What Price Victory? What Cost ‘Infinite War’?

President Trump said something this week that flew largely under the radar of a media obsessed with Stormy Daniels and whether it can get the scalp of “embattled” (by them) EPA boss, Scott Pruitt. It had to do with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and what, if any, America’s long-term role should be in that sorry corner of the world. He said that our troops would be withdrawing “very soon” from Syria, no later than this autumn.

The reaction from the proponents of endless war was illustrative of why, going on 17 years after 9/11, America still finds itself embroiled in Muslim-bred conflicts in which it has no material interest other than strictly punitive. As the Washington Post reported:

President Trump’s pronouncement that he would be pulling troops out of Syria “very soon” has laid bare a major source of tension between the president and his generals. Trump has made winning on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan a central tenet of his foreign policy and tough-guy identity. But Trump and the military hold frequently opposing ideas about exactly what winning means.

Those differences have played out in heated Situation Room ­debates over virtually every spot on the globe where U.S. troops are engaged in combat, said senior administration officials. And they contributed to the dismissal last month of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster who as national security adviser had pressed the president against his instincts to support an ­open-ended commitment of U.S. forces to Afghanistan.

No wonder McMaster is gone. An “open-ended commitment” of U.S. forces to anywhere, much less the notional “country” of Afghanistan, is one of the worst ideas ever and runs counter to American policy since the days of George Washington. But the enthusiasm for it among the careerist military and the consensus-loving bureaucrats of the State Department remains unabated.

It’s apparently not enough that we’ve been fighting the same collection of goatherds with AK-47s since early in the first term of the George W. Bush Administration. It’s bad enough that we didn’t finish the job—which was to take Osama bin Laden at his word, and at his declaration of war upon us in the name of Islam—and deal the expansionist, triumphalist faith a blow from which it might never recover. The Saudis, in the form of the bin Laden family and most of the 9/11 hijackers, had given us a casus belli, as had the Iranians, dating all the way back to the hostage crisis of the Carter Administration, and for which they have never been properly disciplined. All right-thinking allies would have been behind us.

But of course, we didn’t. The war in Afghanistan was effectively over in a matter of a few months, although bin Laden escaped to next-door Pakistan, where the duplicitous Pakistanis—whose countrymen are currently visiting a rape epidemic upon poor, politically correct Britain—gave him shelter right under the noses of their military establishment. Then Bush chose to turn his attention to Poppy’s unfinished spat with Saddam Hussein. And here we are, nearly two decades later, still taking off our shoes to get on an airplane in our own country, and with troops scattered all across the Middle East for no purpose.

Well, not quite to no purpose. According to the military brass, we need to stay in Syria in order to prevent the return of ISIS; in other words, we need to not finish the job in order to be able to not finish the job, at least for the unforeseeable future. The Associated Press reports:

The president had opened the meeting with a tirade about U.S. intervention in Syria and the Middle East more broadly, repeating lines from public speeches in which he’s denounced previous administrations for “wasting” $7 trillion in the region over the past 17 years.  What has the U.S. gotten for the money and American lives expended in Syria? “Nothing,” Trump said over and over, according to the officials.

The intensity of Trump’s tone and demeanor raised eyebrows and unease among the top brass gathered to hash out a Syria plan with Trump, officials said . . . At one point, [Gen. Joseph] Dunford spoke up, one official said, telling Trump that his approach was not productive and asked him to give the group specific instructions as to what he wanted.

Trump’s response was to demand an immediate withdrawal of all American troops and an end to all U.S. civilian stabilization programs designed to restore basic infrastructure to war-shattered Syrian communities. Mattis countered, arguing that an immediate withdrawal could be catastrophic and was logistically impossible to pull off in any responsible way, without risking the return of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in newly liberated territories, the officials said. Mattis floated a one-year withdrawal as an alternative.

Trump then relented—but only slightly, telling his aides they could have five or six months to complete the mission to destroy the Islamic State and then get out, according to the officials. Trump also indicated that he did not want to hear in October that the military had been unable to fully defeat the Islamic State and had to remain in Syria for longer.

Good for Trump. The job of the military is to win, and thus finish, wars, not to use them as extended live-fire exercises. Further, under our Constitution, the military reports to civilian authority, in the form of the president and one of his chief cabinet members, the secretary of defense. And it’s their job to make very clear the overall strategic objective, which in warfare is always optimally the total destruction and unconditional surrender of the enemy. During World War II, the objective was clear: destroy Imperial Japan and take Berlin. We, and our allies, did both, and America’s war—from the standing start at Pearl Harbor to VJ Day—lasted less than four years.

But that’s not how our contemporary military sees things. As the Post story points out, referencing Defense Secretary James Mattis, “His remarks reflected a broader Pentagon consensus: In the absence of a clear outcome, winning for much of the U.S. military’s top brass has come to be synonymous with staying put. These days, senior officers talk about ‘infinite war’.”

Those senior officers should be cashiered. “Infinite war” is what characterized the Roman Empire from Julius Caesar (read the Commentaries, Caesar’s reports back to Rome regarding his military operations in Gaul and elsewhere) through Marcus Aurelius (who spent very little time in the Eternal City) right up to the fall of Rome in 476, when the barbarian chickens came home to roost in the form of Odoacer, a member of the Germanic tribes that the Romans never managed to conquer. Their defeat by Arminius at the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D. dissuaded the legions from crossing the Rhine again—but eventually the Rhine crossed them, and made it all the way to the Tiber.

The moral of the story is: finish the job. So good for Trump for giving the Pentagon a strategic objective and a time frame in which to accomplish it. The Post article quotes another officer, Air Force General Mike Holmes, in a speech earlier this year: “It’s not losing,” he explained. “It’s staying in the game and . . . pursuing your objectives.”

How terrifying to know that, for some senior military officers (who, by the way, are not necessarily on the Right politically), warfare is about “staying in the game.” Both Left and Right have vested interests in keeping conflicts going—progressives get an extended opportunity to effect “social change” on a culture of “toxic masculinity,” while so-called conservatives keep the procurement pipelines open and flowing.

But as Trump ever more firmly grasps the reins of the presidency, and learns that the buck really does stop with him, look for him to be less swayed by time-serving ranks of fruit salad and scrambled eggs, and to find officers who share his quaint notion that wars are for winning, troops are for celebrating with victory parades, and some foreign problems are best left to fester abroad—after an Omdurman-style object lesson in what it means to cross the United States and the West.

The Germans and Japanese learned that lesson in 1945. Will Islam? If we’re not prepared to teach it to them, then be prepared for infinite war. Because victory is obviously too expensive to contemplate.

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Photo credit: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)

Photo: A picture taken on April 3, 2018 shows vehicles of US-backed coalition forces driving in the northern Syrian town of Manbij. On the outskirts of Syria's Manbij, Kurdish-led fighters have dug trenches and US-led coalition soldiers patrol from land and sky after Turkey threatened to overrun the northern city. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor with sources on the ground, says around 350 members of the US-led coalition -- mostly American troops -- are stationed around Manbij. / AFP PHOTO / Delil SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)