If you want to know something about life in America these days, consider how New York Times columnist David Leonhardt began his first piece of the year, “7 Wishes for 2018”: “Well, at least it’s not 2017 anymore. I expect that future historians will look back on it as one of the darker non-war years in the country’s history…”
Think about that for a moment: 2017, a “non-war year”? Tell that to the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Yemenis, the Somalis, or for that matter the parents of the four American Green Berets who died in Niger last October. Still, let’s admit it, Leonhardt caught a deeper American reality of 2017, not to speak of the years before that, and undoubtedly this one, too.
Launched in October 2001, what was once called the Global War on Terror — it even gained the grotesque acronym, GWOT — has never ended. Instead, it’s morphed and spread over large parts of the planet. In all the intervening years, the United States has been in a state of permanent war that shows no sign of concluding in 2018. Its planes continue to drop a staggering tonnage of munitions; its drones continue to Hellfire-missile country after country; and, in recent years, its elite Special Operations forces, now a military-within-the-U.S.-military of about 70,000 personnel, have been deployed, as Nick Turse has long reported at this website, to almost every imaginable country on the planet. They train allied militaries and proxy forces, advise and sometimes fight with those forces in the field, conduct raids, and engage in what certainly looks like war.
The only catch in all this (and it’s surely what led Leonhardt to write those lines of his) is the American people. Long divorced from their all-volunteer military in a draft-less country, we have largely ignored the war on terror and gone about our business just as President George W. Bush urged us to do two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. (“Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) As those distant conflicts expanded and terror groups spread and multiplied, Washington helped the “non-war” atmosphere along by perfecting a new kind of warfare in which ever fewer Americans would die. Half a century later, its quagmire qualities aside, the war on terror is largely the anti-Vietnam War: no body counts, few body bags, lots of proxy forces, armed robotic vehicles in the skies, and at the tip of the “spear” a vast, ever-more secretive military, those special ops guys. As a result, if you weren’t in that all-volunteer military or a family member of someone who was, it wasn’t too hard to live as if the country’s “forever wars” had nothing to do with us. It’s possible that never in our history, one filled with wars, have Americans been more deeply demobilized than in this era. When it comes to the war on terror, there’s neither been a wave of support nor, since 2003, a wave of protest.
In a sense, then, David Leonhardt was right on the mark. In so much of the world, 2017 was a grim year of war, displacement, and disaster. Here, however, it was, in so many ways, just another “non-war year.” In that context, let Nick Turse guide you into the next “non-war year” and the “non-war” force, America’s special operators, who are likely to be at its heart.