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Opening Arguments

War weary

Since World War II, the Unites States is one for five in armed conflicts, so the question is, why has America stopped winning wars?

America’s material strength has another curse. For a global hegemon like the United States, each war is just one of many competing security commitments around the world. For the enemy, however, the conflict is a life-and-death contest that occupies its entire attention. It’s limited war for Americans, and total war for those fighting Americans. The United States has more power; its foes have more willpower.

[. . .]

It’s a paradox of war: The United States loses because the world is peaceful. The decline of interstate conflict and the relative harmony among great powers is a cause for celebration. But the interstate wars that have disappeared are the kind of wars that the United States wins. And the civil wars that remain are the kind of wars that the U.S. loses. As the tide of conflict recedes, it leaves behind the toughest and most unyielding internal struggles.

It’s also hard to win great victories in an era of peace. During the golden age, the United States faced trials of national survival like the Civil War and World War II. The potential benefits were so momentous that Washington could overthrow the enemy at almost any cost in American blood and treasure and still claim the win. But in wars since 1945, the threats are diminished. Since the prize on offer is less valuable, the acceptable price to pay in lives and money is also dramatically reduced. To achieve victory, the campaign must be quick and decisive—with little margin for error. Without grave peril, it’s tough to enter the pantheon of martial valor.

He puts a lot of emphasis on the changing nature of war. Because we're so powerful, we get involved in unwinnable conflicts all over the globe for which the stakes aren't high enough to retain the will to fight. And I think he's largely right.

But I also think he underestimates the effects of the population's growing revulsion over war. Starting with the electronic media -- first TV, then cable -- war became not a distant ugliness but something in our living rooms night after night. The social media phenomenon is only accelerating the immediacy of war's impact.

But some of the people we're fighting are finding that same immediacy quite useful. Yes, broadcasting beheadings and other atrocities over the Internet is meant to cow us, but it also draws in likeminded fanatics enthralled withbarbarous violence. Can an increasinly pacifistic world deal with an increasingly violent movement? We'll see, won't we?