“Forever wars” obscures more than it clarifies

How imprecise language dehumanizes and perpetuates the globalization of indifference

A few years ago, a friend asked me to meet with a Congressional staffer whose boss was active in legislative and advocacy efforts on the Yemen war, one of many meetings I had on the topic during the Trump administration. 

The staffer’s boss was adamant that simply cutting off or downgrading U.S. security cooperation and arms sales to Gulf countries would end the war. These countries were conducting military operations in Yemen in response to threats and attacks, and too many of these military operations resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians. The theory of the case is that cutting off U.S. involvement would end the war.

I tried to draw the conversation toward a deeper analysis of the multiple layers of conflicts within Yemen, the drivers of those conflicts, and how they had become interlinked with a militarized regional competition for power and influence that was contributing to state collapse and much death and destruction. 

“How is peace achieved, and what are the diplomatic moves that are needed to support a true end to the conflict and protect the people of Yemen?”  I asked.  “What if U.S. military involvement ends, but the fighting continues and innocent Yemenis are still being killed?  How is humanitarian aid delivered? Then what?”

Quickly it became clear to me that these questions didn’t interest my interlocutor all that much much. Instead, the message was: we want to see an end of U.S. military involvement because America does more harm than good in Yemen.  America does more harm than good in the world overall, the response was. One of our proudest moments was when we blocked President Barack Obama from taking military action in Syria in response to the chemical weapons attack in 2013.  We know that “end endless wars” doesn’t mean that wars will end; we are just trying to end America’s moral complicity in these wars.

That response demonstrated an indifference to the plight of the people of Yemen that concerned me, but was par for the course considering how America’s policy and political debates treated human security superficially and often only as a wedge issue in elite politics.

I thought a lot about that conversation over the past week as I pondered President Joe Biden’s decision on Afghanistan and the wavelet of debate it generated about its wisdom in terms of U.S. national security and the impact it will have on the people of Afghanistan, especially women and the next generation of Afghans. 

“It’s time to end the forever war,” President Biden declared last week as he announced the withdrawal. The term “forever wars” has become part of a foreign policy message box in development from the new U.S. administration. I appreciate a good talking point when I see one, especially one that connects and reflects a broader sentiment in society.  But the main problem with the phrase is that it does more to confuse than to elucidate overseas conflicts and how they affect the people living in them. 

Because of the narrow objective of trying to achieve a specific shift in U.S. policy, some policy advocacy efforts at times end up stifling debate about options, especially on diplomacy, conflict resolution, and humanitarian aid delivery.  Or it can lead to wishful thinking not matched to the complex realities in conflict zones. Those arguing that the United States can extricate its military from conflict areas and simultaneously maintain the flow of humanitarian aid in places like Afghanistan are ignoring the lessons from the so-called “civilian surge” in Afghanistan in 2010, as well as difficult lessons from the murders of humanitarian aid workers in Syria in the last decade.  As Michael Cohen recently wrote in Truth and Consequences, let’s not sugarcoat how bad things will get for the people of Afghanistan. 

Ironically, efforts aimed at ending “forever wars” came well past the expiration date of most Americans’ attention span.  Public opinion research about national security found that wars in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen barely registered on the radar screen for most Americans – they don’t really know about these conflicts and they don’t really care.  Most would have a hard time articulating what “forever war” means to their lives, and Biden is unlikely to get as much political credit for claiming to “ending an endless war” as he will for most other parts of his governing agenda like the COVID-19 crisis and economic challenges at home. 

Campaigns against “forever wars,” while ostensibly driven in part by concern about the people most directly affected by conflict, often sideline and ignore the voices of those most impacted. This form of advocacy risks dehumanizing people in other countries and perpetuating what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference.”  That’s not the intent, but too often it is the effect. 

None of these observations should be taken as an argument for staying in military conflicts with no end in sight. Instead, they should be taken as a plea for engaging more deeply in the tough questions related to wars and thinking more clearly about the diplomacy needed to end them. For more than 20 years, the United States has used other people as props in its own debates about itself and how it relates to the world, under a wide array of banners from a “freedom agenda” to foreign policy “restraint.”  The crucial ingredient is listening more to the people from countries like Syria, Yemen, and Libya, places torn apart by conflict. 

Several years after those discussions in Congress on the Yemen war, multiple conflicts inside of Yemen still continue. Biden appointed a new envoy as the chief diplomat to focus on resolving the conflicts there, but it is a tough job. The Yemen debate inside of the U.S. Congress isn’t as fierce as it used to be, and there are fewer attempts to pass a law that “ends” a war thousands of miles away.  

The real forever war is the struggle against simply shrugging our shoulders, looking for simple answers, averting our eyes from how these conflicts impact people, and glibly declaring “bad stuff happens.” 

The real forever war is the challenge to advance peace and defend inclusive, open political orders – that’s a struggle that never ends and knows no borders.