In 2010, H.R. McMaster wasn’t the former national security advisor to you-know-who but a brigadier general and senior adviser to General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. At that time, he came up with a striking name for America’s twenty-first-century wars in the Greater Middle East, then a mere nine years old. In a report titled, “Operating Concept, 2016-2028,” looking into the Army’s future, he dubbed them our “wars of exhaustion.” No general has been quite so grimly honest again, though three years later, in May 2013, Charlie Savage and Peter Baker of the New York Times reported that, when it came to the war on terror, “a Pentagon official suggested last week that the current conflict could continue for 10 to 20 years,” which at least sounded exhausting.
Three years later, in June 2016, Army General Joseph Votel, then head of the U.S. military’s Central Command overseeing those conflicts, spoke of Washington’s war on terror as a “protracted, protracted fight,” adding, in response to a question, “I don’t know if it’s a ‘forever war’; define forever.” The next year, the general whom McMaster had been advising back in 2010, now retired (having also pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge for mishandling classified material), offered his own version of that phrase in reference to Afghanistan. He told the PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff:
“This is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.”
Exhausting, protracted, generational, maybe even forever-ish, and without a victory parade in sight. As it happened, in 2018, the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reported that another descriptive phrase had come into use at the Pentagon. “These days,” he wrote, “senior officers talk about ‘infinite war.’” As Air Force General Mike Holmes explained it, “It’s not losing. It’s staying in the game… and pursuing your objectives.”
I hope that, almost 17 years later, the staying-in-the-game nature of America’s twenty-first-century wars is clear to all of you. If not, let me call on TomDispatch Managing Editor Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, to consider just what to make of this country’s never-ending wars and the parade that General Petraeus couldn’t imagine but our president can.