Why America’s Wars Will Increasingly Touch U.S. Soil
After the devastating Thirty Years War of the 17th century, the great powers of Europe narrowed their notion of what was acceptable in war. While seldom applying their new standards during often-brutal colonial conquests, the European powers—at least in wars among themselves—deemed it acceptable to kill enemy combatants but not civilians, to destroy enemy war material but not lay waste to an enemy’s territory.
This delimited approach to armed conflict began to change during the American Civil War. By 1864, the United States realized that to defeat the Confederate armies it had to destroy the economy that fed and supplied them. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous “march to the sea” through Georgia and Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign did exactly that. The emergence of airpower in the 20th century further expanded the notion of what was a legitimate target in war. Strategic bombing campaigns laid waste to enemy economies. That civilians died was considered unfortunate but acceptable. By the nuclear age, strategists contemplated annihilating enemies entirely, as some armies had done back in antiquity.
In recent conflicts, the United States returned to a more narrow definition of what was acceptable in war, attempting to strike enemy combatants as precisely as possible. This did not always work, since extremists co-mingled with civilians. A tragic number of noncombatants have been killed by American forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, particularly by U.S. drone strikes. But the U.S. never attempted to devastate entire cities as it did in World War II. To do so was considered strategically counterproductive and ethically unacceptable.
For many years, though, Americans assumed that questions of what was and was not acceptable in war only pertained to enemies. Except for the Soviet Union, with its long-range bombers and ballistic missiles, enemies could not strike the U.S. directly. The 9/11 attacks demonstrated that assumption was false—that the world had changed in significant ways. The enemies of tomorrow, whether extremist networks or hostile nations, will increasingly have the ability to strike directly at the U.S., but Americans have not fully grasped what a profound change this reality is bringing to the nature of security.
Imagine, for instance, a drone operator attacking targets in some distant part of the world while sitting at a console at a military base in Nevada or North Dakota. If an enemy of the U.S. attacked the drone operator while he or she was off duty, perhaps shopping with family, ethically and legally it would be the same as the U.S. launching a drone strike at a terrorist camp in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen while family members were present. Technically it would be an act of war, not terrorism.
America’s enemies can easily acquire the means to undertake attacks like these. Unauthorized commercial drones already fly over U.S. military bases. But an attack on the U.S. drone operator and his or her family could just as easily use store-bought firearms, homemade explosives or something as simple as assault by a moving vehicle. The challenge would be even greater if the U.S. were at war with another nation that had greater resources than an extremist organization like the self-proclaimed Islamic State or al-Qaida.
The way Americans think about armed conflict must evolve. There will no longer be a far-away “area of operations” and a safe “home front.”
Think also of the way the U.S. military uses commercial logistics services today. Attacking an enemy supply train has always been considered legitimate. Now, a lot of military material moves inside the U.S. by commercial means, whether long-haul trucking companies, the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express, United Parcel Service or other package delivery services. Given that, would it be acceptable for an agent of an extremist organization or another nation involved in hostilities with the U.S. to attack a UPS truck making a delivery to a U.S. military base? Or would all UPS, FedEX and Postal Service personnel be legitimate military targets since their organizations help supply the U.S. military? If so, would the U.S. government be obligated to protect them while they are making deliveries?
The same could apply to American infrastructure. Based on the principles of the strategic bombing campaign of World War II, anything that contributes to the U.S. military, whether the road system, the power grid, cyber networks or anything else, could be seen as a legitimate target by America’s enemies. Again, such attacks would be acts of war, not terrorism.
What this means is that the way Americans think about armed conflict must evolve. There will no longer be a far-away “area of operations” and a safe “home front.” Conflict could be seamless, unfolding in America’s shopping malls and on its highways as much as in distant battlefields.
In the new security environment, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security would no longer have separate missions but be integral components of a unified national security. Hardening potential domestic targets and strengthening first responders would be part of America’s power projection capability. And the Pentagon may need to reconsider its longstanding policy to make military personnel and their families part of their local communities and even restrict troops and families to bases during conflicts, since they could be better protected there.
Beyond these immediate and necessary preparations, the seamlessness of conflict may lead Americans to reconsider their nation’s global role. If military operations abroad often lead to increased danger at home, will the United States decide that it is not worth the risk and further disengage from the world? This debate is one for the future, but not nearly as far in the future as it once might have seemed.
Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz.