War games provide insights into the mind of the U.S. military, showing the types of conflicts it anticipates and what it might be ordered to do in them. While war games vary, almost all share one characteristic: They are based on a relatively short war or operation, sometimes followed by a lengthy period of stabilization. Few strategic war games think through American involvement in a long major war.
This is not surprising. Throughout history, Americans have expected and planned for short wars. When Abraham Lincoln decided to forcefully stop the South’s secession, for instance, he initially asked for 90-day volunteers, believing that the fighting would all be over before their enlistments were up. This “short war” thinking persists today and may be even more dangerous than before. Not only is major war still possible, but there are worrisome signs that the United States may be not longer be capable of fighting one.
Many of America’s wars begin when an enemy strikes first, assuming that the United States will not hit back with anything other than perhaps missile and air strikes. Saddam Hussein made that mistake when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. He later found out that the United States was willing to reverse the invasion and could do so quickly and with low casualties, averting the chance that the American public would sour on a distant conflict to save an unfamiliar ally. In 2001, al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts made the same miscalculation and also suffered the consequences.