which end up undermining the aim’s achievability, or because they are framed in ways that resist a determination that the aim has been achieved, for example by embracing preventive war logic.

“Forever war” with its focus on duration points away from that critical discussion. To the extent commentators seek to retro-fit “forever war” into a critique of unachievable ends (a critique the frame at least partially carries within it), it opens the door to epistemologically unjustified arguments about the success of strategies that embraced unachievable ends only to have the war end for an unanticipated reason. In such a case, framings built around duration risk concluding that the war did not have an endless or “forever” character. Such a conclusion would miss the strategic incoherence of the war’s endlessness that existed prior to the unanticipated event. This position is easily exploited by those who wish to portray events that precipitate re-escalation of the war as evidence of the dangerousness of impatience rather than the issues with the original strategy – a dynamic seen with the widespread portrayal of the surge in Iraq as a success undone by a premature withdrawal.

At the same time, the focus on duration in responding to arguments for strategic patience risks promoting an approach to ending endless wars that equates sudden withdrawals of troops and declarations that a war is over with a true end to the war. While many of the arguments for strategic patience that have been made in America’s wars are unconvincing, sustainably ending the wars will likely require some level of patience on the part of restraint-oriented policymakers themselves. Emphasizing duration over the achievability of ends can promote sloganeering and political sniping that disrupts the patient work needed to exit wars in a moral and effective manner. The initiation of the counter-ISIS war demonstrates that in the absence of broader changes to ends and continued diplomacy, withdrawals that appear to end specific long wars can easily snap back – to say nothing about how such wars can continue for the local populations most at risk.

There is a real danger that calls for such patience end up replicating the problems of “forever” or “endless war,” but the best way to navigate that tension is to bring into the open debates about ends and endlessness that are not primarily framed around duration.

The phrase “forever war” is also largely a product of the reaction to America’s post-9/11 counterterrorism wars and thus tends to cut analysis of today’s war off from analysis of prior wars. A case insensitive Google Ngram comparing uses of “forever war” and “endless war” shows wider usage of the phrase “endless war” dating back to the 1800s while “forever war” first appears in the mid-1970s. 

Moreover, the mid-1970s usage of the term is almost entirely the product of discussion of Joe Haldeman’s 1974 science fiction book “The Forever War.” A case sensitive Google Ngram shows that the mid-1970s increase reflects an increase in the phrase “Forever War” with both words capitalized. This is how it would appear in a book title, a conclusion confirmed with occasional exception by a quick glance through the examples that appear in a Google Books search for the term during the 1970s.

It is not until the aftermath of 9/11 that “forever war” as it is understood today appears to enter the discourse in a significant fashion. As Kelsey Atherton has noted, it is difficult to track the phrase’s first entry because of the difficulty of reconstructing the language used in activist circles in the early 2000s. However, in the context of the foreign policy apparatus, Atherton roughly traces its first uses to a 2005 New York Times article titled “Taking Stock of the Forever War” by Mark Danner and to Dexter Filkins’ 2008 book The Forever War. Danner’s 2005 article appears to be the first appearance of the term’s current usage in the Times; prior references picked up by a search of the Times’ archive for “forever war” are either references to Haldeman’s book or do not involve the actual phrase. 

In contrast, Susan Sontag used the phrase “endless war” in the Times in 2002 as part of a critique of the concept of a war on terror. The first post-9/11 use of “endless war” in the Times came only three days after the attacks when Tom Friedman invoked the term to describe a feared clash of civilizations. While Friedman’s use of the phrase was hardly the critique needed, it, like Bush’s use in the “Mission Accomplished” speech illustrates the extent to which endlessness as a concern haunted the war on terror from its very start. This is likely because the Times, like others, used the phrase prior to the 9/11 attacks, including in April 2001 reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict and an 1863 printing of a sermon that accused the Confederacy of substituting “an endless war of factions” for a free election. The phrase “forever war” obscures this earlier history, and especially the use and acceptance of the concept of endless war as meaningful by people who rejected its application to the post-9/11 wars.

If advocates and analysts are to move beyond the United States’ counterterrorism wars to examine other wars and help resolve them, they will find it far more productive to draw upon the frame of “endless war” and discussion of the achievability and justice of specific “ends” than they will find it to port over a discourse of reaction to one specific set of wars. The understanding of the moral reasoning that can undergird decisions to fight without an end in sight as well as the material and structural conditions that can entrap belligerents will be far more important than commentary on duration, which can easily fall into a discourse of irresolvable “ancient hatreds.” This is the case whether one is discussing Israel’s seemingly endless war with Hamas and other Palestinian factions (which has long been discussed in terms of “endlessness”), France’s counterterrorism wars in North Africa and the Sahel, or the ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Afghanistan that are shaped by US action but which also predate the United States’ recent wars and will likely continue in some form even if the US ceases military action.

Analysts should take care in focusing upon the language used to discuss the character of America’s counterterrorism wars. The phrase “forever war” might have flourished in activist and other circles that, as Atherton warns, are difficult to track by looking at their use in elite publications. Moreover, criticizing the words people use to describe and name today’s wars also holds the potential to distract from the wars’ material character, diverting analysis and advocacy into a series of word games. It is clear enough that “forever war” references a real concept even if it might not be the best way to describe it. Yet, the discussion of the character of today’s counterterrorism wars would benefit from greater comparison to prior cases and a move beyond the focus upon duration. The phrase “forever war” just does not have the history and reach of that old stalwart “endless war” when it comes to accomplishing that task.


David Sterman is a Senior Policy Analyst with New America’s International Security Program. He Tweets at @Dsterms.

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